Baking Bread the Choctaw Way
This weekend, we had the opportunity to try out another
great Indigenous Choctaw food dish, the original cornbread. This cornbread, no doubt, goes back centuries before European contact to the time when the ancestors of today's Muskogean-speaking Tribes lived at Moundville. This was a Native American town half as big as period London, which supported itself by corn agriculture.
The recipe that we used came from several sources dating to the 1700s and 1800s. First, you grind up dried kernels of white flour corn in a "kiti", a wooden mortar and pestle. This may sound like a lot of work, but with the right corn it only takes a few minutes. Next, sift the meal in a an "isht yuha"a river cane sifter basket, to separate out the larger pieces. Return these larger pieces to the mortar and grind them up again. Four our cornbread, we also added shelled "okpvl", American lotus nuts. This dish doesn't have to have them, but their sweet, almond-like flavor, was a favorite bread additive for Choctaw cooks in the past. We mixed the sifted cornmeal and lotus seed pieces with boiling water to form a white-colored dough and let it sit out on the counter for a day, covered.
For cooking, we put a layer of wet clay on the ground, and built a hot fire on top of it, which we allowed to burn down to coals. Then, we scraped away the coals and blew away the ash from the hot, hardened clay surface. We formed a loaf from the dough, set it on the hot clay, and put a traditional clay bowl on top of it. Then, we packed hot coals around the bowl, being careful not to overheat the shell temper within it.
We let the loaf cook for quite a while in the beautiful evening with springtime birds darting around and lightening approaching from the west. When we scraped away the coals and lifted the bowl, we found a golden loaf underneath. The outside was crunchy, caramelized and tasted a little bit like popcorn. The inside was soft and moist, and tasted like really good "bvnaha". Earlier in the day, we'd spent hours smoking traditionally tanned deer hides for an order, working up a healthy appetite. This cornbread was tasty and filling, definitely something a hungry person can sink his or her teeth into.
Traditional Choctaw cornbread is a dish worthy of being brought back to the modern family dinner table. We'll certainly be making it again. Next time, we'll try mixing the dough up a few days earlier and letting it sour before we bake it. It should be amazing.