- Ian Thompson
Back in 2015, Ian began putting together a book about Indigenous Choctaw food, during spare time. Due to the complexity of the subject, it has taken a little longer than expected to finish the last editing, but very soon now, the final manuscript will go to the publisher. In fact, it is close enough to being complete that there was just enough time last weekend to re-shoot and replace one image that didn't quite pass muster the first time around. The image is of lambsquarter stew. Following up on last weekend's re-shoot, this post is in honor this wonderful but forgotten Native American dish.
If you could jump in a time machine and take a trip through the Midwest 2,000 years ago, you wouldn't see fields of corn. Instead, it would be fields of intercropped native food plants. On this planet, there are only ten places where people are known to have independently developed agriculture. One of these is the American Midwest. After gathering wild food plants for thousands of years, people living in the region began to plant their seeds, and eventually to select for varieties with traits that were different than the plants growing in the wild.
By 5,000 years ago, these ancient Native American communities had domesticated the wild gourd. Wild gourds are small, hard-shelled, and bitter-tasting. Through subsequent centuries of selective efforts, these Indigenous farmers would eventually transform them into today's acorn and scallop squashes. In the following years, Native American communities living in the region domesticated sunflowers, marsh elder, may grass, little barley, knotweed, and giant ragweed. 3,700 years ago, they domesticated lambsquarter.
Lambsquarter, known as "tvnishi", in the Choctaw language, is a special plant. It likes growing in disturbed places that have fertile soil. It grows on the banks of streams that occasionally get flooded, and it grows at the edge of the shade in savannas. Through the growing season, the plant produces hundreds of inch-long leaves that are shaped something like a goose foot. From this, comes one of the plant's colloquial names (goosefoot). High in vitamins C, A, B2, B6, B12, manganese, and calcium, these leaves are one of the most nutritious foods on the planet. They taste like mild baby spinach. Unlike spinach, the plant produces these edible leaves through the entire growing season. Then, in the fall, each plant produces seed heads with many thousands of small, round seeds. This is where the stew comes in.
Lambsquarter seeds have been used for food in the Choctaw homeland for at least the last 10,000 years. Related to the Andean grain quinoa, lambsquarter seeds have roughly twice the protein, six times the fiber, and only about two-thirds the carbs of brown rice. 2,000 years ago, these seeds were the basis of a stew that was a staple part of the diet across a wide swath of what is now the central and eastern parts of the US, including the Choctaw homeland. The stew was made from lambsquarter seeds, boiled with hickory nuts. Stew meat was an optional add-in.
Ian's grandfather had grown up eating lambsquarter greens, and Ian had often eaten them too. In background research for the book, we began experimenting with the seeds and the stew. In Oklahoma, the seeds are ready for harvesting around Thanksgiving. In ancient times, the seeds heads were cut off the plant. These sheaves were hung up over a hide or a mat to collect the seeds as they dried and dropped off. At the right season, the seeds can also be stripped by hand right off the plant and into a container. We found that one large lambsquarter plant can easily produce a cup of seed.
After some experimentation, the lambsquarter stew recipe that we arrived at is a follows: Place a handful of dried seeds on the counter. Draw them into a long, narrow line, with the hands. Run a rolling pin back-and-forth about 30 times pressing down hard, to crack open the tiny seed shells. Archaeological evidence suggests that the seeds were often parched previous to this step. However, due to their small size, a volume of lambsquarter seed has far more surface area than does an equal value of corn. This means that parching these seeds even very lightly quickly gives the stew a bitter taste. Put the seeds in a pot of water, using about the same measurements that you would use to boil quinoa. Add in fragments of shelled hickory nut. Boil gently for about 45 minutes.
Lambsquarter stew brings out ancestral connections. As we were cooking it for the first time, the pleasant, earthy smell seemed incredibly familiar, even though neither of us had experienced it before. The taste of the stew is quite good, something like a cross between quinoa and turnip greens. With the hickory nuts, it's quite hearty. Dropping in chunks of seared stew meet to the stew adds another level of complexity and flavor.
The picture attached to this post is the new one that Ian took last week for the book. In the foreground is the finished stew; in the background are the dried lambsquarter seeds. The two pots in the photo were recently made from clays from Ada and Farris, OK. Both ceramics are made in a style that was common in the South 2,000 years ago, when lambsquarter stew was at its height of popularity.
One of the goals of the Nanih Way Farmstead is to find practical ways to implement the knowledge of our Indigenous ancestors in the 21st century. Lambsquarter is a great example of the possibilities. A few years back, we experimented planting the seeds in our garden in rows, like spinach. The result was a 5-ft tall edible hedge, that never had to be weeded or watered. Vigorous, already adapted to the environment of Oklahoma, the plant has few pests, and doesn't have to be genetically modified or sprayed with toxic chemicals to do well here. It can produce when the corn crops fail. Ancient Native American crops, like lambsquarter represent exactly the kind of resiliency that our food supply needs heading deeper into the 21st century. These Native American food plants should have a future as well as a past.