Bvnaha: Choctaw Comfort Food
Updated: Sep 19, 2022
The traditional 13-month Choctaw calendar is based on the phases of the moon. The season we are currently in is known as Hoponi Hvshi, Cooking Month. This is when the harvest of the main agricultural fields took place. Everyone in a community worked together to bring in the harvest and preserve it for the coming months. In honor of the season, we'd like to dedicate this post to one of the most iconic Choctaw traditional foods: Bvnaha.
Bvnaha is sort of like a meatless tamale. It's main ingredient is cornmeal and it's wrapped up and boiled in corn husks. With each Bvnaha formed individually by hand, it's not a super quick dish to make. Bringing it to a get-together is an expression of love. Like all Indigenous foods, Bvnaha has layers of meaning beyond the obvious. This food dish is a physical embodiment of community, of Choctaw history, of our dependence on God's mercies, of a deep connection with the land, and of resiliency in the face of colonization.
The story of Bvnaha begins centuries ago with two hungry Choctaw hunters down on their luck. After a day's work, all that they had managed to acquire was a crow. Sad that they didn't have any game to bring back to their families, they set up camp near an ancient village on the Alabama River and started to roast their meager meal. In the moonlight, they heard unidentifiable sounds, and looked to see an exceptionally beautiful woman standing on top an earth mound in the old village. As they went to her, she told them she was hungry and asked if they had any food they could share with her. One of the hungry hunters ran to get the roasting crow. She ate only a tiny bit of it, and thanked them. She told them she was God's daughter, and if they would come back to the same spot on the next full moon of mid summer, she would give them a gift for their generosity to her. When they returned at the appointed time, there was no sign of the woman, but on top of the earth mound where she had stood was a type of plant they had never seen before. It's seeds were huge and delicious. This gift from Ohoyo-osh Chishba, Unknown Woman, was the beginning of the Choctaw corn crop. Over the centuries, Choctaw farmers would carefully select seed from the crop each year, producing four primary varieties by the 1700s. One of these, Tanchi Tohbi, is a white dent corn, used for making corn flour and cornmeal.
As the main ingredient in Bvnaha, the type of cornmeal you use is really important. Choctaw corn is a divine gift. Each spring, the Choctaw Nation Growing Hope Program offers Tanchi Tohbi seeds to Tribal growers for free, while supplies last. This is the original main ingredient for Bvnaha, and highly recommended. If you're not in a position to grow your own or otherwise obtain Tanchi Tohbi, Goya Brand Giant White Corn is a decent substitute, at least in terms of flavor and texture.
Today, 99% of Bvnaha is made from commercial yellow cornmeal. A century ago, Choctaw elders lamented as this transition was taking place. They said that the commercial corneal didn't have the life in it that their traditional meal, made in a wooden mortar and pestle, had.
Over the years, Amy and I have made a lot of traditional cornmeal and taught a number of classes on it. We use a wooden mortar and pestle that we made right here on the farm. To start the meal-making process, put a couple double hand fulls of dried corn kernels in the mortar with half a cup of water. If the corn has thick husks, lightly pound the corn and then winnow off the husks using a fanner basket. Return the corn to the mortar and pestle and grind it until at least half of it is of the fineness you want for your cornmeal. Remove the broken corn from the pestle. Place a flat basket on top of the pestle, and then run the broken corn through a sifter basket held above the flat basket. The cornmeal falls through the sieve and into the flat basket. The bigger pieces get caught it the sifter basket. These can be ground up again and re-sifted, or used for other dishes that require broken corn kernels. Cornmeal made in this traditional way has a varied texture, with individual pieces ranging in size from corn flour, up to the size of grits. If made from good, native corn, the flavor is amazing. If you can't produce traditional cornmeal yourself (recommended), you can purchase meal made from traditional Native corn through the Iroquois White Corn Project.
Besides the switch to commercial cornmeal, Choctaw elders were dismayed by another change that took place in Bvnaha in the early 1900s. In the past, Bvnaha had been made with all kinds of different ingredients that could be optionally added to the cornmeal for a diversity of flavors and more complete nutrition. As the community became more dependent on commodity foods, Bvnaha started to be customarily made with just three ingredients cornmeal, baking soda, and salt. The elders called this new iteration of Bvnaha ikanomi iksho, meaning no relatives. It wasn't a compliment.
Sources written by elders who knew Choctaw food in the 1800s document the following as traditional Bvnaha add-ins: beans, hickory nutmeats, roasted walnuts, field peas, cubes of sweet potatoes, and hetok. Hetok is a Choctaw spice made by burning dry bean hulls, dry pea pods, or even hickory wood into ash. Used in small amounts it, adds a bitter, but pleasant flavor dimension to traditional corn dishes. The ingredients listed above are only the ones that happen to be recorded, no doubt other ingredients were also used by some communities and families. Our household likes to use crushed up sunflower seeds, which give the Bvnaha a wholesome, delicious flavor and make it more filling. We've also found that if hickory nuts are hard to acquire, pecans are a good substitute. For a modern twist, some people add jalapenos.
Here is our basic Bvnaha recipe: Use green corn husks or place dried corn husks into hot water to reydrate. Tear some of the green or re-hydrated corn husks into thin strips. Take two strips and knot the thin ends together. Make one of these for every Bvnaha. Meanwhile, boil water in a clay jar on the fire. Pour a large amount of cornmeal into a wooden tray. Add any of the optional ingredients listed above or try some of your own ides. Stir in enough boiling water to make a thick dough.
Form the dough into masses almost as long as your palm and three fingers in width. Wrap the masses of dough with the pliable corn husks (two husks are often required) to form a round, oblong package. Use a knotted strip of corn husk to tie each package around its middle. Add each package to the pot and boil them for about 45 minutes.
Bvnaha was eaten at home, but it was also used as a traveling food. To take on a trip, Bvnaha was made as described above, but, rather than the corn husk-wrapped packages being put in boiling water, they were placed near the fire until the dough inside was fully dry. These Bvnaha packages were sometimes threaded on a string to aid drying, and then carried into the field around a hunter’s neck. When the destination was reached, the dried Bvnaha packages were boiled in water until soft.
Anything that's living changes and grows through time. This is as true for Bvnaha as anything else. However, if the changes have come about through negative processes like colonization, land dispossession, etc., sometimes looking back in time can help bring forward pieces of culture that can be of great value today. This is true for Bvnaha and many other traditional foods. With the harvest and cooler temperatures coming on (we can hope!), Cooking Month is a great time to experiment.