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Hearth to Hearth: Native American Cooking Tools

Hearth to Hearth: Native American Cooking Tools – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – August 2002

Summer is the season for powwows. Like stepping stones across America, a series of colorful festivals offers, as part of the entertainment, tastes of traditional fry bread, beans, and assorted specialties, many of which date back to the nineteenth century. These goodies are served from modern grills, steam trays, deep fryers, and such, and carry little evidence of the remarkable early hand-fashioned kitchen utensils that predate the festivals and, in some cases, even the foods themselves. The collector of Native American food artifacts may indeed be at a loss in connecting early artifacts with these festival foods.

In fact, the technology of the early days before European contact reveals an entirely different set of cookware’s and consequent food ways. The indigenous people of the New World had not developed metallurgy as Europeans did, having used only limited copper utensils in ceremonial rites. Although in some ways theirs was a stone age culture, today we can only respect the high level of development in which stone, bone, clay, wood, and leather were artfully and skillfully shaped by hand and applied to satisfying the needs of their cuisine.

I have been interested in collecting and using these old utensils with some concern for authenticity, but identifications are not always easy. Most helpful have been archaeological studies, early travelers’ reports, and the writings of American anthropologists undertaken around 1900. Even considering their careful notes on dating when undertaking and substantiating oral history material, it must be remembered that a substantial time had passed during which exchange of cultural artifacts and modernization were possible.

In parallel fashion, the cuisine itself was once quite different from the one we see portrayed today, depending as it did on agricultural corn, beans, pumpkins and squash and a combination of wild hunted and gathered local foodstuffs. Although I have substituted clay or stone pots for cast iron pans with great success, I have nevertheless looked with a doubtful eye on the recipes that required such modern or non-indigenous foods as sugar, yeast, baking powder or soda, canned beets, ketchup, or wheat. While these are often the traditional foods of Native Americans today, I have been more interested in the basic tradition that was influenced over centuries to produce that tradition.

Setting aside the early sixteenth and seventeenth century introductions-plants, animals, and tools brought from abroad-we are left with a style of cookery that is often flavorful and inviting. The following examples are offered to help with both identifications and a re-creation of the cuisine itself.

Ceramic containers are one of the most enduring of these crafts. While Europeans were no strangers to clay, their first descriptions of the American indigenous culture noted the fine pottery utensils, and called them every bit as fine and large as any being made in Europe at the time. These receptacles were entirely made of hand-no wheels or other devices having been developed here-were of coil or pinch-pot construction and sometimes remarkably large. When the clay had dried to a leathery hardness, they were often paddled to compress and strengthen the walls. Once totally dried they were fired in large bonfires, raising the heat gradually by moving them closer to the fire in stages and then finally into the heart of the blaze. The cooling down process was as gradual as the heating. One can sometimes make out the paddle marks on shards of early Indian pottery; carbon deposits generally indicate that they held cooking foods over fire.

Cooking pots were most often rounded affairs with open mouths and somewhat pointed or sharply rounded bottoms. They sat over the heat on stone tripods, usually thin rocks propped in a vertical position and spaced far enough apart to permit the placement of gently burning branches between them, and sufficiently high to hold the pot a small distance above them. The cooking pits themselves were shallow depressions lined with flat rocks (often large river stones) which themselves held and reflected additional heat to the cookery. As fuel gathering was arduous, often depending on dead wood dragged in and broken without the benefit of metal axes, there were clear advantages to small fires. And as most of the day’s food consumption was often taken at one large noon meal, the central clay cooking pot simmering over a small fire accounted for a good deal of the preparation.

Of course there were also smaller articles made of clay-cooking pots of more modest sizes, sometimes with narrowed necks to slow down evaporation, for example. Such early clay pots, when complete and in good condition, are most difficult for the collector to find, and their authenticity is easily called into question because of the ease of manufacturing copies and falsification of their age. Even apparently mended artifacts are difficult to assess. Indeed the lovely pottery most often associated with Native American crafts is of relatively recent manufacture, and not always of authentic design.

By way of contrast, stone articles are far more durable. Often found buried in farmers’ fields or streams or unearthed in archaeological digs, familiar and unbroken arrowheads and celts are far more common in collections today. Among the food processing tools, celts are similar to arrowheads, but larger and stubbier and not pointed or sharp- their flattened tips were used more as a scraper than a knife, and their blunted ends could be put to pounding. One of my favorite celts was made with two finger grooves on one side and a single one for the thumb opposite; it fits very comfortably in the hand and the user can get a firm grip on it. It is remarkably well balanced and is equally easy to use left or right handed, with the scraping edge or the pounding edge up or down. On first glance the grooves might suggest that is was a hatchet, and the grooves used to attach the stone to a wooden haft; however, the grooves do not continue around the face, where they would be most strengthening, and appear only at the edges where they are to be held (note illustration). This piece speaks of exquisite form and function and is anything but “primitive.”

Even more prized today, large and small paired grinding stones are treasures indeed. The amount of work and skill needed to shape the larger “mullers and mealing slabs” or mortars probably gave them extra value even when they were new. Comparable to the large tree-trunk wooden mortar and pestle of the Woodland Indians, they were indispensable for the smaller jobs-endless nut cracking, pounding and powdering of dried meats, fish, fruits and vegetables, as well as seed and root pulverizing, and were irreplaceable in the Southwest where there was little wood. In the American southwest, staple corn was ground into meal on a series of low tablets-the metates y manos-often arranged in a row according to roughness. The corn was transferred sequentially from coarse to finer stones as a group of women knelt before them in a row to grind fine flour for the community.

Soapstone, a relatively soft stone, was relatively easy to carve into small bowls and griddles. They often took their shapes from the original un-worked piece of rock, efficiently fashioning protrusions into handles. The most beautifully done are remarkably thin and graceful.

Much of the stone work was accomplished by flint knapping. Tools of a harder rock were used to strike a glancing blow against the edge being formed, chipping flakes that could in themselves be turned to some use. When the rough shape was finished, other stones were scraped and rubbed, smoothing out the surfaces and adding fine details. Glassy obsidian broke into flakes of incredible sharpness to produce prized knife blades. Many knives of different stone were shaped into flat rounds, rather than long strap shapes, and would appear to have been stronger to both use and to make. Today the art of flint knapping has found a following among practitioners of “primitive” crafts, and it is possible to buy reproductions, or to learn to make your own, again adding an element of possible confusion in the marketplace.

A number of other food-working tools were made from animal bone or horn, and sometimes this took surprisingly little work. The jawbone of a deer, for example, was used to scrape the juicy kernels of young sweet corn from the cob; bone husking pins have helped to loosen dry kernels from the cobs. I have found very few modern scrapers to do this job as easily.

Basketry is another form often associated with food. In addition to the familiar gathering and storage functions, some baskets were designed with specific tasks in mind. For example, when removing the tough hulls of hominy corns, the kernels were first soaked in a lye solution (wood ashes and water) which softened and loosened them. Then they were placed in large baskets woven with projecting points of twisted splints on the inside, and rimmed with a large, open-weave holes. These were often placed in streams or running water to rinse out the lye. Gentle shaking further dislodged the hulls, which floated away through the edging holes. Other baskets were designed to served as steamers, sifters, or drying trays. A variety of materials were used in basket making- in addition to hickory or oak splints they applied corn husks, grasses, and barks.

The tanned hides or bladders of game animals also did a surprising amount of cooking. Fashioned into watertight sacks, they were used as boiling pots. Hung away from the fire, avoiding the fire pit flames which would have been injurious to the leather, they were hung filled with water into which super-heated rocks were dropped. It took only a few stones to bring the “pot” to boiling and to begin cooking.

Articles carved from wood were also common. One thinks of the wonderful bowls-large and small-and a great variety of spoons, ladles, and stirrers. Tongs were made from the elastic branches of split hickory, and used as broiling racks or coal lifters. And there were assorted drying racks. Even bark was shaped into knives and baskets.

Seen together they represent a complete batterie de cuisine. Cooking with them inevitably impresses the diners with the fine food they can turn out. There is no need to feel sorry for early Indians on account of limited cookware, as their cooking technology was wonderfully suited to their ingredients, and offered a potential very close to that of their European counterparts.

Note: You may wish to consult Arthur C. Parker, Iroquois Uses of Maize and Other Food Plants, Albany, 1910; reprinted by Iroquois Reprints, Ontario, Canada, 1983; also F. W. Waugh, Iroquois Foods and Food Preparation, Ottawa, 1916, facsimile edition by National Museums of Canada, 1973.

The following recipes have been prepared successfully in my workshops countless times, using carefully crafted reproductions and old recorded recipes using ingredients native to the New World. They are equally suited to back yard charcoal grills and modern indoor kitchens.

Recipe: Sunflower Seed Cakes

3 cups shelled raw sunflower seeds
3 cups water
1/2 cup shelled raw pumpkin seeds
2-3 tablespoons hazel nut butter, or pounded roasted hazel nuts
6 tablespoons or more fine stone-ground cornmeal
2 teaspoons maple syrup or maple sugar
1/2 cup lard or bacon grease (nearest thing to bear grease)

Place sunflower seeds and water in a saucepan, and cover. Set over a medium heat, bring to a boil, and then simmer for about 30-40 minutes until seeds are soft enough to mash between your fingernails (rather like al dente pasta – no crispness in the middle). Drain, reserving water. Grind or pound the seeds into a coarse mash. Reserve. Grind or pound pumpkin seeds more coarsely. Combine the seed mixtures.

Add hazel nut butter or pounded nuts, maple syrup or sugar, and cornmeal enough to make a dough that is dry enough to shape in your hands. Add a little reserved boiling water if the dough gets too stiff.

Shape into firm flat cakes about 2″ in diameter, just as you would shape miniature hamburgers.

Heat the griddle to a moderate heat. Grease with lard or bacon fat. Fry-bake cakes, turning from time to time until they are golden and crusty on both sides.

Serve warm or cold.

Note: this recipe may be varied with the addition of seasonal native ingredients such as blueberries or cranberries.

Recipe: Baked Fish in Clay

Use a 2-3 pound fish like blue fish or sea bass (not too flat). Use the entire fish whole – do not clean, scale, open or gut it. Completely encase in potters clay (the kind you fire in a kiln) about ? inch thick on all surfaces. Set on a bed of coals and cover with an additional layer of coals. Bake for about 10- 15 minutes, or until clay has been fired and is hard on all sides.

Remove from the fire using 2 flat utensils. Place on a heat-resistant platter. Begin to remove hard clay in pieces and discard. Serve the fish of the top fillet. Then remove the backbone and serve the bottom. You will note that all the contents of the body cavity have hardened into a small ball that is easily removed and discarded, and that the scales and skin stick to the clay and are removed with it.

As the scales and fins often leave a pleasing impression on the clay, some people enjoy participating in the “opening.” If you are inclined to re-create the dining experience itself, you may wish to serve and eat the fish with your fingers.

Note: this form of preparing fish works especially well with such oily fish as bluefish, salmon, or mackerel. The results are anything but oily, and will surprise you pleasantly with their moist delicacy. This kind of cookery is actually a kind of self-contained steaming.

Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is Her web site is

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