Indigenous foods at the heart of Maine’s food culture
If you dined at a Bowdoin dining hall on October 10 or 17, you took part in a four-year-old campus tradition celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day! Thanks to the efforts of the Native American Student Association and the staff at Bowdoin Dining, you may have tasted fluffy fry bread, a sweet blueberry wojapi, or perhaps one of the other incredible dishes served to honor the ingredients and meals eaten by indigenous peoples. Across the country. I certainly was. But as that last bite of buffalo burger was consumed, I realized that I knew so little about the culinary traditions of the Indigenous peoples we currently reside upon. Not surprisingly, many of the iconic features of modern Maine cuisine grew out of the natural knowledge and practices of its original inhabitants.
Long before those who would call it “Maine” arrived here, this land was home to large numbers of Native peoples divided into several tribes. Today, five of the largest tribes in Maine and southeastern Canada share the collective identity of the Wabanaki, or People of the Land of Dawn: the Abenakis, the Mi’kmaq, the Malecites, the Passamaquoddy and the Penobscot. Over their nearly 12,000 years of coexistence with the land and bringing them to and away from the coast through the seasons, the Wabanaki have become experts in the food sources around them. Their cooking and eating was ingredient-driven, taking full advantage of what was available to them at their best.
Even after the arrival of waves of European colonizers who forcibly altered their access to certain resources and, therefore, their culinary toolkit, Indigenous food traditions still contain this same philosophy. Here is a look at some of the major elements of Wabanaki cuisine that have marked their home communities and the rest of the state of Maine:
While land hunting was a major source of sustenance for the Wabanaki, especially during the colder months, even their winter camps were set up near bodies of water for fishing. Salmon, shad, and shellfish of all kinds were central to Wabanaki eating habits, which is reflected in the fish chowders and ubiquitous clam gratins of today. In fact, clams and lobsters cook have their roots in a famous Aboriginal summer custom. When the various bands of a tribe previously dispersed across the country in late fall and winter met on the coast to begin their spring and summer lives, they would spend days together digging for clams and catch fish and shellfish. Using large pits made of heated rocks and layers of insulating material, they steamed their catch on the beach and enjoyed the delicious product right next to the water where it came from. While the cooking methods themselves may have changed over time, gravitating towards smaller-scale pan-based alternatives, the communal nature of clam cooking lives on.
The Wabanaki have always made the most of the bountiful produce around them, using the cultivated gifts of the land to craft everything from fern fern salad with creamy sorrel soup. But one beauty of Maine, which figures prominently not only in food traditions, but also in medicinal and spiritual traditions, is the berry.
Along with the diversity of berry species in Maine comes an equally diverse array of benefits that those most familiar with the region’s flora will know well. The shad, so named because it matures when the shad migrate to local waters in the spring, was a historical indicator for the tribes to start moving their camps to the coast for the warm season. The strawberry plays a key role in maintaining reproductive health and features in ceremonies celebrating the majority of young women. And of course, no mention of berries can be made without referring to the iconic wild blueberry. The Wabanaki were the first to use the wild blueberry and have used it for a millennium in cooking, business ventures and community rituals that reinforce its great value to Indigenous life. Although the appreciation and harvesting of wild blueberries has become a statewide pastime, the Wabanaki today carry on their own blueberry-focused traditions. Discover the work of Passamaquoddy Wild Blueberry Co. to see how the Passamaquoddy people continue the harvesting practices of their ancestors with delicious results.
The advent of bread in the Americas can often be associated with the arrival of Europeans, whose supply of wheat flour became fundamental for baking in its most popular Western forms. Native Americans, however, had long cooked without any access to wheat or its byproducts.
Most pre-colonial breads were made with cornmeal, including the classic cornbread still eaten in the South and beyond today. When wheat flour arrived, corn-based breads did not disappear, but imported flour was sometimes an easier-to-use option for native cooks. So they took the bread-making practices they were already using and combined local ingredients with the newcomers to create a range of now traditional breads.
For the Mi’kmaq, one such classic fusion is lusknikn, a type of bannock made by mixing together a few simple ingredients (including flour) and cooking them until the product takes on a texture similar to that of a scone. Breads like lusknikn, often served with soups or with butter and jam for breakfast, have become modern comfort foods in the homes of Native American families from northeast to southwest.
Big Red’s Cooking, a blog maintained by a member of the Qalipu Band of the Mi’kmaq, offers a basic lusknikn recipe which is endlessly customizable, but for more imaginative takes on the classic bread, try one of their variations like lusknikn strawberry shortcake to get an idea of how traditional Wabanaki foods are shared and celebrated today. today.
This is just a brief overview of some of the ways the Wabanaki’s deep ties to the land we call Maine have influenced their eating habits and, in turn, ours. Even after being forced to undergo changes in location, lifestyle, and access to ingredients, each tribe strove to bring elements of their food gathering, preparation, and eating practices to the modern era and at the heart of Maine cuisine. There are so many other ins and outs – so many intricacies in Wabanaki cuisine and culture and their impact on life that we know I can’t even begin to do justice in this short article, but there are so many of people who can.
If you too are counting down the days until you taste your next wojapi or can make your own sorrel soup, try checking out the official websites of the Wabanaki Confederacy tribes for more in the meantime: