What Is Mvskoke Food?

Several months ago, a reader asked if I had run across any traditional Mvskoke recipes.

That’s a slippery word, “traditional,” pointing back in time toward the dim corners of memory, like a flickering flashlight aimed into a very deep cave.

How far do you have to go?  How old is traditional?  These are tough questions in a modern world, where things are always changing, people more interested in the future than the past.

Many of us have tasted safke, eaten tafvmpuce at a wild onion dinner, or enjoyed pvrko-afke even if they’re made with Welch’s grape juice.  And a few Mvskokes remember how to prepare these dishes.

Still, it’s worth asking:  What is Mvskoke food?

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I found a couple of Mvskoke cookbooks on my shelves, and several more in a search of online bookstores.

The earliest is Hokti’s Recipe Book of Creek Indian Foods, written by Beulah Simms and illustrated by Ben Chaney, both Mvskokes.  Chaney printed the book in his garage and published it in 1970; today, after an eclectic career in art, education, and business, he is manager of transportation planning for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

Hokti, you may know, is the Mvskoke word for woman.  In this case, it refers to the author’s mother, who gave Simms these recipes.  She was typical of the loving Mvskoke matriarchs who are “remembered with much appreciation by all those who have feasted at church gatherings, stomp dances, family get-togethers, or just plain daily living.”

Simms dedicated this book to the next generation of Mvskokes, hoping to “inspire a revival of interest in the old methods of preparing food.”  Preserved here are the ingredients, utensils, and preparations used by Mvskoke cooks for generations, before the advent of “modern kitchen conveniences.”

Practicing “the old Creek Indian ways of cookery” involves handmade implements fashioned from wood and other natural materials.  Hokti’s recipes are prefaced by an explanation of several such utensils.

Many of the twenty recipes collected here include corn, the native American staple that has become one of the most vital foods in the world.  As Simms points out, the survival of Green Corn and other observances rooted in agriculture demonstrates the importance of both crop and ceremony in Mvskoke life.

Other ingredients listed in these recipes may be harder to find at your local grocer:  sassafras root bark, wood ash lye, possum grapes, and squirrel, for example.  You’ll probably have better luck if you know your way around “nature’s super market,” as Simms terms it.

Some of these recipes call for flour, eggs, pork, or beef—foods that have become common, if not necessarily healthy, elements of the modern diet.  Wheat, chickens, pigs, and cattle are not native to Mvskoke country; they were domesticated in the Eastern Hemisphere and transplanted to the Americas during the past half-millennium.

So Hokti’s Recipe Book documents Mvskoke traditions during a particular period of our history, after the onset of colonial trade but before we became hooked on grocery stores and drive-thrus.

What is Mvskoke food?  There are no simple answers in a complex, modern world.  But it’s worth reflecting on this question because, as the saying goes, you are what you eat.

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People around the globe are increasingly concerned about the modern food system and its effect on their health.  This is the personal side of “food sovereignty,” a phrase we’ll be hearing a lot more in the future.

Fortunately, there are many in Mvskoke country who are already working to help us eat—and feel—better.

The Food Distribution Program of the Community Services Division posts monthly recipes on the MCN website.  And they have partnered with the OSU Extension Center to offer an eight-week course in nutrition education, the Fresh Start Program.

The Division of Health manages the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Supplemental Nutrition Program, which just announced a major revision of their food package to include fresh produce and whole-grain products.  The Diabetes Prevention and Management Program recently sponsored the third annual MCN Diabetes Awareness Summit.

The Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative in downtown Okmulgee maintains a website featuring recipes along with lots of other useful information about Mvskoke foods.

It’s never too late to start eating right, for your own sake and for the sake of those who share your table.  It takes healthy citizens to make a healthy nation.

Muscogee Nation News, October 2009

Sources:

Hokti’s Recipe Book of Creek Indian Foods, by Beulah Simms and Ben Chaney

MCN Food Distribution Program

MCN Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Nutrition Program

MCN Diabetes Prevention and Management Program

Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative

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