On their third day in the New World, sometime in July 1584, Sir Walter Ralegh's reconnaissance party under Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe met three natives. Having no language in common, the two groups quickly resorted to the universal media of polite discourse: food and drink. The explorers took an Indian aboard one of their ships and persuaded him to sample their meat and wine, which Barlowe said, "he liked very well." In return, the Indian caught them as many fish as his canoe could hold.
Over the next few days the Englishmen entertained Granganimeo, an Indian nobleman, and some of his retinue. He reciprocated by sending "euery daye a brase or two of fatte Buckes, Conies [common cottontail rabbits], Hares [marsh rabbits], Fishe....fruites, Melon [pumpkins], Walnuts, Cucumbers [probably squash], Gourdes, Pease, and diuers rootes." Barlowe made special note of the Indians' corn, which he found "very white, faire, and well tasted."
At length Barlowe and seven other Englishmen visited the palisaded village on the north end of Roanoke Island. Although they seem to have arrived unexpectedly while Granganimeo was elsewhere, they got a taste of local hospitality. After washing the visitors and their clothes, Granganimeo's wife and retainers served the Englishmen a feast in his five-room house. It included roasted and stewed venison and fish, boiled corn or hominy, raw and cooked pumpkins and squash, and various fruits.
Barlowe did not record what beverages the Indians served him and his companions, but he did say that the Indians customarily drank wine "while the grape lasteth" and water "sodden with Ginger [sic] in it, and blacke Sinamone [perhaps dogwood or magnolia bark], and sometimes Sassafras, and diuers other wholesome, and medicinable hearbes." (Black drink, made mostly or exclusively of scorched yaupon leaves, was common throughout the region, but the spiced beverages Barlowe describes were not, and wine, if he was not mistaken, was probably unique in the Western Hemisphere.)
For safety Barlowe and company declined to sleep in the village and spent a rainy night in open boats in the sound. Their hosts evidently took no offense, for they sent along the leftovers, pots and all, and kept watch on shore.
Not until Ralph Lane and his colonists spent eleven months in North Carolina (1585-1586) did Englishmen begin fully to appreciate the bounty of the region and the diversity of Indian cuisine. John White, who may not have stayed in the New World the whole time, made several revealing drawings of Indians cooking and eating. Thomas Harriot, a colonist with an analytical mind and a discriminating palate, devoted much of his "Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia" to a catalog of native foodstuffs.
The waters of the region yielded tremendous quantities of fish-sturgeon, herring, mullet, and other species-upon which the Indians depended for much of their protein. Crabs, oysters, clams, scallops, and mussels were another major part of their diet. In spring, when stores laid in the previous fall were depleted and crops were not yet ripe, tribes living on the outer coastal plain often sent members who could be spared to nearby estuaries to subsist on shellfish. (In the spring of 1586, worsening relations with the Indians upon whom the colonists depended for food forced Ralph Lane to adopt this practice and disperse his band to various locations where fish and shellfish could be obtained easily.) Over generations, huge mounds of shells accumulated at favored spots. One of these, the present Tillett site on the south end of Roanoke Island, shows evidence of use from around the time of Christ to the disappearance of the coastal tribes in the seventeenth century. Harriot mentioned turtles and terrapins (both "very good meate, as also their egges" ), porpoises, and "Creuises" (crayfish or lobsters or both), but did not say whether Indians ate them.
The Indians of eastern North Carolina probably had no domestic animal except the dog, but the vast forests, marshes, and swamps abounded in bears, deer, rabbits, squirrels, turkeys, doves, partridges, and water birds. Several of the nominally edible mammals were entirely new to the Englishmen, and Harriot did a poor job of describing them. Saquenuckot, for example, could have been a muskrat, opossum, mink, or raccoon; so could Maquowoc.
Harriot listed six wild root vegetables eaten by the Indians. Openauk may have been the ground nut or the Indian or marsh potato-not the Irish potato. (Sir Walter Ralegh has long received undeserved credit for bringing the Irish potato to Europe. It is native to South America, and the Spanish probably introduced it before he was born.) Okeepenauk, "of the bignes of a mans head," may have been the wild potato, a relative of the sweet potato. The English identified coscushaw as casasava. If it belonged to the arum family, it was not poisonous like raw cassava; but the Indians' elaborate preparation probably made a considerable improvement in its taste. Harriot thought that tsinaw (probably some kind of smilax) was similar to the "China root" imported to England from the East Indies. Its name may be nothing more than a native's attempted pronunciation of China. Harriot had such a low opinion of kaishucpenauk (duck potatoes?) that he pointedly omitted "their place and manner of growing." He said little more about the hot-tasting habascon, perhaps the cow parsnip, except that the Indians added it to their stewpots for flavoring and never ate it alone.
Wild fruits added further zest and balance to the Indians' varied diet. Strawberries were available for the taking, as were crab apples, mulberries, persimmons, prickly pears, "Hurtleberies" (huckleberries, blueberries, or even cranberries), and many species that Harriot did not list. The Indians undoubtedly ate all four native varieties of grape (Harriot mentioned two) out of hand even if they did not make wine. In addition, the Indians collected many nuts and seeds, including chinquapins, two kinds of "walnuts" (probably the black walnut and one or more sorts of hickory nut), the five kinds of acorn that Harriot could distinguish (and perhaps others), and a grain that sounds like wild rice but probably came from an unrelated marsh grass.
The Indians were not only hunters and gatherers, but also farmers. Maize (corn) was their chief crop, for it grew well in the acidic soils of the coastal plain. But they also raised sunflowers, pulses (Harriot distinguished beans, perhaps kidney beans, from peas, but described neither thoroughly), and several kinds of pumpkin, squash, and gourd.
Having no ovens, the Indians did little baking, except perhaps in shallow pots or directly in hot coals. Although they extracted oil from acorns, nuts, and sunflower seeds and had animal fat in abundance, they seem to have done little or no frying. Well-known Indian staples from other regions, such as jerky and pemmican, seem to have been missing. The Indians of eastern North Carolina ate their great variety of foods in only four basic states-raw, broiled, stewed, and dried, with or without the aid of fire, then reconstituted with water. Harriot distinguished boiled foods from those "seethed" and "sodden" ; it is not always easy to tell what he meant by the latter two terms, but both involved cooking in water.
The Indians ate much of their fruit and many nuts uncooked. They also ate raw pumpkins and squash, which Englishmen probably found hard to take, and at least one root, the uncooperative okeepenauk, which would "neither roste nor seeth."
The Indians with whom Harriot was most familiar preserved acorns by drying them "vpon hurdles made of reeds with fire vnderneath." They probably parched corn in like manner. John Lawson, who explored the Carolinas in the early eighteenth century, said that Indians living to the west and south treated some fruits similarly.
One of White's drawings shows how the local Indians broiled fish on wooden grills, which may have been used as well for meat. But according to Harriot, they did not smoke fish or meat for long-term storage, as the Indians of Florida did.
The Indians of eastern North Carolina made many sizes and kinds of clay pot. Most had pointed bottoms, which had to be supported with earth. These pots, though seemingly awkward, were as functional after their fashion as the round-bottomed Chinese wok, and the Indians did much of their cooking in them. They made many kinds of bread, mush, spoonbread, and dumpling from fresh or dried corn, pulses, acorns, and nuts. Corn and beans went into a dish like succotash. Cornmeal mush or broiled fresh or dried corn evidently served as the base of countless vegetable, meat, and fish stews. Harriot reported that the Indians customarily filled a pot with "fruite, flesh, and fish, and lett all boyle together like a galliemaufrye, which the Spaniarde call, olla podrida." But they may have cooked such a dish only on festive occasions or when esteemed visitors like Harriot were present. Barlowe's report implies that the Indians of the region also boiled meat, fish, pulses, pumpkins, and squash separately.
Although they lacked salt, the Indians of eastern North Carolina had a variety of seasonings. Among them were bay leaves, sassafras leaves (still used to flavor and thicken file gumbo), sassafras roots, and the ashes of a plant that Harriot thought related to spinach. According to Harriot and Lawson, nuts pounded with or without water were a common additive to stews, soups and spoonbread. Oddly, the eastern Indians seem to have ignored the wild relatives of the onion growing profusely in the region.
As in other cultures, a meal could mark an occasion of great joy, sadness, or civic or religious significance. But Indian meals were generally unceremonious by European standards. Serving-women simply placed stitched or woven mats of reeds or other material on the ground, indoors or out, and presented the food on "platters of sweete timber." (In noblemen's households, servants or slaves probably distributed the food; in commoners' households, that duty fell to family members.) Everyone then sat "Rownde, the men vppon one side, and the woemen on the other," eating whatever lay before them in any order they pleased without utensils or, it seems, excessive formality.
The Indians spent much time outdoors and necessarily led very active lives. Their caloric intake was sometimes great, but so was their caloric demand. The uncertainties of hunting, gathering, and even farming sometimes led them to gorge during periods of plenty, and European settlers in Virginia in the seventeenth century commented on these occasional excesses, which may have had some kind of religious or customary significance, in vivid detail. Such reports notwithstanding, the Indians of the region can hardly be considered chronically gluttonous as a class. Indeed, their moderation impressed many early observers, Harriot chief among them. "They are verye sober in their eatinge, and drinkinge, and consequentlye verye longe liued because they doe not oppress nature," he wrote. "I would to god wee would followe their exemple."
Text based on "Indian Food and Cooking in Coastal North Carolina 400 Years Ago," by David Stick;
edited and expanded by lebame houston and Wynne Dough.
Last updated: April 14, 2015