Reservation elders compile recipes in fundraising cookbook

By Candice Renalls
Duluth, Minnesota (AP)

Wendy Savage recalls waking up at night to the smell of wild rice cooking.

As children, the aroma would rouse her and her five siblings. They would get up and creep cautiously toward the kitchen and peek in.

“My dad would laugh and say, ‘I can never get away with it,”’ Savage recalled. “He could never get away with making a bowl just for himself. It became the family joke. We would smell it and get up.”

Soon, her mother would be setting the table and they would all sit and eat little bowls of rice again.

For Fond du Lac Reservation elders such as Savage, the wild rice they and their ancestors harvested in late summer on the Cloquet area reservation was a food staple.

Although Savage, 56, grew up in Duluth, her parents had grown up on the reservation and Savage spent much of her summers and weekends with her grandparents, who still lived there. Savage began harvesting wild rice at age 11. She would go picking wild blueberries with her mother. And the deer her father and uncles hunted was cooked for family meals.

These native foods had been staples for Ojibwe people for centuries, as had maple syrup, squash, dandelion greens and other foods foraged from nature, such as bitter root, wild rhubarb, mushrooms and huckleberries.

To help keep these food traditions alive, a committee of elders, including Savage, has gathered recipes from other tribal elders to create their first cookbook. The result, “Favorite Fond du Lac Reservation Recipes,” contains nearly 200 recipes. While many are not particularly American Indian, the cookbook includes old family recipes for cooking rabbit, moose, wild rice and dishes that call for fruits and vegetables indigenous to northern Minnesota. Recipes include Bannock (Indian biscuits), Indian pudding, Indian Succotash and Chippewa Sweet Meat.

The money raised will help send Fond du Lac elders to the National Indian Conference on Aging, to be held Sept. 5-9 in Nokomis, Wash., according to Sharon Shuck, who was part of the cookbook committee. The national organization works to improve the health and welfare of American Indian elders. Fond du Lac band members who are 52 or older are elders. (Click for ebay purchase of book)

While young band members have gotten away from traditional foods, today’s elders still remember the days when their families largely lived off the land. Among them is Shuck of Duluth, who spent her childhood in the 1940s and 1950s on the Fond du Lac reservation. Her family lived in a tarpaper shack with no running water and no electricity and a wood stove for heat.

“Everybody did,” she said of the living conditions. “All families were poor, very poor.”

She recalls her family eating venison, wild rice, maple syrup and the blueberries they gathered. They would go down to the St. Louis River and net catfish. They would brew swamp tea from the long oval leaves of the Labrador plant, found in low swampy areas. They would pick fiddlehead ferns in May and cook them up like asparagus. Their gardens yielded plenty of corn, potatoes and tomatoes.

Tribal elder Phyllis Stott of Duluth remembers her grandmother’s big gardens on the reservation, brimming with squash, cucumbers, onions, beets, potatoes and corn. She remembers eating fresh tomatoes, just picked from the vine. She would snare rabbits with her grandmother, while her parents hunted venison.

“For generations, it was really healthy,” she said of the diet. “We had a naturally healthy diet. No diabetes. We never heard about cancer. No obesity. Today, the diet’s terrible; it’s not healthy.”

Savage agreed, blaming the introduction of white flour, white sugar and white rice into the Ojibwe diet, which she believes has contributed to problems of diabetes and obesity.

“Diet is a problem on the reservation,” she said. “Like regular society, people are working and they don’t have time to cook. We would like to see more native people eating more of their traditional foods. We would like to see them foraging and going ricing. We would like to see more community gardens.”