Wampanoag Cooking with Local Tree Nuts
People don’t typically think about eating nuts that grow in our local woods. Before Europeans arrived, the forests of Cape Cod were more diverse. Stands of nut-bearing hickories, walnuts, beeches, chestnuts, and hazelnuts—all rich food sources—were much more common. Mashpee Wampanoag food activist Danielle Hill says that her people still use and remember these foods.
“Our tribe has never been removed from our lands. So there is an oral history and a food memory that we all share. I know that the chestnuts and the hickory nuts and the acorns were used in abundance.”
Historically, nuts were an important year-round food in Wampanoag cooking. They offer fat, protein, starches, and a wide range of essential nutrients, and many types of nuts store well for years at a time. One common native food that features nuts is called Pemmican.
Pemmican is dried meat; typically venison. There are a few different ways to make it. Danielle explains that some people dry it and then pound it and make it almost into a flour. You can then mix it with dried nuts like walnuts or chestnuts or you can also mix it with dried cranberries, blueberries or another sort of berry.
“And so then you can take that all dried and then you can rehydrate it and make it into a cake, or you can leave it loose. Some people would travel and eat it loose almost like a granola,” she said.
There are all sorts of variations, Danielle says—some people don’t grind the meat and leave it in strips, and others add melted animal fat. Another local nut-based recipe that’s excellent over venison or turkey is walnut gravy.
That walnut gravy is Danielle’s favorite. She first had it at Plimouth Plantation.
“I used to work down there as a Wampanoag Historical Interpreter and they used to make it at the Harvest Feast around Thanksgiving and it’s literally just a bunch of black walnuts um crushed up, boiled, and it naturally has fat and oil and so that is used and either skimmed off the top and mixed with a flour you could do an acorn flour or you could still use the pulp of the walnut and then it’s just a ton of wild onion and wild garlic and different spices and it’s just so good.”
A website devoted to historic Wampanoag food and recipes lists all sorts of porridges, soups, and stews—and almost all of them call for either chestnuts, walnuts, or acorns—sometimes whole, sometimes crushed, and sometimes pounded into a starch. What stands out is how common the local tree nuts are in these recipes—in everything from a boiled corn bread with acorn flour and crushed walnuts to a meat stew with squash and beans thickened with nut flour. Danielle says for babies in particular, nuts are a nutritious native food.
“I have two little ones, I have one on the way, and it’s so important that their first foods, when being introduced to solids are local, sustainable, and also indigenous. And so there are some recipes that I’ve been finding with nuts in particular and seeds.”
Some of these call for boiling nuts or seeds to make a sort of milk, and others call for crushing nuts like walnuts or hazelnuts, making them into a pulp, and boiling them with berries, cornmeal, or even squash. Danielle says appreciating these once common tree nuts is key if we want to bring them back to local woods.
“When you don’t use them, and when you forget about them, they don’t proliferate like they would if we were to glorify them or pick them.”
She added, “These trees fruit and if their fruit just perishes then they feel unwanted and then they don’t spread. And then they go away. And so extinction of species isn’t necessarily just because of environmental threats, it’s also because the human being isn’t doing our job in tending to them and taking care of them and saying you’re appreciated, we want you to grow. You know we want to see more of these trees.”
Some listeners might be skeptical of the idea that other species like trees depend on our gratitude to thrive. Certainly, this isn’t what many of us learned in school. But increasingly, scientific findings are supporting indigenous wisdom: studies of species like sweetgrass, for instance, used in native basket making, have found that the plant thrives where it’s used and disappears where it’s not.
In the words of Indigenous author Robin Wall Kimmerer, “Our elders taught that the relationship between plants and humans must be one of balance. People can take too much and exceed the capacity of the plants to share again. And yet, they also teach that we can take too little.”
Danielle Hill says that our job is to re-learn these relationships, so that we can get back to a place of reciprocity and knowledge.
HERE is the website that Elspeth mentions in the piece.