Cherokee Foodways in South Carolina | Digital Traditions

By Dr. Will Goins. Goins is the president of the Eastern Cherokee, Southern Iroquois, and United Tribes of South Carolina, a non-profit organization dedicated to Native American cultural issues.

Foodways are the traditions associated with the growing, gathering, preparation, serving, and consumption of food. South Carolina’s foodways reflect the complexity and diversity of the state and its people. Cooking styles reflect the different environments and resources, not to mention the cultural heritage and folkways of the people that originate them. This is certainly the case for the indigenous people of South Carolina. Native American cuisine is not homogenous – it is as diverse as the many different tribal groups that still call South Carolina home. Foodways offer a clear and accessible lens through which infinite aspects of Native American Indian culture may be viewed and embraced. It connects us to others, and offers entrée to a more thorough understanding of this place and our people.

Today, the Cherokee’s mode of life is much like others, though some differences remain. Traditional Indian foods like greens, "fried corn", hominy, sweet potato pie, bear meat, rabbit, bean bread, pickled beans, and chestnut bread are still found on their dinner tables. The Cherokees of South Carolina never forgot what their forefathers gave them – their culture and Cherokee heritage. During the 1800s and early 1900s, most of the meats eaten by the Cherokee people were obtained through hunting. They hunted many forms of wildlife including birds, deer, ducks, geese, pheasant, possum, rabbit, squirrel and wild turkey. Many also raised their own cattle, chickens, and hogs. Fish was also one of their main foods. Even today, many Native Americans hunt on a regular basis and maintain farms.

A few Cherokee people hid "In the land of a thousand smokes" and escaped the tragic Trail of Tears. Those who remained, and the few who returned, are known by various names, including the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina, The Over the Hill Cherokee Indians of Tennessee, Cherokee Indians of Georgia and the Cherokee Indians of South Carolina. These Cherokee descendants became heirs to an ancient culture and the custodians of the Cherokee art of craft making, storytelling, music, folkways, and cuisine. The Cherokees of South Carolina continued the traditions inherited from their forefathers, passed from generation to generation. Maintaining their arts, crafts, and foodways validated their tribal affiliation – their heritage. The state of South Carolina recently acknowledged this significance by giving these Indian people their deserved status as a “State Recognized” tribal organization. The Eastern Cherokee, Southern Iroquois & United Tribes of South Carolina (Cherokee Indian Tribe of South Carolina) has enrolled members throughout the state. Some members live in traditional Cherokee regions of the state (the midlands and upstate) and others have migrated to other parts of the state for education and employment. No matter where these Cherokee descendants went they took with them their cuisine and culinary arts and eating habits. The influence that the Cherokees had in development of South Carolina's cuisine can be explained by the Cherokee Trade Path that went across the state from the mountains to the coast. As early as the colonial period, this "trade path" not only carried the precious furs and skins that were being exported, but the culinary sensibilities, spices and delicacies of the many Cherokee people traveling the route for trade and commerce.

Native American recipes are typically unmeasured and rely on the expertise and taste of the cook. A “pinch of this” or a “pinch of that” are measures that are left to the skill of the cook and the natural way these traditions are passed from generation to generation. Some delicacies – like "possum and chestnuts” – are seldom prepared by the new generation of cooks, yet memories of the dish have lasting resonance in the region. During my great-grandmother’s lifetime, most of our Cherokee foods were grown in gardens and the preparation of these meals was somewhat different than it is today. During that era many continued to hunt wild game and grocery stores were something of the future. Consequently, many of the lasting recipes reflect that seemingly ancient history, but are updated and adapted through time, as Cherokee families continue to use them in their food preparation.

Many of the foods enjoyed throughout the world today are indigenous to the Americas, South America in particular. The true wealth of the Americas in 1492 was not in gold and silver, as Europeans thought, but in the variety of foods that grew in American soils. Pineapples, avocados, chocolate, chilies, tomatoes, and peanuts are all familiar American foods today. Corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, and potatoes are also important. If South America had remained undiscovered by the Spanish, Italians would be eating their pasta and pizza without tomato sauce and in England the national dish might well be fish with no chips. Imagine French pastries made without chocolate or vanilla, or a bland Szechwan cuisine without chilies and peanuts. These foods, first cultivated or gathered by Native Americans, have shaped the way people eat on every continent.

Throughout the Americas, native people utilized an amazing variety of wild and domesticated plants. People gathered a wide variety of wild foods – fruits (grapes, plums, thorn apples, bearberries, cherries, blackberries, blueberries, elderberries, sumac berries) and nuts (acorns, butternuts, hickory nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, and beechnuts). The Iroquois ceremonial cycle included a strawberry festival that celebrated the small, new wild strawberries that were a particular delicacy and a harbinger of spring. Their juice is still consumed at ceremonies in contemporary Iroquois communities.

The story of corn is deeply rooted in Native American folklore. Whether you boil, steam, bake or roast it, the end result will be delicious and nutritious. Varieties are endless – breads, chowders, relishes, fritters, salads, stews, and dumplings. Corn is generally regarded as the greatest agricultural contribution of American Indians to the world's diet. It was the major food source for many native groups throughout North and South America. Corn was probably domesticated by about 4,000 B.C. and Indian corn dates back more than 8,000 years and represents a most remarkable plant breeding accomplishment.

Cooking techniques included roasting meat or fish over an open fire. Barbecue is a cherished example of the cultural heritage of the South Carolina Cherokee. Much of the variation in barbecue methodology and saucing in South Carolina can be explained by geographical migrations and the influence of the people. The meat is chopped, pulled or sliced hog (fish, shellfish, chicken, beef and lamb are also favorites for Native people) and the sauce can vary from peppery vinegar, yellow mustard-based, and sweet tomato. In South Carolina’s Native American Indian communities, the meat is grilled beef, chicken and pork that is chopped, pulled, shredded, or sliced.

South Carolina barbeque is specifically recounted in The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North American in 1539-1543. Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto’s personal secretary, Rodrigo Ranjel, provides very detailed accounts of the earliest record of “barbacoa” in South Carolina and in the Americas. He wrote of large outdoor cookeries or grills among the indigenous people of the Carolinas, Caribbean Islands, and Florida.

Traditional native foods have been maintained and adapted for new generations. Native American cuisine has profoundly influenced South Carolina’s culinary history and along with African American and European traditions created a culinary landscape that is most unique. In a larger sense, Native Americans have contributed to the diet of the world.