Lionel Wafer describes Native American Cooking

Another tidbit thrown up by my research into buccaneer cooking. The English privateer surgeon Lionel Wafer published his recollections of the Panama raid in the 1695 New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America. Wafer was a keen obvserver and naturalist, and he spent considerable time among Native American communities ashore, most likely Cuni (he refers to them as “Indians” without distinction). He describes their mode of cooking thus:

Chili according to the 1543 herbal of Leonhart Fuchs courtesy of wikimedia commons

If they take any parcel of their dried flesh, or any newly killed, they cut it into small pieces and throw them into the pipkin: putting into it some of the roots and green plantains or bonanos, or any other eatable, and a great deal of pepper; stewing all together by a simmering gentle heat, never boiling it. The vessel stands thus close cover’d for seven or eight hours, till it is set on very early in the morning, and they stay till all be brought to pulp or mash. This is for set meals: for plantains or bonanos they eat all day, but this set meal they eat but once, about midday only. The mash they pour out into a large earthen dish or calabash, setting it on the great block which is in every house as a table, sitting round on little blocks as on stools.

Earlier in his book, Wafer writes that the Native Americans do not use culinary herbs or spices other than “pepper” (which in this context means chili) in their cooking, and that they do not trade for or frequently use salt. That gives us a handle for reconstructing at least in the most basic terms what this dish would have tasted like.

It should be said here that though this may have roots going back many centureies, this dish is certainly not ancestral cuisine. Plantains, a primary staple of Caribbean societies in the seventeenth century, are a Eurasian import brought over by Spanish colonisers. Still, this is not how Europeans or Africans normally used them. The combination of meat – rare and coveted in Cuni cooking – with a strong chili flavour and the rich nourishment of cooked plantains makes for a heavy mash full of umami and deep capsacain hotness that must have had its attractions. To a European, the absence of salt and spices or herbs would have seemed strange, though.

In broader terms, this story suggests that the three great population groups of the seventeenth-century Caribbean – Native Americans, Europeans, and enslaved Africans – could come together over the stewpot. West African cooking traditions were rich in stews of meat, vegetables, and spices, and Europe, of course, was home to the myriad varieties of pottage, from the humble pea soup to the fashionable olla potrida. Here, cross-fertilisation between their traditions would have been easiest, and the frequent reports by European travellers that local colonists routinely eat unbearably spicy stews suggests that it happened early. “Pepperpot” turns up as a West Indian staple in cookery books later, but its roots surely go back this far.

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