Indigenous Strawberry Bread and its Lasting Inspiration
Hundreds of years ago, there were many tribes of Indigenous people throughout the Americas, and each had its way of preparing food, depending on which part of the land they called home. Corn was their main ingredient. Corn was eaten ripe, dried, boiled, and pounded into flour. This corn flour was used to thicken soups or make dumplings. The Indigenous people used animal fat instead of lard or butter and developed all sorts of cooking techniques that involved boiling, roasting, and baking. They were brilliant farmers and hunters, doing both on a seasonal cycle. They made wine from corn and fruit and used acorns and roots in their dishes. The flavor came from animal fat, ground nuts, wild herbs, and even water lilies—the lily bulb was boiled to infuse a dish with flavor. Every ingredient was treated with respect and used in full, from the fruit to the leaves. The people knew that each piece of fruit, nut, herb, vegetable, and meat was a gift and should be handled as such.
One of the ingredients the people had in abundance during the spring months was the wild strawberry. The first sign of the strawberry was joyful to the people, as this represented the first fresh fruit of the season. Strawberries were an essential and sacred part of the diet of the Indigenous tribes like the Mescalero Apache who lived in the southwest, who would flavor the fruit with aspen sap, and the people of the northeast would mash strawberries and combine them with water for a drink. The Blackfoot, Cherokee, Ojibwa, and Iroquois Tribes used the leaves of the plants as a disinfectant and a treatment for gastrointestinal, kidney, and liver problems. Other times the people would mix dried strawberries with dried meat and animal fat, making pemmican, a staple of the Indigenous cuisine.
The abundance of strawberries also gave way to strawberry bread made by many tribes, including those in the Northeast and the Great Lakes region. The sweet yet hearty bread would be completed by crushing the fruit and mixing it with cornmeal, which would be baked or boiled. Strawberry bread was made in the late spring, though it could be made later in the year by using fruits that had been harvested and dried. An account from the Great Lake region tribes mentioned that the dough was mixed with berries, nuts, other ingredients, and boiling water. The skilled maker would keep their hands cool by dipping them frequently in cold water while kneading the mixture into cakes and dumplings. The maker would then add the cakes to boiling water until they floated to the surface. The cornmeal would make the consistency somewhat dense, but the flavors of the strawberry, I suspect, would balance out the heaviness.
There are many accounts of the wild strawberry and strawberry bread by the settlers, as early as 1607, from the Europeans who arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. Reports were sent back to England stating that strawberries growing in the woods were “four times larger and much more exquisitely flavored” than the wild strawberries of England. Another account noted the berries were so abundant that “it was impossible to direct eh foot without dyeing it in the blood of this fruit.” With all these accounts, it was easy to surmise that the fruit was plentiful and used in many dishes, savory and sweet. The 1643 account from the religious leader Roger Williams describes the sweet strawberry bread made by the Narragansett people in an area now called Rhode Island; “This berrie is the wonder of all the fruits growing naturally in these parts. In some parts where the natives have planted (strawberries), I have many times seen as many as would fill a good ship within a few miles compass. The Indians bruse them in a mortar and mix them with meale and make strawberry bread.”
The strawberries became a staple for the colonists as well. They would use the berries to make jellies, preserves, and special butter. The fruit was also dried, pounded into a stiff paste, and then cut into bite-size pieces that could be chewed like candy. Accounts state the colonists enjoyed the strawberry bread immensely, which they recreated by using wheat flour instead of cornmeal. This inspired take on Indigenous strawberry bread would have been less dense, and eggs would have been added to the recipe at some point. Most of the books and articles I read all point to Indigenous strawberry bread as the original inspiration for strawberry shortcakes. Though I can see some comparisons between the two dishes, I believe this is either a partial origin or an overall happy exaggeration of the history. Indigenous strawberry bread was made with strawberries in the batter, while strawberry shortcakes separated the fruit from the cake. Further, shortcakes were made in Europe long before the settlers left England. The earliest shortcake recipe dates to 1588 in the anonymous English cookbook, the Good Huswifes Handmaid for Cookerie in her Kitchen, the second printed English cookbook. The “short” in shortcake derives from a 15th-century term similar to “crumbly.” Though this recipe was without the strawberry and icing (later whipped, sweet cream), it was likely paired with fruits and meats.
An 1845 recipe in the Ohio Cultivator for “strawberry cakes” was most likely the first recorded version of strawberry shortcake. The recipe included making an unleavened, thick cookie cut in half, layered with strawberries, and covered with icing. A few years later, the popular Eliza Leslie allegedly copied this recipe in the 1847 Miss Leslie’s Ladies Receipt Book. Eliza's popularity catapulted the recipe throughout the US, and just three years later, the strawberry shortcake is a known fruit, and biscuit dessert served warmly with sweetened cream. Heavy cream did not become a replacement for sweetened cream until the early 1900s in France.
Strawberries are native to America; however, records account for strawberries eaten in ancient Rome. The Romans believed that strawberries alleviated melancholy, fainting, and inflammation symptoms. In Europe during the 13th century, strawberries were not only considered medicinal (the entire fruit and plant were used as a skin tonic to treat digestive problems, gout, sunburn, and skin blemishes), but the fruit was also a sign of peace and prosperity. Medieval stone masons were known to carve strawberries into alters and pillars of churches as a symbol of perfection and righteousness. Wild strawberries grew from (modern-day) Russia to South America.
As the land in America developed with homes and tilled crops, the wild strawberry was not as easy to find, leading the colonists to travel far to find the fruit for their annual supply of preserves and jam. The landscape change led to the wild strawberry being transplanted (or purchased) in a household garden creating the beginning of the domestic strawberry. Before the Revolutionary war, the fruit and plant became an article of barter and sale in large cities like Boston and New York. Accounts point to the wild strawberry bushes from the Pan-American regions (Chili and Virginia) made their way early to Europe in 1712 by a French sailor, where a Parisian botanist crossbred with European varietals (first in Brittany, France) and sold them back to colonists. The version we purchase at the market today is from those same crossbred strawberries.
Today the strawberry continues to be respected and celebrated by the Indigenous Nations. This berry carries on the culinary and cultural traditions of their people. The Mohawks in Indiana celebrate the Kanatsiohareke Mohawk Strawberry Festival, the Cherokee in Phoenix have had an event for over 70 years, the Oneida's in New York pay respect to the food they consider a gift, and the list goes on and on in North America. Strawberry bread is most certainly highlighted during these celebrations. The traditional flavors are carried on using techniques passed on through the generations and stories.
When I was crafting my recipe, I was inspired by the original Indigenous recipe. Though my strawberry bread tastes more like strawberry cake, it is one of my favorite snacks.