Let's Talk Food: Make traditional bread of Seminole tribe

In 1952, when I arrived in Naples, I was fascinated by a Seminole Indian village just outside of town. The Osceola family lived here, headed by Chief Osceola, the patriarch and his tall, beautiful wife. Every Saturday afternoon, she would appear at the Naples Theater in Old Naples for the matinee dressed in full Seminole regalia.

Sixty years have passed, and the remaining Osceola's have blended into the community and the family home is long gone.

At festivals and fairs where food booths offered a variety of local treats, I became familiar with the Indian fry bread and, as a result, I became interested in the Seminole diet and authentic traditional food.

When Columbus came to these shores, he found foods that were totally unfamiliar to the European diet. The native people of both the North and South cultivated a vast variety of crops, gathered wild nuts and berries and feasted on an abundance of fish, fowl and game meats. This vast land yielded up more than a thousand different plants for food grown only on this continent.

Columbus, as the discoverer of the Americas, has mostly been forgotten for his discovery of foods that now represent more than 75 percent of the foodstuffs consumed by mankind throughout the world. Had it not been for Columbus, the Italians would not include tomatoes in hundreds of their dishes. The Irish would not have potatoes and the world's chocoholics would be bereft of their favorite sweet.

The American Indians have always considered food as more than sustenance. They have always lived in close harmony with nature, and their religious beliefs are based on the concept that the gods are embodied in the forces of nature and in all living things. Each and every plant and animal is considered sacred and the growing of food, its gathering, cooking and eating take on a spiritual aspect akin to prayer. Even the hunting of animals for food is considered a sacred act and is undertaken with reverence.

When the Seminoles came to Florida more than 200 years ago, they adapted their diets to the available food. The food they ate was a version of the traditional Southeastern Indian diet, including regional plants and animals; fry bread, alligator, swamp cabbage, coffee and sofkee, the Southeastern Indian's traditional drink of boiled corn or rice. Tropical fruits often accompanied the meal. Their fruits are guavas, sour oranges and limes, bananas, wild berries and plums.

When hunting is good in the Everglades the men bag deer, quail, wild turkey, opossum, rabbit, squirrel; while from the waters surrounding their villages they take fish, turtles and oysters. Pigs and chickens are raised in the villages and also provide food for the Seminoles.

Wild cassava is abundant in the Glades and is referred to as "God's gift to the Seminoles." This very nutritious root which tastes somewhat like arrowroot produces bread very much like wheat bread. Called koonti, it is the Seminoles staff of life. The root is mashed to a pulp in mortars cut into cypress logs called koonti logs. The starch is then separated from the pulp with s strainer. This process yields a yellowish-white flour used to bake their bright orange bread.

A few families still live in "chickees," a shelter without walls made with four poles, wooden floor and palm-thatched roof. Until millions of new Florida residents cut severely into the hunting and fishing, the Indians lived a peaceful life among the animals and birds of the Everglades. Now, most of the Seminoles in the region live in homes.

In their new homes, they have electric or gas ranges, but cooking is still done the old, primitive way deep in the reservations. Their traditional camp fires are unique and go back generations. Several logs are arranged like spokes of a wheel, with the fire at the hub. Ends of the long logs extend into the fire and are continually pushed over the flame as it burns the wood.

On a visit to Naples, my grandson, Justin, after visiting a Seminole village wanted to prepare a typical dish. I'm sure he would be delighted to share this recipe:

SEMINOLE PUMPKIN BREAD

Ingredients

12 oz. can pumpkin pie filling

2 cups self-rising flour

1 cup corn oil (less or more as needed)

Directions

1 Place flour in a large bowl and add pumpkin, a little bit at a time.

2 Mix with your hands to make a soft, pliable dough.

3 Dough should not be sticky and if it is add more flour.

4 Shape dough into a pancake-like piece, about 7-inches in diameter and about 1½ inches thick.

5 Heat the corn oil in a frying pan with sloping sides, and heat until a drop of water is sprinkled into it.

6 Slide the dough into the oil and allow to brown, turn and brown the other side.

7 Remove and drain.

Doris Reynolds is the author of "When Peacocks Were Roasted and Mullet Was Fried" and "Let's Talk Food." They are available for sale in the lobby of the Naples Daily News. Also available is a four-part DVD, "A Walk Down Memory Lane with Doris Reynolds. Contact Doris Reynolds at foodlvr25@aol.com.

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