Monday, March 16, 2015

Iroquois White Corn Project Food Shoot

  Shé:kon, sewakwé:kon! I hope you're all well this winter, and finding enough inspiration to bring you warmth through this last stretch before spring. Though it can be difficult facing the cold temperatures and lack of sunshine, I think there remains a beauty to be found in the stillness, the quiet, and the knowledge that Mother Earth is resting, taking a long, deserved nap before everything comes back to life again. And the maple sap is starting to run, so spring will be here soon!

  I want to say thank you again for reading, or following the blog, Facebook page, or Instagram page. I hope you've been able to glean some knowledge here, perhaps find inspiration for different ways of thinking about food and our relationships to creation, or maybe you just like food and pretty pictures. :) Regardless, it's wonderful to have company while on this research, and personal, journey. It's been a few months since I have posted here, but I'm glad to be back writing again. Since I last blogged, I graduated from the first-year Yonkhiyana'tón:nis Mohawk Language Immersion Program, completed a printed picture book with 50 food graphics, recordings, and words (a community service project involving Mohawk language and foods), finished a photography shoot with the Iroquois White Corn Project, and, sadly, my family saw my beautiful grandmother off to the spirit world after an illness just before Christmas. She was a wonderful, kind, giving, and loving woman to whom I owe much of my inspiration and gratitude for many of these writings, teachings, and experiences.

About Ganondagan and the Iroquois White Corn Project
  In the fall, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with the Iroquois White Corn Project, an initiative of the non-profit group, Friends of Ganondagan and the Ganondagan State Historic Site. The longhouse site and farmhouse are located in Victor, New York, just south of Rochester. Ganondagan - Seneca translation: "Town of Peace" - is a Native American historical site dating back to the seventeenth century, once inhabited by thousands of Haudenosaunee/Seneca people. In 1687, the French Marquis de Denonville Campaign destroyed the village, burning down over five hundred thousand bushels of white corn. In the 1980's, Site Manager, G. Peter Jemison sought to revitalize the history and land at the Ganondagan site, establishing the Friends of Ganondagan in 1989, gaining recognition from the Bureau of Historic Sites, and rebuilding a Seneca bark longhouse in 1997 (G. Peter Jemison lecture). In 2011, the Iroquois White Corn Project was introduced. The latest development at Ganondagan will be the opening of the new Seneca Art and Culture Center, coming in July 2015. In anticipation of the grand opening and website updates, I was asked by Meg, Executive Director of Ganondagan, to photograph their food products and recipes and to cover their annual corn husking bee. It was exciting to have the opportunity to work with the great people involved with the project, and to be contributing to a truly important traditional agriculture initiative!

  You see, the genesis of this project finds its roots in John Mohawk's and Yvonne Dion-Buffalo's dream from years ago. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, Dr. John Sotsisowah Mohawk was a renowned Seneca scholar, farmer, elder, teacher, and friend to many, and a founder of the American Studies program at the University at Buffalo. It was his vision to see the Iroquois white corn as not merely a treat or occasional dish served during ceremonial or social gatherings, but a regular staple, a part of our daily diets. He believed that eating our original foods had the capacity to heal and reverse many Indigenous health afflictions. Discussing the high rates of diabetes for indigenous peoples, Mohawk wrote, "The 'cure' for the malady, it turns out, has been with them all along. It lies in their own indigenous foods" (Barreiro 20). Indeed, we are seeing this happen in many indigenous diet initiatives happening around Indian Country, the latest with the Healthy Roots initiative in Six Nations, where a group of participants have undertaken a three-month challenge to eat only indigenous foods.

A woven tapestry with John Mohawk's picture
hangs in the farmhouse,overseeing
the processing and meals shared. 
  In addition to his scholarship, he sought to pursue ways in which he could revitalize Haudenosaunee food traditions. From 1997 to 2006, he established, and maintained alongside his wife Dr. Dion-Buffalo, the Pinewoods farming community at the Cattaraugus reservation where the corn was grown and regularly eaten (IWCP website). He often developed recipes - breads, pancakes, and soups - and looked for new and exciting ways to prepare and cook the corn and corn flours. More than simply agriculture and cooking, Mohawk also envisioned a type of sovereignty within this activity, that the self-sufficiency and economic potential within this type of food production held a key to support Native nationhood and economic independence, shifting our dependence on the global economy back to the local for a moment. Addressing a conference in 2006, he spoke on this matter: "I think this is why the food value in Indigenous, heritage foods is far greater than the food value in commercial food. The food value in commercial food is weighed in dollars, and the food value in heritage foods is weighed in something we might call life force. Somehow it was built around life" (Nelson 175). He recognized both the nutritional and economic value in returning to original, "slow" foods. Unfortunately, some time after giving this address, Sotsisowah passed away and joined his wife who died the year prior, and the activity came to a halt.

  Not wanting to see the dream dissolve, G. Peter Jemison, Ganondagan Site Manager, recently brought new life to the project by relocating it and linking it with the Ganondagan State Historic Site in 2011. The Iroquois White Corn Project (IWCP) reinvigorates Mohawk's vision and seeks to revitalize Native agricultural production of Iroquois white corn, to restore Native culture, health, and diet by improving accessibility and convenience, and to provide a market for a unique, non-genetically modified heritage food product. The IWCP grows the 1,400-year-old white corn on site (3.4 acres of corn in the 2014 growing season) and also purchases from local, traditional Native farmers who withhold use of pesticides and chemicals. Nearly all of the processing of the corn is done by hand, including: planting, picking, husking, braiding, and processing. I'll be sharing more about the processing in a future blog post next month. Project Manager, Kim General-Morf, oversees all of these processes, coordinates outreach at events, and prepares a delicious feast of food! What an incredible time it was to work with Kim, Meg, Pete, Jeanette, and the staff!

Pictured at the top left: Meg Joseph, Ganondagan Executive Director
Bottom left: Pete Jemison, Ganondagan Manager and founder
Right: Kim General-Morf, IWCP Project Manager

The Husking Bee
  On a cloudy October morning, we arrived at the Rickard Farm on the Tuscarora Nation Reservation for their annual husking bee. We were invited to husk at the beautiful, rustic barn dating back to Chief Clinton Rickard's time and used often by Norton and his family. Piles and piles of just-picked white corn waited to be husked, the husks a pale yellow color to complement the vibrant fall foliage that surrounded us. Friends, families, relatives, and visitors gathered around, sitting on bales of straw, catching up on recent goings-on, telling stories, befriending new people, and husking away at the mountains of corn. The little ones helped out, eager to tear off the husks and assist their parents, or they ate apples picked from the nearby farm, played with new friends, or taunted the dog. Elders talked about past husking bees and told stories about people they remembered. A young family spoke to each other in Mohawk, their baby boy taking in the whole scene, taking turns on people's laps. Others sat quietly and concentrated on carefully peeling the delicate layers of husk down to the last three leaves to reveal long, even rows of cream-colored kernels. I had a brief moment to sit down and husk corn with Pete. He explained how difficult it can be to grow the corn organically, especially when there are hungry deer and invasive plant species nearby as some of the Ganondagan corn became casualty to. Later on, I went to visit the few spots on the reservation where the corn was growing in some of the reservation fields. It's remarkable how much hard work is involved in this type of farming and to think about how our ancestors have done it for so long.

Marlene's amazing Venison Stew!
  The day moved along while the sun tried his best to show himself and make it just a little warmer. For those who needed a break, the Rickards came prepared. We were greeted by a phenomenal spread of delicious food, including two different kinds of traditional Iroquois corn soup, venison stew with meat that had been freshly hunted by George's older son, local apple cider, scones, and a variety of pies for dessert. People visited and enjoyed the delightful feast, grateful for warm food on a chilly day. It was a generous gift in exchange for a few hours of work. Soon, after we worked through the piles on the barn floor, they brought in even more wagons full of corn fresh from the fields. Then it was time to braid the cobs for hanging so they could dry properly before use. The corn is husked except for three or four leaves for braiding, and people gladly sat down and braided for a while. One man had a huge bundle he was braiding, starting with just a few cobs at first, and gradually weaving in more corn, adding in husks for reinforcement. It was beautiful to see the previous year's corn hanging from the rafters of the barn, giant braids of corn; the work of community, friendship, love, and tradition proudly on display.

  As you can see, many hands go into the care, processing, and cooking which makes enjoying it all the more special. I think this is part of what John Mohawk was talking about when he said that these foods are measured in "life force," it is no exaggeration. It's a lot of work for one person to grow and harvest this corn alone, but the idea that a community comes together to care for a food that nourishes and sustains us, and connects us to our ancestral land and creation, is a life force in itself.

Finally, the Food!
  And speaking of the food... it was so much fun to wear my food photographer hat for a day! The day after the corn husking bee, my husband and I packed up my equipment and drove to the Ganondagan farmhouse. It was another frigid fall day where you could feel the season beginning to turn, but the fields and woods were magnificent shades of burnt orange, crimson red, and cool yellow and the farmhouse looked simply pastoral. When we showed up, we found Kim in the kitchen cooking up a storm of dishes. She prepared her food creations with a confidence, she obviously knew her recipes inside and out, and she did so with ease and skill. There were three different pots of soup she was cooking simultaneously, while she prepped enchiladas and salads for the shoot. She hand-roasted peppers over the flames of the burners, chopped countless vegetables, and carefully layered enchiladas. Then she brought out a whole spread of baked goods to be photographed, made the day before, including pancakes, muffins, cookies, and breads. Most of the recipes I photographed are up on their newly revamped website here. If you're feeling brave, they are always looking for recipe submissions and you may be featured as recipe of the month!

  If you are interested in learning more about the Iroquois White Corn Project, or scheduling your own visit or to volunteer, check out the website or their Facebook page. The Ganondagan State Historic Site opens for the season on May 2nd, 2015, and the grand opening of the new Seneca Art and Culture Center will be held on July 25, 2015 to coincide with their Annual Music and Dance Festival on July 25th and 26th. Check it out! I hope to see you there!

In the kitchen with Kim!
**Allergy/Diet Key: VT= Vegetarian, VG= Vegan, GF= Gluten-free, DF= Dairy-free**

  • Cornmeal Cookies (VT): What can I say? My husband really enjoyed these! This basic cookie recipe highlights the flavor and texture of the corn flour.

  • Blueberry White Corn Muffins (VT): A basic muffin recipe, these are listed on the website as White Corn Cherry Muffins, but I think you can just substitute the fruit.

  • Pork Chili with Iroquois White Corn (GF/DF): I absolutely loved this recipe and will make it someday when I'm brave enough to roast peppers over open flames! It reminded me of a delicious, hearty pasta dish with its sweet tomato flavor, chunks of meat, and the texture of the corn. I'd have never thought of mixing the white corn with tomato sauce!

  • Three Sisters Salad (VT/VG/GF/DF): Jeanette came up with the idea of incorporating some of the Ganondagan longhouse artwork into some of the food shots and she found these exquisite three sisters corn husk dolls to go with this appropriately-named dish. This salad is a delicious treat that would be perfect for a summer picnic or for a day when you want to get your veggie intake up.

  • Green Chile Veggie Enchiladas (VT/GF): I couldn't believe how gorgeous this dish turned out once we plated it. I had a few nibbles of this one to sample and I just loved the sauce and layers of squash and corn. Delicious!

  • Three Sisters Posole (VT/VG/GF/DF): This was another three sisters-inspired, hearty vegetarian soup that fit the cool fall season and day exactly. It had a great warmth to its flavor with the inclusion of cinnamon, cumin, and jalapeno. 

  • Gluten-Free White Corn Pizza Dough (VT/GF): This recipe took some time and effort to make, but it was really worth it! I broke my dairy-free rule to sample it, and it hit the spot. A smaller pizza, its texture was like crispy, pan pizza crust and it held up well with all the toppings. My, how I've missed pizza these past few years! I'm sure it could be made without the cheese or with a vegan cheese.

  • Four Directions Cookie (VT): I didn't get to sample these cookies on site, but I did pull off a gluten-free/dairy-free tested version with a garbanzo/potato flour blend, coconut oil, coconut sugar, and honey. These were awesome, and addictive! The nutty flavor of the roasted corn flour really stands out in these.

  • Iroquois Corn Granola Bars (VT/VG/GF/DF): I've made these several times and had some trouble with the original recipe in terms of crumbling and holding together. After some modifications, the removal of xanthan gum, and the addition of almond flour and coconut oil, these came together well. I instructed a cooking class using this recipe last month, and it was a lot of fun!

  • Roasted Cornmeal Pancakes (VT): I didn't get the chance to sample these as they aren't gluten free (yet), but they look like a great pancake. So many wonderful ideas and potential using these flours!

  What a treat it was running around from kitchen to porch, playing with props and lighting, enjoying the scenery, cooking up new recipes, and getting to hang out with some great people! Nia:wen!


Barreiro, Jose, ed. John Mohawk, "Wild and Slow: Nourished by Tradition." p. 20-23. Thinking in Indian: A John Mohawk Reader. Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 2010.

Iroquois White Corn Project website. About: White Corn Project History.

Jemison, G. Peter. Presentation: "Ganondagan: Three Decades Managing the Town of Peace." 24 September 2014.

Nelson, Melissa K., ed. John Mohawk, "From the First to the Last Bite: Learning From the Food Knowledge of Our Ancestors." p. 170-179. Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future. Rochester, VT: Bear and Company, 2008.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great post. I've been enjoying some of their white corn flour I bought at the World on Your Plate Forum. It's delicious and have such a nice texture.