Last week, I participated in several conversations about Choctaw history, culture and foods. I have chronicled their culture in the past and continue to research the Choctaw Trail of Tears, a segment of which ran through northwest Starkville. However, I have not written specifically about Choctaw foods and dishes.
The Choctaw of the early 1800s, represented by those who lived in what is now the Starkville-Columbus area, were a civilized and cultured people. This was reflected in their dinner. While the food and preparation was mostly traditional, the serving pieces were forks, spoons and knives as well as English Staffordshire plates, bowls and pitchers. An account from 1822 even mentions “a neat linen” spread out on the dinner table.
A staple of the Choctaw diet was corn. Different types of corn were planted, including a “flint or flour corn” which contained both white and blue kernels. According to John Swanton in his Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians, this corn was used for roasting the cobs. Swanton also mentioned that the Choctaws had popcorn.
Corn was also used to make cornbread or to fry bread. The corn would be ground in a wooden mortar. Lye made from the ashes of bean husks, corn silk or oak was used to make tomfullah a corn porridge or to make hominy. Other vegetables included beans, squash, and pumpkin. Vegetables were sometimes stored in baskets of split cane. Sweet potatoes were very popular. Hickory nuts were cracked, ground and boiled to extract the oil. The oil was then sometimes used to flavor corn.
In Captain John Stuart’s 1831 publication of A Sketch of the Cherokee and Choctaw Indians, Stuart stated that the Indians raised cattle, hogs, sheep, and poultry. Wild game was also hunted. Honey-marinated deer was a popular meat recipe.
The inventory of property in the 1836 Lowndes County estate file of Tisha Homa, a Choctaw captain, included a list of cooking and dining utensils. They included two brass kettles, two cooking pots, an oven, nine plates, a pitcher, a pewter saucepan, a bucket of water, and a set of knives and forks. By 1800, the Choctaws ate from English-made dinner plates with their traditional pottery used as utilitarian tableware. Some use of pewter plates continued until the early 1800s.
Surface collections from three Choctaw house sites circa 1810 to 1832 in Lowndes County show a wide range of English earthenware cups, bowls and plates mainly from Staffordshire. Transfer-printed pieces in blue, red, black, and brown were popular. There were fragments of hand-painted blue and white crockery and small multicolored floral designs. Blue wares decorated with “shell” edges were also popular. I have found fragments of a vegetable plate and bowl made by James Clews of Staffordshire, England between 1825 and 1834 at two different Choctaw sites. The model is Lafayette Landing in Castle Garden New York. This is a dark blue transfer printed earthenware. The Choctaw ware was as beautiful if not better than the ware used in Columbus at the same time.
What was it like dining with the local Choctaw Indians in the 1820s? One such dinner was described by a Mr. Hood, a missionary from the Mayhew Choctaw Mission. In 1822 he dined with Moshulitubbee, one of the principal Choctaw chiefs, and described his meal: “On entering the hall, I was not a little surprised to see a table laid with so much order. A clean cloth was spread out on the table, and on it was well-cooked, fatty beef. Also, sweet potatoes, cornbread, imported tea and wild honey. The only thing that was Choctaw was a large native bowl of tomfullah (maize porridge), with two spoons made of buffalo horns…After we were seated, the king, through his interpreter, asked me to ask for a blessing. It was a meal not unlike that served at any Columbus home of that era.
The Preservation Society of Columbus announced that a “Lunch and Learn: The Native American Experience” event that is part of the Columbus Pilgrimage Jubilee of Homes will include “a Native American cuisine lunch.”
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. Send your local history questions to Rufus at [email protected]