Published on June 9, 2012 by Amy
Food is a central part of many kinds of Choctaw gatherings. Families and friends come together around the table to celebrate birthdays, weddings, and reunions. Food prepared by family neighbors and friends is shared at wakes along with memories of loved ones who have passed on. Church meetings and school spring festivals include community meals. Tables are laden with homegrown vegetables, fried chicken and boiled pork, biscuits, sweet tea and homemade desserts. For generations, Mississippi Choctaws grew vegetables, raised livestock, hunted and fished to put food on the table. This was not uncommon in the rural south, but two dishes in particular, hominy and banaha, became staples of the Choctaw diet and are still traditional favorites.
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Hominy is made from corn that is dried in the husk. The dried kernels are removed from the cob and pounded in a kiti, a mortar made by burning a bowl-like indentation in a three or four foot section of a small tree trunk. This loosens the hulls on each kernel. It may be necessary to soften the hulls during the process by sprinkling them with a little water. Next, the corn is tossed in an open-ended basket called a fanner to loosen the hulls even more. Then it is sifted through a basket made specifically for that purpose. When all of the hulls have been separated from the kernels of corn, the hominy is ready to cook.
The traditional cooking process takes several hours, with the hominy simmering in a large iron pot over an open fire. The pot is filled with water that is brought to a boil. The dried hominy is added along with some kind of meat for flavoring. Some cooks use chicken, others pork, and still others a combination of the two. During the cooking time, someone must stir the hominy frequently to prevent scorching or burning. The fire requires attention, too. It needs to remain at a fairly even temperature, which means that wood must be added occasionally. It is not usual for cooks to bake biscuits in covered iron pots banked in the embers of the fire.
Before most Choctaw homes had electricity, food was prepared indoors on a wood burning stove or outside over an open fire. Whenever possible, people would often cook outdoors to avoid heating up the house and to minimize the danger of fire. Today, Choctaws still prepare hominy outside when cooking for large groups, not only because it is traditional, but because it is still the best way to ensure a proper cooking time. Banaha is another traditional dish that Choctaws enjoy. Like hominy, it contains ingredients that are affordable and could be grown at home during the hard times when store-bought, prepared foods were out of reach for most Choctaw families. Banaha is made by mixing cooked field peas with cornmeal. These ingredients are stirred into a mush and molded into small rectangles that will fit in the palm of the cook’s hand. The rectangles are then wrapped in dried cornhusks that have been softened by soaking in water. This wrapping is tied shut with a strip of cornhusk and dropped into boiling water for a few minutes. The combination of peas and cornmeal produces a complete protein, so banaha provided a high energy meal for hungry farm laborers. Choctaw cooks usually serve fried salt pork along with banaha to add flavor to the dish.