2013 population: 16,359; 46.4% white, 29.2% Native American. Per capita income: $17,056.
Tahlequah, legend has it, is derived from the Cherokee word "Ta'ligwu," which means "two is enough". According to the legend, after the Cherokee people arrived in Oklahoma, upon finishing their trek along the Trail of Tears, there was to be a meeting with three tribal elders for them to decide upon a location for the Nation's new permanent capital. Only two of the elders showed up, so they decided that two was enough, and made the decision themselves. In 1839, Tahlequah was named the capital of two Cherokee tribes based out of Oklahoma: the Cherokee Nation, and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, and remains the capital of both to this day. The oldest public building in the state is located in Tahlequah: the Cherokee Supreme Court Building.
Tahlequah has a Cherokee language immersion school, and children from elementary school age through middle school age are taught 100% in Cherokee. This causes some issues, however, when students are tested for statewide testing, they are tested in English, and therefore do not do as well. When they graduate to high school, classes are taught bilingually, however. Most street signage in Tahlequah is also bilingual. The Cherokee language is part of the Iroquois language group, and is one of the first Native American languages to have been written down. A Cherokee silversmith by the name of Sequoyah, or Ssiquoya, created a syllabary(alphabet) in 1821, and it was officially adopted by the Cherokee Nation in 1825.
The original Cherokee Nation was first recognized by the United States government in 1794, until 1907. Prior to their removal by the United States government to Oklahoma, the Nation's territory extended from Texas to North and South Carolina, and up from Tennessee down to Georgia and Alabama. The Cherokee, along with the Seminole, the Choctaw, the Creek, and the Chickasaw, were what is referred to as the "Five Civilized Tribes" by the United States government. They were called this because they adopted many of the traits that the United States favored, such as conversion to Christianity, slave ownership, a centralized government, and intermarriage with white people.
So, how did a large, well-organized group of people come to live in Oklahoma when they had enjoyed such a large territory? Well, in 1830, the United States government passed the Indian Removal Act. This would remove all of the "Five Civilized Tribes," one by one, from their territories and move them all to Oklahoma. The route they took would become known as the "Trail of Tears". The first instance of this term comes from the removal of the Chocktaw Nation in 1831.
The Food: The Other Side of Thanksgiving
You might be asking yourself why I chose to celebrate this horrible moment in history at this particular holiday. Well, I don't consider this a celebration of the Trail of Tears, or what was done to the Cherokee or any other Native American tribe in our long, and mostly sad, history between the United States government and the Native Americans. I know a lot of people struggle with allowing themselves to enjoy Thanksgiving, knowing what we are responsible for. I don't know how much of the original story of Thanksgiving is actually true, and how much of it is myth, but I like to think of it as a moment in time in which we had many paths to choose from. Paths in which we worked together with other groups of people, and lifted ourselves up equally and coexisted peacefully and lovingly. Ultimately, though, we did not take that path, but chose a path of ignorance and selfishness and hatred. But for that one moment, all things were possible. I think it's a good time to not only look at what we have in our lives to be grateful for, but to also remind ourselves to choose the path of peace and love and working together.
The state of Oklahoma is difficult to find, shall we say, culinary gems that I wanted to feature on this blog, so that meant looking outside of the usual Euro-centric cultures that I too-often default to. I remembered a piece of information from school about the Trail of Tears ending in Oklahoma, and that's where I started my research. I looked up my schedule for when Oklahoma was going to be featured, and saw it was the weekend after Thanksgiving, and thought it was a sign that it was meant to be. But this presented some other issues. What to eat? I had resisted for this entire project, the idea of doing fry bread for a Native American food post. I have wanted to feature more Native American food, but so much of it is so obviously post-Columbian in nature that I wasn't sure I wanted to go there. Unfortunately, I had very little luck finding anything doable that was pre-Columbian. This was one of the first times I talked over a blog post with somebody else prior to doing it. I talked to my friend, Mika, and expressed my concerns and issues. I only wanted to feature Native American food if I could do it with the utmost respect, and honor it as best as I could. It isn't my culture, after all. Whenever I write about a meeting of two cultures in this project, I present it as a good thing to celebrate, but how do you celebrate this particular meeting of cultures? Her suggestion was to just go for it, and express my misgivings, and that it is a celebration, of sorts. A celebration that, in spite of all that was done to them, and all the people and land lost over the years, the Cherokee, and other tribes, are still here. They were not wiped out entirely, and though they are not nearly what they were before, they still exist. The United States government failed in their attempts to wipe them all out, and that, is deserving of a celebration, in my opinion. And so, I decided to do the fry bread, because if there is one dish I would assign as "Native American" more than any other, it would be fry bread. Each tribe seems to have their own recipe, and within the tribes, each family probably has their own take on it as well. Mika also helped me find some other recipes to try, and I ended up with four! It was a proper feast. All the recipes come from the internet, and I will include the links in the sources section at the end of this blog.
I think this is the first time I have done a beverage for this blog project. I ran across a recipe that sounded so unusual to me I knew I had to try it. I figured it would either be the best thing or the worst thing I've ever had, and I was lucky that it turned out to be amazing! Here is the recipe:
1 cup cornmeal(the recipe calls for blue or white but my store only had yellow. I opted for the medium grind and I think that was a good call.)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
Pour the cornmeal out onto an ungreased sheetpan and put into a 425 degree oven for 10-15 minutes. Every few minutes, take the pan out and stir the cornmeal around. This will brown very quickly and mine actually got to the edge of burned, but was still ok. It may smoke, so make sure to turn on your stove's fan or you may set off your fire alarm. When it's toasted, pour it onto a plate or another sheetpan to cool off.
When the cornmeal is cool, combine it with the sugar and cinnamon and mix well. When you are ready to drink, heat one cup of milk and one Tablespoon of the cornmeal mixture over medium heat for 15-20 minutes. You don't really want it to boil, and make sure to stir often.
This was a crazy good drink. It almost smelled like chocolate, and the cinnamon tasted really good. The texture is really rich and you think you're drinking something really unhealthy, but it's just because the cornmeal softens and has a really amazing texture. You will need to stir it often while drinking, but I was surprised at how much I liked this drink. The mix makes a lot, and I'll keep it around for special treats.
Cherokee Fry Bread
1 cup flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup milk
Mix the ingredients in a medium bowl, adding more flour to make a stiff dough.(I found mine needed almost an entire cup more.) Roll out the dough onto a floured board as thin as possible. Cut into strips 2" x 3" (I used a pizza cutter to do this) and fry in an inch or so of oil over medium heat. Brown on both sides.
My first batch was flat, but all the rest bubbled up more like fry bread is supposed to. I think the oil wasn't quite hot enough for the first batch. I loved watching these bubble when you put them in the oil. They were sort of like a cross between a pancake and a tortilla. They were awesome!! I ate them plain but the recipe said you could add honey if you wanted.
In my search for an entree, I kept running across something called "Cherokee Chicken". I'm always a little wary of recipes with titles like these. If they are authentic at all, they've usually been Americanized beyond recognition, but I found a recipe for it on a Native American message board, so I felt a little better about using it. It was super simple and used ingredients I was familiar with, but put them together in such a unique way that I was was just really impressed with the result. It's also Thanksgiving-worthy, as you'll see...
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 garlic clove, minced
2 Tbsp. butter or margarine
2 Tbsp. minced onion
1 green pepper, minced
Salt/pepper to taste
1 frying chicken, disjointed (I bought two chicken breasts, with skin and bones, because my store didn't have a whole chicken and I didn't really need that much. Because of this I cut the recipe in half and it worked out just fine)
8 oz. can whole cranberry sauce (Because I try to limit my sugar intake, this was a place to cut out sugar by making my own cranberry sauce. I made my own with a bag of cranberries, about a half cup of unsweetened applesauce, a teaspoon of lemon juice, and about 1/2 cup of water used to rinse out the jar of applesauce and boiled it all in a pan until the berries popped and everything got nice and thick.)
Heat oil and butter in a 12" skillet. (I used a large pan with a lid. A Dutch oven would have been awesome for this too, if I had one.) Add chicken; cook until golden brown on all sides.
Remove chicken from the pan and move to a plate. Pour off all but 2 Tbsp. fat. Add green pepper, garlic and onion; cook until soft. Add cranberry sauce, salt and pepper. Return chicken to the pan and turn a couple times to cover all sides in the sauce. Cover, simmer 25 minutes. Every once in a while, turn the chicken to continue flavoring all sides with the sauce.
Serves 4 to 6.
This was amazing! I was a bit concerned about the cranberries in this recipe. I mean, cranberries are native to this continent, but they are not found anywhere near where the Cherokee used to live or in Oklahoma, so why were they used in this recipe? There was a note on the message board that said the cranberries had come to be used instead of wild berries that were originally used in the recipe, so I felt better about using them. This definitely works in keeping with Thanksgiving flavors. And I think the homemade cranberry sauce kept it from being too sweet. This was worth every step it took to make this.
And as if all of these recipes weren't enough, I decided I needed a dessert too. I ran across a unique recipe that I was sure I could reduce the amount of sugar from and still have a good texture and flavor. It turns out I was right! I probably ate five of these tonight...
Cornmeal Cookies with Dried Cranberries
3/4 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar(I used 1/4 cup sugar and 1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce instead)
1 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1 tsp. baking power
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup dried sweetened cranberries
Cream the butter and sugar(and applesauce if using). Add the egg and vanilla and blend well. Stir in the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt until combined. Stir in the cranberries until well mixed.
Drop dough from tablespoon on a greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350° for about 15 minutes until lightly browned.(Mine were a little smaller than a Tablespoon and made two full dozen. I cooked them for slightly less time, maybe 12 minutes.)
Makes about 1 1/2 dozen.
You should be really jealous of me and the meal I ate tonight. Or, you could try out all the recipes yourself and you can partake of the amazingness as well! I had no idea cornmeal was so versatile. I have used it a lot over the last year during this project. I know corn is native to this continent, but there is something about cornmeal in particular that seems to be so very American. I used it in two very different ways tonight. Ways I have never used it before. Maybe it's another example of two worlds colliding. Instead of death and destruction, though, it created something amazing and beautiful. Perhaps I could look at it as a glimpse of the world we could have had, if we'd taken that other path so long ago when we'd first had the chance to...
Cornmeal Cookie Recipe
Fry Bread Recipe
Cherokee Chicken Recipe
Trail of Tears Map