Food and Plenty of the Lenni Lenape
By: Karen Dingle Kendus, Concord Township Historical Society
Ahh, Fall. School and club sports have been well under way since the last pieces of summer. School is in full swing, complete with midterms and homework. And Halloween, along with all the sugar addictions and stomachaches, has finally passed us. Most of us have slid comfortably into our busy routines, and are looking forward to some vacation and family time, right around the corner. As the days grow shorter, adults everywhere are mobilizing Grandma’s famous recipes for the feasts of modern Thanksgiving. As a lover of history, my mind invariably goes to those who came before us, and what they were thankful for. More than that, what did they eat and how did they prepare for the coming darkness and cold. After all, Thanksgiving is a final breath of plenty before we are thrust into the cold harsh winter months. We are no longer filling our pantries with foods that will keep us throughout the winter, or making sure we chop enough wood to keep us warm through the spring thaw. Modern conveniences have contributed to our ability to have our cake and eat it too. As a matter of fact, my main goal at this time of year is to make sure I don’t spend all my money on Christmas presents, thereby retaining enough money to buy food at the grocery store in the coming cold and dark months. So it is no wonder that I find fascination in how the original inhabitants of Concord Township managed to survive on just what the land could give them.
Concord Township was home to the Lenni Lenape or Delaware tribes. The Lenape consisted of three tribes, (or two, based on more recent research claiming that one tribe has a dialect so disparate, they cannot really be considered Lenape) based on the languages spoken in each group. Their land included all of what is now New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, southeastern New York State, northern Delaware and a small section of southeastern Connecticut. Those living in what is today Concord Township spoke the Unami dialect, separating them slightly from those living north of Philadelphia. Most Lenape lived in small bands of 25 to 50 people, while only a few lived in large villages of 200-300 inhabitants. The Lenape had three clans: Wolf, Turtle and Turkey. Descendants traced their linage through their mothers. Sons had to marry a woman from another clan, and any children from that union would belong to the mother’s clan.
Tightknit communities such as these believed in sharing food, much like Thanksgiving today. The most important planted crops were corn (“maize”), beans and squash, known as “The Three Sisters.” Corn on the cob was boiled, baked, or fried in bear grease. To make tortillas, women of the tribe would remove the kernels from the cob, ground them into a paste, and then shape them into patties. The patties were then wrapped in leaves to be baked or boiled. Corn also went into soup, bread, or pudding. Beans were boiled or fried. Some went into soups. Many were added to meat dishes. Squash could be boiled or baked whole. Soups included an array of wild herbs for flavoring. Meat dishes included greens. Berries were plentiful in this area of Pennsylvania, and while eaten by themselves, they were also sometimes added to breads and puddings.
Men and boys hunted while the women tended to their gardens. Pennsylvania had an array of wildlife including deer, bear, and rabbit. Animals were used for their meat, skins, and sinew. Bear fat was melted, purified, and stored in skin bags to be used for cooking later. Birds were also hunted, along with their eggs. Feathers were used for making colorful robes and mantles. In some areas, especially closer to the Delaware River, fishing was an option, and fish were also part of the diets of the Lenape.
It is difficult to imagine, but much of this food was useless if not properly processed and stored. There were no refrigerators or freezers. While storing excess for the winter months was crucial, there were also cases, in which the overabundance of produce had to be prepared and stored so the produce did not spoil. So the Lenape used preservation methods for conservation. Women tied ears of corn in bundles, and hung them from the ceilings of the houses to dry. Corn kernels and beans were stored in skin or woven bags. Pumpkins and other squash were cut into rings and hung up to dry in the sun. For winter storage, some women dug deep wide holes in the earth and lined them with mats or grasses to keep out mice and dirt. They would then store dried meat, dried fish, nuts, and other dried edibles. Nuts were collected in October and November. Fish and meat could be dried, either in the sun or smoked over a fire. Dried meat could last a long time. When it was time to cook these preserved items, the dried vegetables and squash could be soaked in water until soft enough to eat, and the meat and fish could be eaten alone or added to stews and soups.
While historians are skeptical that today’s Thanksgiving was the same as that which was celebrated in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621, it is true that many of us still use November and Thanksgiving as a time for reflection and thanks. As the 2017 harvest draws to a close and family members from all over the country converge on family homes for quality time together, may you and yours be healthy and happy in the days to come!
Unknown Author. 2013. “Foods Eaten By the Lenape Indians.” Official Web Site of the Delaware Tribe of Indians. <http://delawaretribe.org/blog/2013/06/27/foods-eaten-by-the-lenape-indians/>. Accessed: October 23, 2017.
Unknown Author. 2014. “Who Were the Lenape?” Lenape Lifeways. <http://www.lenapelifeways.org/lenape1.htm>. Accessed: October 23, 2017.
Unknown Author. 2017. “Native Americans: Introduction to the Lenni Lenape, or Delaware Indians.” Penn Treaty Museum. <http://www.penntreatymuseum.org/americans.php>. Accessed: October 22, 2017.