Today is Indigenous Peoples Day. I’ve felt this was an important day ever since its inception. Over the past few years it has become more personal, for several ways that indigenous peoples have played a role in my life. To honor the day and the people, I’m sharing a recipe for Grape Dumplings.Jump to Recipe
Roots & Research
Some of the foster children I cared for over the last three years have indigenous roots. I researched their culture and worked to instill a sense of pride for their rich heritage. It drove me to more deeply understand their culture, history and family traditions. And that journey enriched my own life immeasurably.
Another touchpoint relates to my genealogy hobby. I had long wondered if our family had Native American heritage because some of my relatives have some indigenous characteristics. This year, we discovered through a DNA test that we have native roots. I’m proud of this heritage and hope I can discover more through my research. It has not led to any conclusive details thus far as to a geographic or tribal connection but has provided some interesting trails to follow.
Art and Reflection
More recently, I visited Nashville with my eldest stepdaughter. We had a fun trip exploring the city in preparation for a family reunion. While there, we visited the Frist Art Museum, which had an amazing Native American exhibit. Exhibits ranged from traditional artisanal fashion and wares to art in diverse media—in installations large and small. Each told a story about tribal and Native American culture. Some explored the impact of European colonialism. All showed the strength and creativity of these peoples and the artists.
The exhibit was thought provoking and emotional. I’m so glad that indigenous artists are sharing their culture in new ways to keep tribal culture alive and to tell a story from a unique point of view. I don’t know where the exhibit is headed after it leaves the Frist, but if it comes to your community I highly recommend the experience.
A Little History
During research for a poetry project this summer, I learned about an Underground Railroad not many have heard of. It ran from U.S. to Mexico! Did you know Mexico abolished slavery decades before the U.S. did? During this time they welcomed Native Americans as well as former and escaped slaves. Seminoles, Black Seminoles and Kickapoo were among the peoples granted land in Mexico in the 1820s. They not only helped Mexico protect its borders but also reputedly worked an Underground Railroad funneling south into Mexico. According to researchers, records are difficult to uncover, but it’s known that thousands were brought to freedom through the network some call the Southern Underground Railroad.
American slave holders complained about losing slaves to Mexico, but nothing was done about the Mexican border. This may be because others smuggled slaves into the country from Cuba through Mexico, a lucrative—and illegal—undertaking. It’s possible my ancestors were involved on both sides of that border flow. It’s complicated to contemplate how this past impacted nations, communities, neighbors, and my ancestors. It’s just as difficult to explain how it impacts me today. I’m certain we must expand our perspectives to more deeply understand the totality of human experience. Exploring food is one small way to take the journey and experience other cultures.
A Little Food History
Native Americans have been making grape dumplings for centuries, but I just discovered them this spring. As part of a poetry project, I began researching Native American tribes in some specific regions and discovered this interesting dish. Several primarily Southeastern tribes made it, and each had their own variation: for example, some add an egg to the dough. (If you want to try an egg in your version, double this recipe and add one egg. Or go on over to Chickasaw.tv and get a Native American chef’s version, along with a lot of other Native American recipes.)
While the tradition survived, the recipe has changed over time. The original version appears to have been made by grinding corn to meal, mashing possum grapes and adding an ash and lye blend (I think the latter would be used the way we use baking powder today). Today, grape juice replaces harvesting of wild grapes. While different variants of grapes were used, possum grapes were most common. The grapes were so named because they “play Possum,” remaining bitter until after the first frost. Someday I’ll try mashing grapes, preferably the possum variety, but for now grape juice does the trick.
About Grape Dumplings
For my version, I used corn flour and grape juice. I wanted to try corn flour because of the history of the dish and because it is gluten-free. Most recipes call for added sugar, but I wanted to test it without. I drizzled honey and sprinkled powdered sugar over unsweetened samples. I recommend adding sugar or another sweetener directly into the dough for better flavor consistency. Try honey on it, though. I used honey my Florida-based brother gave me, collected from his thriving beehives. (I’ve also received pecans harvested from his pecan trees—yummy!)
This dish works on its own as a dessert, but it’s delightful with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. It reminded me of both homemade chicken dumplings and fruit cobbler. I’m definitely adding it into the dessert rotation, and I’m going to play with flours and sweeteners. I want to try different fruits and fruit blends—blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, peaches, apples…. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it!
“If everyone knew what grape dumplings was, then it wouldn’t just be a Chickasaw dish. It would be an American dish; it would be an international dish.”― Chef Steven Looney
- For dough:
- 1 C corn flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- dash salt
- 1 TBSP sugar
- 1 TBSP corn or other plant based oil
- ¾ C unsweetened grape juice
- Extra flour for rolling out dough
- For cooking:
- 3 to 4 C grape juice
- Toppings as desired:
- whipped cream
- vanilla ice cream
- Mix dry ingredients well, then add oil and grape juice and mix well.
- Lay dough out on floured surface and roll about 1/4 inch thick.
- Cut into approximately 1-inch squares.
- Heat grape juice on medium and reduce to simmer.
- Drop in dumplings.
- Stir sparingly, to ensure dumplings don’t stick. Grape juice will reduce and thicken as dumplings cook.
- Serve immediately with desired toppings.