March 16, 2010

The Wabanaki way

— The way Chef John Marcellino sees it, history will be repeating itself July 28 when he prepares an old-fashioned clambake in Bristol Mills for ''Wabanaki Days.''

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John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Tuesday, July 8, 2008. Indian food illustration.

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Marcellino, known as ''Chef John'' on his Cape Cod cooking show, is a member of the Wampanoag tribe in Mashpee, Mass. The 17th-century Wampanoags were a generous people whose compassion for the Pilgrims kept them from starving. They shared their food and their knowledge of indigenous foods with the new arrivals.

''They wanted (the Pilgrims) to survive, and they wanted to feed them, and they didn't want them to suffer because when one had food, everyone had food. That's the way it worked for the Wampanoags,'' Marcellino said.

The Wampanoag tribe lives in Massachusetts, but Marcellino will be sharing their history with Mainers during Wabanaki Days, an annual festival that honors the native residents of the Pemaquid and Damariscotta region in midcoast Maine. This year's event, which runs July 22-28, features demonstrations of native crafts, storytelling, concerts, field trips and historic dramas.

Marcellino will prepare a traditional Wampanoag clambake as well as roast venison on wooden skewers to teach American Indian cooking techniques to modern-day Americans. You'll be able to sample both the meat and the seafood he prepares at the event.

''We're also going to be doing some popcorn covered with maple syrup, which was a traditional snack amongst the Native Americans,'' Marcellino said.

Food will be a major focus at this year's Wabanaki Days festival. There will be a program on culinary plants used by the Indians, and some local restaurants will be offering native dishes on their menus. On July 26, folks can chow down at a potluck featuring only indigenous foods -- no apples or dairy allowed, since those foods were introduced here by Europeans.

On the same day Marcellino shares his knowledge of Wampanoag cuisine, Kerry Hardy will talk about the natural foodways of the Wabanaki people here in Maine. Hardy is a local author who became so fascinated by the Wabanaki culture he immersed himself in it for three years. His new book on the topic, ''Notes on a Lost Flute: A Field Guide to the Wabanaki,'' will be published early next year.

''When we're exposed to this stuff going through school,'' Hardy said, ''any indigenous peoples are often portrayed as hunter-gatherers, which suggests a great deal of luck in the whole thing, or just sort of aimlessly wandering around. Or sometimes you even hear the word 'nomadic,' and that's so far from the truth.

''What they did was treat the whole landscape like a farm in terms of knowing what grew there, and sometimes helping it grow, then go to where they needed to in the landscape at the right time of year to collect the food that was there.''

The Wabanaki moved between three general food-gathering areas, according to Hardy. The most important places were villages with lots of cleared land near the head of tide on a major river -- places like Damariscotta. These were the best places to harvest anadramous fish, one of their most important food sources.

In high summer, the Wabanaki would move to coastal islands or peninsulas to gather lobsters, clams and striped bass, and to hunt for seals. Lobsters were speared on shore, and the meat was often dried. Burned-off land produced lots of blueberries. Wildflowers such as wood lily and Solomon's seal were gathered for their edible roots.

''They figured out long ago that most of the wildflowers we have here, their survival strategy is to store all of their surplus food energy at the end of the growing season in a succulent root,'' Hardy said. ''And that root, even when the top of the flower is gone in fall, winter and early spring, is really a bundle of goodness in many cases.''

In the fall, family groups moved back to the main village for the harvest and to get ready for the eel migration.

''Eel was the single biggest food of all for them, in all likelihood,'' Hardy said. ''They would eat fresh eel all September and October, and they would preserve eel until it ran out in about mid-January.''

The Wabanaki stayed in the village as long as the food held out, waiting for the right time to go to the winter hunting camp. The snow had to be deep enough to slow down deer or moose without hobbling hunters on snowshoes.

The Wabanaki diet was both diverse and -- to their palates, at least -- tasty.

''The seasoning was mostly either bear fat, seal fat or raccoon fat -- their equivalent of butter, and the taste just as good to them as the best cream butter is to us,'' Hardy said. ''Once you rendered that and converted it to oil, that could be kept tied up in something like a moose bladder or the large intestine of a seal, some container that you could tie off and keep bacteria from aging it. They could keep bear oil or seal oil for months in these containers.''

Maple sugar sometimes seasoned stews.

Marcellino said the Wampanoags used ''very, very few'' seasonings.

''They would use some herbs they were growing here, (such as) rosemary,'' he said. ''They also cooked, actually, with a lot of dried berries, and I personally think it was used as part of the preservative as well. But (they used) very few spices other than salt.''

The Wapanoags' clambakes used seaweed that imparted the flavor of the Atlantic Ocean. They'd first heat stones in a fire for a few hours until they were extremely hot. They placed seaweed on top of the stones, followed by the scallops, quahogs or other shellfish they had gathered as a family. Cod and other whole fish could be cooked this way as well. It was all covered with a deerskin and allowed to steam.

Marcellino is convinced that learning about the foods native peoples ate, and how they prepared it, says a lot about where they came from and how their tribe developed.

''My true belief is that there is no better way to convey a culture of people than through food,'' he said. ''I think their food really expresses who they are.''

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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