When she handed me the innocent, white piece of paper, Liz Charlebois did so with a little hesitation, and with an air of gravity.
“This is very, very sacred,” she warned me. It was, after all, her original, homemade, squash soup recipe, perfected over the years.
The squash she recommends for the soup is homemade too in the deepest sense of the word. Buffalo Creek squash, or winter squash, is an indigenous food, Charlebois explained. It’s a gourd that is native to North America and is also a traditional food for people who, like her, are indigenous, or Native American.
“It definitely originated here,” she said. “It was brought from the Seneca people here traveling – they brought it to the settlers.”
Charlebois, who is Abenaki, is helping others access this and other indigenous foods through her position at the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum, where she is the education director.
“We talk about our foods whenever we do a tour,” Charlebois said. She explains to visitors about the “Three Sisters” companion planting tradition, where indigenous people plant corn, squash and beans close together in a mound.
The three different plants provide different benefits for each other – the corn gives a structure for the beans to climb, the bean plant provides nitrogen for rich soil, and squash spreads as it grows, preventing weeds.
Charlebois said museum visitors can see this technique in action in the garden, planted next to the driveway behind the abutting Little Nature Museum building. There’s also a plot at the Hopkinton Fairgrounds.
If anyone is really interested in learning about the planting aspect, Charlebois said volunteers are always needed for tending the gardens.
The museum also maintains an informal seed bank – a shelf with various jars of preserved seeds – for anyone interested in growing indigenous foods.
“In order to get seeds from this library, we don’t charge them,” Charlebois said. “What we do ask is they keep the seed variety pure.” And that a portion of the harvest comes back to the museum, she added, so she can preserve those seeds for future seasons.
If people want to try indigenous foods without raising the plants themselves, Charlebois said they can attend museum events, such as the Winter Gathering scheduled for Dec. 3. At those events, she regularly makes and serves food like her squash soup, a wild rice dish with squash and cranberries, plus something called wojape, a cooked berry dish.
“It’s sort of like a jam but you don’t put sugar in it,” she said.
Many of the berries and other food ingredients are wild edibles grown and harvested on museum grounds Charlebois added.
In the future, Charlebois hopes she’ll be able to offer cooking classes at the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum, too.
If you can’t access any of those opportunities in time for, say, a newspaper column, but still want to have some indigenous food, people like Charlebois may welcome you into their homes and, ever so generously, cook for you.
She made her famous squash soup in her Warner apartment recently. Sitting over a bowl of the finished stuff, I remarked how fragrant it was with spices. It also had a noticeable (and delicious) full-bodied taste of squash.
Liz’s Squash Soup
6 pounds diced winter squash
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large sweet onion
Sea salt and cracked black pepper
2 cups vegetable broth
½ cup honey
2 teaspoons ginger
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup heavy cream
Coat squash in olive oil, salt and pepper. Bake at 425 degrees until soft (approximately 35 minutes).
While squash is cooking, melt butter in a big pot. Add peeled, diced apples and diced onion to butter. Saute until soft and set aside. When ready, add squash to pot with apples and onions. Add broth, honey, ginger and nutmeg.
Simmer until everything is soft, then blend with an immersion blender (and try not to spatter too much). Stir in cream, further blending. Simmer additional 10 minutes, then serve.