The Native American population, including American Indians and Alaska Natives, once totaled nearly 24 million, with over 500 tribes. The diets of Native Americans varied by geographic region and climate. They lived in territories marked by specific natural boundaries, such as mountains, oceans, rivers, and plains. Hunting, fishing, and farming supplied the major food resources. Native Americans survived largely on meat, fish, plants, berries, and nuts.
The most widely grown and consumed plant foods were maize (or corn) in the mild climate regions and wild rice in the Great Lakes region. A process called nixtamalizacion (soaking dry corn in lime water) was used to soften the corn into dough, called nixtamal or masa. This was prepared in a variety of ways to make porridges and breads. Many tribes grew beans and enjoyed them as succotash, a dish made of beans, corn, dog meat, and bear fat . Tubers (roots), also widely eaten, were cooked slowly in underground pits until the hard tough root became a highly digestible gelatin-like soup. It is estimated that 60 percent of modern agricultural production in the United States involves crops domesticated by Native Americans.
Maple sugar comprised 12 percent of the Native American diet. The Native American name for maple sugar is Sinzibuckwud (drawn from the wood). Sugar was a basic seasoning for grains and breads, stews, teas, berries, vegetables. In the Southwest, the Native Americans chewed the sweet heart of the agave plant.
Many tribes preferred broth and herbed beverages to water. The Chippewa boiled water and added leaves or twigs before drinking it. Sassafras was a favorite ingredient in teas and medicinal drinks. Broth was flavored and thickened with corn silk and dried pumpkin blossoms. Native Americans in California added lemonade berries to water to make a pleasantly sour drink.
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