A Beloved Indigenous Dessert Evolves With Each Generation

Rose Shields-Jefferson, a Chickasaw Nation elder and the firstborn of 13 children, leaned into her computer screen, her red and black beaded earrings swaying as she gave a conspiratorial smile.

“I’m not bragging, you know, but we’re good cooks.”

Mrs. Shields-Jefferson, 77, is well known in her community of Ada, Okla., for her grape dumplings, panki’ alhfola’ in the Chickasaw language, of which she is a native speaker. Don’t try asking for her exact formula, however. “We don’t use recipes, you know,” she said during a video chat. “I just know how to make it.”

This dessert has been a favorite among various southeastern Native tribes for centuries. The tender dumplings are coated by a warm, deeply purple sauce that explodes with an uncommon grapiness.

Originally made from balls of ground corn mush boiled in the juice of wild grapes and then mostly prepared with store-bought ingredients, these dumplings illustrate the evolution of Indigenous foodways, first with voluntary seasonal migration, then because of forced relocation, cultural exchanges and developments in the food system. Modern chefs and cooks are now renewing interest in the earliest recipes, which predate current movements to eat locally grown foods.

“There was a bounty to be eaten and foraged and had,” said Elise McMullen-Ciotti, a Cherokee Nation citizen and food studies graduate student at New York University. “There are records from settlers talking about the massive amounts of grapes when they showed up.”

Any dark grape can be pressed into juice for boiling dumplings, but traditional recipes call for possum grapes, a small, seedy and prolific variety found throughout southeastern woodlands. They are distinctively tangy with very little pulp and require foraging by discerning seekers.

In the absence of the real thing, most contemporary recipes call for bottled Concord grape juice. Possum grapes “are hard to come by,” Mrs. Shields-Jefferson said. “Like now, I don’t have any grapes in my freezer, so I got to go to Wal-Mart.”

The grapes aren’t the only ingredients that have changed. The austere cornmeal dumpling recipes of previous generations have largely been laid to rest by cooks who opt for sweeter ones made with wheat flour, sugar, baking powder and sometimes eggs. Some people even use Bisquick.

The transition from corn-based dumplings to wheat ones reflects changes in taste, but also may have been influenced by Indigenous contact with European settlers and enslaved Africans.

Matthew Raiford, with his wife, Tia, owns and runs Gilliard Farms in Brunswick, Ga., which is on land first bought by Mr. Raiford’s great-great-great grandfather after he was emancipated. Mr. Raiford sees a resemblance between grape dumplings and Southern fruit cobblers. “It’s a commingling of food systems that slowly got pushed together, like an evolvement,” he said.

Most Indigenous cooks today, like the venerable Mrs. Shields-Jefferson, proudly abide by wheat-based dumplings, while some are returning to cornmeal.

Ramon Shiloh, a Creek and Cherokee chef based in Tacoma, Wash., recalled a childhood memory of dumplings made by a woman at a powwow in California. They combined corn kernels with hazelnuts, grapefruit juice, grapes and cinnamon sugar. “The flavor was a dream, and I was hooked,” he said. He now uses cornmeal as a base for his take on grape dumplings.

“The old ones used corn,” my late mother, Shermaine Noble Maillard, an enrolled Seminole, used to insist. And so I do too.

Recipes are dynamic heirlooms that connect generations. Andrea L. Rogers, a Cherokee writer in Fayetteville, Ark., described grape dumplings as a way to travel back in time.

“You smell that food, and you’re also hearing your grandfather speak the language,” she said, referring to Cherokee, “and it’s like I’m giving my children just a bit of what I had.”

Recipe: Grape Cornmeal Dumplings

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