Chief Christine Zachary-Deom is a member of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake and also an excellent chef in her home.
Every Sunday she cooks a traditional Mohawk meal for family and friends. Hominy − dried white corn kernels softened through an ancient process known as nixtamalization − is at the heart of her cooking.
Kahnawake is a Mohawk community on the south shore of Montreal. After mass at the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Church, Christine rushes back to her home to put the final touches to the meal. This includes corn soup, cornbread, and burnt-flour tea gravy, recipes she learned from her mother. (See recipes at bottom)
On February 25th, Radio Canada International was invited to her house and got a great taste of Mohawk hopitality.
Her mom, ‘the cornbread lady’
Cornbread brings back vivid childhood memories to Chief Zachary-Deom who helped her mother to make and sell the bread. She says her mom was known in Kahnawake as the “cornbread lady”.
“It reminds me so significantly of my mother and how we lived. Friday night, she would start preparing for Sunday’s meal, using the corn that we grew. Sunday morning, every one was at the door buying!”
In the home, everybody participated in this weekly event which started with the nixtamalization of the corn, a family ritual which lasted two days. Watch the video:
Nixtamalization: a Mohawk scientific approach to food
“It takes scientific innovation to understand how to change these tough kernels into hominy, so tender and beautiful!” says our host, holding a handful of dried corn kernels, which are as hard as little pebbles.
In order to obtain hominy, the process of nixtamalization consists of boiling the dried kernels in a solution of water and wood ashes. After a few hours in this boiling alcaline mix, the kernels become soft and their nutritional value increases. The result is a bigger white grain called hominy or nixtamal, or mote, in Latin America.
“My mother used to gather the corn kernels and put them in a big pan. Then she added sifted wood-ash and water. And it became like grey wood-ash water, thick, you would never eat it! You cook it for about 2 hours than you empty the corn in a pale of clean water. You keep washing the corn with clean water over a sifter until the kernels become bright white and very soft.”- Christine Zachary-Deom
The cleaning was the hardest part, according to Chief Zachary-Deom, because there was no electricity nor running water in the house.
“My brother wasn’t happy. He had to pump water, and bring the water in, alot, Friday and Saturday. Because, it takes a lot to cook, and then to wash”, she says.
Today, Christine buys the hominy frozen at the Eagle’s Nest Convenience and Deli in Kahnawake. It’s also sold in tins in Latin American grocery stores in Montreal.
The French survived on Mohawk food
Chief Zachary-Deom is quite clear on an important historical point. She says the early French explorers and settlers could not have survived if they hadn`t adopted the Mohawk food traditions.
At the time, the island of Montreal was covered with Mohawk corn fields, she says. Watch the video:
In her childhood at the Zachary’s former 100-acre farm, the corn was harvested and hung on the rafters of the house.
“I remember the harvest parties. And the cooking that went on at my great grand-mother’s house. They would tell stories that weren’t meant for kids! “
The Three Sisters
The farm was fulI of corn, beans and squash, she adds. These three foods are referred to as the “three sisters” and are at the heart of Mohawk traditional cooking. They can be found in the delicious Mohawk corn soup that she served us.
“It looks like minestrone so you can call it Mohawk minestrone, if you want! This is one of the best foods in the community. People are crazy for it, and we add a lot of corn to it.” − Christine Zachary-Deom
The day before serving it, Christine prepares the broth. She puts four pork hocks in a big pot, and fills it with water. She brings the water to a boil and lets the meat simmer for about three hours. Then she refrigerates it.
The next day, after taking away the fat that formed on the surface, she adds hominy, red beans, and a choice of vegetables: squash, carrots, turnips, cabbage and sweet potatoes.
“It a survival soup! you can get fat on it too!”, she says.
How to make Mohawk cornbread
In the cornbread recipe, two of the “three sisters” are used: hominy and red beans. The hominy is made into a paste in the blender. Oats and corn meal are also used. By adding boiling water to the dry ingredients, the mix becomes a soft dough which is shaped into balls and then cooked in boiling water for about 20 minutes.
The bread is very nourrishing. “When we went to hunt, we took the bread with us. That’s why we were fast, we didn’t have to do all sorts of hunting on the way!”.
During the Sunday meals at Chief Christine Zachary-Deom’s home, the bread is served with the meat and gravy. “It acts like a potato”, says our host.
More gravy please!
The guests love to dunk their bread in Christine’s delectable burnt-flour tea gravy. After cooking the steaks in a pan, she mixes the drippings with a little bit of flour and gradually adds some black tea to the mixture.
Chief Zachary-Deom is not completely happy with the texture of her gravy. No doubt she’s a perfectionnist: the caramel coloured sauce greatly enhances the flavour of the meat and bread, and tops a scrumptious meal the Mohawk way!