My name is Tom Weso. It is an Indian name, Weso meaning One Who Stands Firm. I had a complicated childhood that was exacerbated by certain economic realities. We were poor. We had to move around a lot looking for work. We had a large family, including in-laws, children, and shirttail cousins. My grandparents had 15 to 20 people to feed at dinnertime. Obtaining food was a full-time occupation.
I was born on the Menominee reservation in Northern Wisconsin and spent several years living there, most notably living in the Indian service jail building with my grandparents, which they had converted into a home. I also spent many years moving among major urban areas, like Green Bay, Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and finally Kansas. I have lived in Kansas for 25 years, and I consider it my home.
My book Good Seeds: A Menominee Indian Food Memoir, published by Wisconsin Historical Society Press, is a collection of recipes and stories about wild indigenous foods from my childhood, the 1950s and 1960s. I spent most of this time on the Menominee reservation. Although certain ceremonial and political
aspects of rez life are well documented from the late 1800s, little is written about home life. My book addresses those family moments. I dedicated this book to my grandparents who were traditional, and both had grudgingly accepted some assimilation. Good Seeds is unique because recipes all relate to people I knew, and people are stories. We can’t help ourselves. We want to share stories and food with friends.
Like many people in Kansas, my grandparents “put up” fruit and vegetables for the winter. We encountered wildlife, and the following excerpt from the book is my true bear story.
“Bears and apples would not appear to go together, but they do. We went apple picking at the orchards where the Wolf River washed around the bends and eroded small caves. In the autumn season, bears liked to den in these caves, because they also liked to harvest the nearby apples. When we went apple picking, it didn’t matter that bears were around, because they did not go after the same kind of apple we wanted. The bears selected fermented apples, too rotten for us. The alcohol-laden food must have appealed to them, because they ate to excess. Drunken bears are not hard to identify. They stagger. They roll on the ground with blissful smiles. They slur their growls. Some of that the people from the Department of Natural Resources used to say that the bears only ate rotten apples only because of the grubs and other protein in them, but that was not true. They ate fermented apples like we would drink apple beer, and they seemed to enjoy themselves until they passed out. We never bothered them.”
Family stories about bears and apples, and about wild edibles like milkweed, plums, and blackberries will live on. Children will learn how to do things. How to survive. This is universal to all people. They will enter the Menominee heaven—food, drink, and friends with whom to share stories and some laughs.
Good Seeds: A Menominee Indian Food Memoir by Thomas Pecore Weso, Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 978-0-87020-771-6 Hardcover: www.wisconsinhistory.org
Pecore Weso is an enrolled member of the Menominee Indian Nation of Wisconsin. His Good Seeds is winner of a Gourmand Award and other recognition. He is the author of many articles, personal essays, and a biography of Langston Hughes with coauthor Denise Low. Weso has a master’s degree in Indigenous Studies from the University of Kansas and teaches at Kansas City Kansas Community College. He is a speaker for the Kansas Humanities Council library program Talk about Literature in Kansas and co-publisher of Mammoth Publications. He is also an artist, with paintings in collections throughout the Kansas City area.
It’s Food Friday! Enjoy this recipe from Tom’s book Good Seeds.
Baked Beaver Feast
3 pounds cleaned, skinned, and dried beaver tail or other parts
2-3 gallons water
1 tsp baking soda
¾ cup flour or cornmeal, divided
2 Tsb butter (oil or other cooking fat)
4 apples, cored and quartered
6 carrots, peeled and left whole
6 potatoes, peeled and left whole
3 onions, quartered 2 bay leaves
Sugar for browning.
Cut meat into serving-size pieces and parboil in water with baking soda. Rinse, drain, and pat dry. Roll meat in flour or cornmeal and fry in butter or oil until brown. Put in Dutch over with a lid. Add remaining ingredients. Sprinkle with flour and dot with butter. Add ½ c water. Bake, covered at 350°F until tender. Uncover for 20 min to brown; sprinkle a teaspoon or more of sugar over meat while browning to add extra crispness.