Driftless Terroir: Diving Into a Study of the “Original Local” Cuisine

Erin Crooks Lynch

As I wind my car through the tight curves and over the hills and vales of the Driftless Region near Ridgeway, my mind races with questions: Who lived here before white settlers arrived? What did they call this place? When and why did they leave? While I do not have specifics at this moment, I already know some of the haunting answers and they hung above me like the gray blanket of clouds on this chilly fall day. 

I can’t help but think how selfish and short-sighted I’ve been in my quest here in “Driftless Terroir” to map out a regional cuisine. I didn’t even consider indigenous people as a source, as a knowledge base, as even existing in this region before me. How privileged and narrowminded my thoughts and actions were.

Of course, we know that the United States of America was once a land of thousands of different native nations and peoples living freely each with their own unique customs, traditions, knowledge, spirituality and respect for nature, and that colonizers took that away. We know this in the back of our minds. To sit and think about who was actually here, in the Driftless Region, in “my” or “your” front yard, is different. It takes focus, attention and imagination. I think this a necessary exercise, especially when we explore the notion of terroir. As I drive my vehicle up the winding wooded path to the parking area of “my” home, I wonder: Upon whose ancestral lands are we residing right now?

Mesqwaki women tended gardens of corn, squash, pumpkins, beans and melons and gathered nuts, berries, fruits, milkweed, honey and roots. Men and young boys went on seasonal hunts for large and small game, including deer and buffalo, and later engaged in fur trading. After the fall harvest, bands traveled to their winter hunting grounds.
Source: www.meskwakipowwow.com.

With the lead from a friend to help answer my questions, I pulled up an interactive world map at native-land.ca, which is a collection of working and ever-expanding data illustrating all of the tribes and nations that once existed. You can search any location in the world. A search for Spring Green shows the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo), Sauk and Meswkaki, Myaami and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ nations as groups who lived in this area pre-white settlers. The boundaries of these nations overlap. Did these groups peacefully live together, sharing the land? How so? I ask myself this as I recount the hundreds of opposing political signs stuck in neighboring yards and recount the day’s headlines.

Diving further in depth on this Canadian website you’ll find a digital catalogue of the individual treaties that were created, pieces of paper written in English that basically said that these indigenous groups, the Ho-Chunk, the Kiikaapoo and others must leave. Get out. Move somewhere else. Can you imagine if someone knocked on your door today and gave you a piece of paper that required you to move? Can you imagine? I urge myself to try and actually imagine this as I unload my two young girls from the car. What would we do if someone asked us to leave right now?

So these nations lived in what we now call Spring Green and Dodgeville and Mineral Point and the Driftless Region. Among many questions I have, what I’m most curious about, is what they ate. Were any of the foods “imported” somehow? What food traditions did they share? What food preparations did each nation do differently? Assuming (but I don’t know) that they ate foraged and hunted foods entirely from their immediate surroundings or a large percentage of it and perhaps a very small percent was traded in, what did that lifestyle look like? What if my 21st-century family and I had to eat food entirely from the land, could we do it? Would we survive? What percentage of our diets today are imported from outside of Wisconsin?

“Original Local” at wisconsinfirstnations.org looks like a great place to find information on indigenous Upper Midwest cuisine, and includes a collection of recipes paired with stories from tribal activists, food researchers, chefs and families. This is a starting place.

I popped onto wisconsinfirstnations.org as a starting place to find out where these groups are living today and for some more answers. This website provides educational tools for all ages, recommendations for books, films and more. “Original Local” looks like a great place to find information on indigenous Upper Midwest cuisine, and includes a collection of recipes paired with stories from tribal activists, food researchers, chefs and families. This is a starting place.

It’s hard to look at what some of our ancestors did to others, and it’s easy to say it was in the past and out of our control. This is not enough. More often we hear from the experts that trauma descends through the generations, long after war or famine or hard times existed, whether you are perpetrator or victim. This notion leaves no human untouched. We must begin to look at our privileges and our history, the actions and inactions of those who came before us before we can begin to heal. We must acknowledge the terror and pain and horrendous acts that were inflicted upon our native brothers and sisters and our earth. We must begin here if we are to understand our Driftless terroir

Erin Crooks Lynch and her husband, Jeremy, pasture-raise pigs in a unique way on Enos Farms in the Wyoming Valley (Spring Green). They also run an online frozen food store sourcing from local area organic farmers and producers with pickup and delivery options. For more information, see enosfarms.com or e-mail contact@enosfarms.com.