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The Women Who Fed A Continent

By Edie Cay
September 7, 2021
cross-cut of a Mandan/Hidatsa food cache pit that was dug out below their homes. The Three Sisters are represented here: Corn, Beans, and Squash.

We asked our SHINE with Paper Lantern Writers group what they wanted us to blog about this month, and they said, “Best Pumpkin Recipes.” Sounds good—but you know that Lanterns can’t resist the history aspect of any food, including pumpkins, and perhaps any other “New World” foods that you may not realize are indigenous to North America.

In fact, many foods that we think of as “everyday” cuisine are not Old World delights. Even though your vaguely European medieval fantasy might have the characters feasting on potatoes, those were a New World import. Tomatoes didn’t belong to the Italian cuisine until the very late 1800s, as they were also indigenous to Central and South America.

Irish Potato Famine? They still planted those from the seeds taken from the New World. And of these Native New World plants, squash and pumpkins are among them.

Now imagine being one of these immigrants from European continent to the North American continent. Nothing is familiar. Everything is new, from the animals, to the trees, to the customs and languages of its people.

Cuisine is one of the reasons I enjoy reading the early colonialist settings, because white people had no idea what they were doing and would have starved had it not been for the food Native American tribes made (there is a story of the early Massachusetts colonists finding a dried food cache of the local tribe and stole it. This…caused problems.) After the dust settled and niceties were made, think of being presented with a squash. What are you going to do with it?

From Chris Bohjalian’s recent HOUR OF THE WITCH to Geraldine Brooks’s CALEB’S CROSSING, these titles show how ill-prepared these immigrants were for this new environment. Reading about Lewis and Clark’s journey is another great way of seeing how the Europeans explored and would have been lost without the help of the Indigenous people they met along the way. Of course, they also imposed their own foods on this land (turnips, for instance. Nobody uses turnips where there is an alternative), but I prefer the indigenous foods from this side of the world, like potatoes, cocoa, pumpkins, and squash to the land of my ancestors: turnips. I mean, really. It’s no contest.

Food For The Winter

Mandan village c. 1833, by George Catlin. Each house was owned and built by the oldest woman who lived in it.

Lewis and Clark spent a winter near the Mandan people, and a good thing they did, because North Dakota winters are harsh. Researching for my historical novel, THE SQUARE GRAND, I looked into the culture of the Mandan people. They were farmers, not nomads. They had a summer camp and a winter camp, dictated by food abundance. To feed themselves for the winter, the Mandan kept large underground food caches in their homes, always ready to host visitors who might come their way. French fur trappers, other tribes, all were welcome (well, almost all. They were pretty pissed off with the Lakota, whom they perennially warred with). They would even host a massive trade gathering, where they would pride themselves on feeding traders from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

The Mandan employed a gender-based work system: women gardened, owned and built the homes, while the men hunted, fished, and warred. Transgendered people were welcome, as long as they did the work they would be expected to do. There were even age-based castes that people earned their way into.

The oldest women owned virtually all possessions in a family home, and continued to garden until infirmity. The best crops were known as the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash. Using hoes made from the scapula of a buffalo and rakes from deer antlers, the women worked all day in the garden, singing and talking, while children too young to work, but too old to stay home with the old men, would play on top of wooden drying platforms. They would dry out these squash and corn in the warm prairie sun on these racks, and then stow them in the underground cistern-like pits dug directly below the round, thatched roof homes.

Yellow Corn, a Mandan, 1806-07, by Charles-Balthazar-Julien Fevret de Saint-Memin, (1770 – 1852). New-York Historical Society, 1860.96.

The Women Who Fed A Continent

Even if game hunts were unsuccessful, the Mandan and their guests would never starve, thanks to these women who fed people from all corners of the continent during yearly trade gatherings.

In honor of those incredible agricultural hosts, women who could feed a continent, and the colonialist melting pot we turned this land into, I would like to share my very favorite butternut squash recipe from Bryant Terry’s Afro-Vegan Cookbook. A chef who traces food of the Black communities from Africa to the Caribbean to North America, the sentiment he uses in his cookbook feels very much akin to how the Mandan approached food: share and break bread, and you will never go hungry.

Couscous with Butternut Squash, Pecans, and Currants

Yield 4-6 servings (or more)

(plan for about 40 minutes once you get your butternut squash peeled and cubed).

If you want to save time, buy the pre-cut butternut squash in the vegetable section of your grocery store, which is often a seasonal offering. You can also purchase pre-chopping Pecans in the baking section.


3 Tablespoons+ olive oil

1 pound peeled, cubed into 1/2 inch pieces butternut squash

1 teaspoon coarse sea salt

1 1/3 cups whole wheat couscous

1 1/2 cups water

Large pinch of saffron threads (I found them at my local grocery store)

3/4 cup currants (I used raisins)

2 Medjool dates, pitted

1/2 cup chopped pecans

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

2 Tablespoons pack torn fresh mint leaves

Freshly ground white pepper (I just use regular old pepper)

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees Farenheit. Drizzle 1 Tablespoon olive oil on cubed butternut squash, sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and combine. Terry says to do this in a bowl and then put it on a lined baking pan. I just do it all on the pan. Bake, stirring after 15 minutes, for 30 to 40 minutes, until the squash is soft and just starting to brown on the edges. Remove, and turn oven down to 350 degrees Farenheit.
  2. While the squash is baking: warm 1 Tablespoon of oil in medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add couscous and toast, stirring darn-near constantly until it starts to smell fragrant (kind of nutty almost), 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat. (DON’T WASH THIS PAN YET)
  3. Put the water and remaining 3/4 teaspoon in a small saucepan and boil. Remove from heat, add the saffron, and let sit for about 1 minute. Pour over couscous, add currants (raisins for me! I bet cranberries would be another excellent substitute) and stir. Cover and let sit for 10 minutes.

4. Put pitted dates in a small bowl and add boiling water to cover, soaking for about 5 minutes. Drain, but reserve the liquid! Put dates, 2 Tablespoons of the date liquid, and last 1 Tablespoon of olive oil in a blender (so in the cookbook, Terry says 2 Tablespoons of olive oil go here. But then, you would need 4 Tablespoons of olive oil, which contradicts the ingredient list. One of them is a typo. I’ve added 2 Tablespoons every time, and I think you could go with less oil and more of the date liquid). The goal is to process these ingredients until creamy.

5. Use that dirty couscous skillet again! Pour the date mixture into the skillet over medium-high heat. Add chopped pecans and stir constantly, until thoroughly combined, about 3 minutes. Scrape contents of skillet into couscous bowl and combine, breaking up any big lumps. Transfer to an oiled (like, sprayed with PAM) 2 quart baking dish, cover with aluminum foil (I use the lid of my pan), and bake for 15 minutes, until heated through.

6. To serve, pile the couscous high like a mashed potato volcano on a serving platter. Make an indentation on the top and spoon in some butternut squash. Scatter the remaining squash around the edges, and sprinkle the cinnamon over the couscous volcano in even vertical stripes. Garnish with the mint (it IS better when you add the mint, though I’ve also forgone it, and both ways is fine. You do you), and give a few turns of white pepper. Or regular pepper and expect that the people eating your dish understand the regular pepper is fine. Everything is fine, and no one knows what color the pepper is when it’s in your mouth. Hopefully. Otherwise, does your mother know about your table manners???

Edie Cay
Written by Edie Cay

Edie Cay writes award-winning feminist Regency Romance about women’s boxing and relatable misfits. She is a member of the Regency Fiction Writers, the Historical Novel Society, ALLi, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. You can drop her a line on Facebook and Instagram @authorediecay or find her on her website,

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