I often wonder if life is actually destiny, that Murphy's law is perhaps how our world and the universe were created and continue to change—a chance encounter of many seemingly random yet somehow patterned changes. Perhaps, it's an effect of binge watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a follow-up to the 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage presented by the one and only Carl Sagan. Several months prior to his death in 1996, Carl Sagan sat down in his home at 900 Stewart Avenue in Ithaca, New York and recorded a message for future explorers of Mars, a planet that has been under human scrutiny for possible future habitation. An excerpt of his message emphasizes how we have been hunters and gatherers for a significant portion of our history on earth:
Maybe we’re on Mars because we have to be, because there’s a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process — we come, after all, from hunter-gatherers, and for 99.9% of our tenure on Earth we’ve been wanderers.
While we are still generations away from comprehending the origins of the cosmos, we have somehow been able to parse our human evolutionary journey on this planet to some extent, our story from hunters and gatherers to settlers and space explorers. Throughout our history of wandering, berries have been our staple and seasonal food, and continue to be primary food sources for other primates. Christened as superfoods today, berries have been around long before we came into existence, as if somehow their seeds were just mysteriously laid in the soil so they bore fruit to feed the many animals who succeeded them.
Growing up in India where the desi berries (ber, jamun, chirongi, amla, karonda, kokam, shahtoot) rule the norm, blueberry was a relatively recent addition to my diet as well as food fascination. Native to North America, blueberries have been growing wild in the northeastern region of the continent for centuries, long before the first humans inhabited that land. They weren't cultivated successfully until 1912, and while still wild, the Indigenous people ate them raw, and gathered and put them to use in a variety of ways.
When Samuel de Champlain arrived in the present-day Quebec in 1615 and explored the area along Lake Huron wondering about the New World, Algonquins were already harvesting wild blueberries, drying them and beating into a pulpy powder to combine with cornmeal, honey and water making a pudding called, sautauthig. Several decades later in 1803, when President Thomas Jefferson tasked Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore lands west of the Mississippi River comprising the Louisiana Purchase, they found the Indigenous people smoking wild blueberries for winter use. The native Americans served Lewis and Clarke a meal that had wild blueberries pounded into the meat, which was then smoked and dried. Englishman John Josselyn, an inquisitive good-humoured observer of the 17th century of northern New England, has presented the life of both Indigenous people and colonists in New-Englands Rarities Discovered (1672) and Account of Two Voyages to New-England (1674). He too mentions sautauthig to have been served at the earliest thanksgiving feasts.
It's rather shameful that the Jesuit missionary Paul Le Jeune refers Indigenous people as "savages" while recording what they ate. “They eat, besides some small ground fruits, such as raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, nuts which have very little meat, hazelnuts, wild apples sweeter than those of France, but much smaller.” It's not surprising that the same "savage people" were the first to decode the health benefits in blueberries and teach the art of preserving and storing blueberries to be eaten for months and carried over long journeys to the European settlers. With paleo diets and survival provisioning becoming popular, pemmican (Cree word for rendered fat) is resurging. If it wasn't for the Indigenous people, the European immigrants would have possibly not learned how to cultivate blueberries as a viable and commercial crop. Controlled burns to increase yields of blueberries is a technique that involves burning fields every few years to eliminate old shrubs and fertilize the soil, is something the Indigenous people developed, and the Micmac and Passamaquoddy tribes still do this today.
The story of blueberry is in many ways the story of the Indigenous people of North America. Strangely while the world raves about blueberries and douses cereals, cakes, pancakes, tarts, pies, muffins, crumbles, crisps, ice-creams, jams, compotes, breads, toasts, salads and smoothies with them, the people who first found blueberries and learned to eat and cook them aren't celebrated for their discovery and for their first steps in making the wild habitable for humans.
For the Indigenous people, blueberry is an emotion, a sky coloured fruit that showed them hope and faith that they could survive on a land that was once unknown to the rest of the world. George Munro, a Canadian educator and philanthropist from Nova Scotia, writes,
"To a First Nation spirit blueberries are spring summer and fall, May to October, twenty-eight medicines and herbs. "Blueberries" mean high-bush cranberries, bog cranberries, strawberries, heart berries, Cranberry bark, Ginseng, Seneca root, mushrooms, a mothers comfort, a grandfathers teaching, aunties' stories, past, present and future, a connection to Mother Earth." Berry picking and hunting required skills to seek and use natural resources judiciously, which aided Indigenous families and communities in sustainable living for thousands of years. They understood how everything in nature is connected, that we all are related and that our actions affect our environment. It was their way of life to care for each other and care for our planet, the only home we know and have in this vast cosmos till date.
Indigenous communities have passed down these values throughout their cultural history. Through oral traditions of storytelling, songs, ceremonies, teachings and rituals they have taught their generations about sharing, mutual care, the universe and our position in it and how the only way to survive is through living and striving together in harmony with nature. These cultural histories reflect in their names of people, places and all elements of creation in nature, as rightly said, "a spirit that is alive in the land."
Unfortunately with the advent of colonialization, the encroachers revered in the written word only, preaching and claiming that it's the single most believable and tangible representation of facts, dismissing Indigenous histories and values as folktales, parables and allegories.
As mentioned in the research paper, Aboriginal Research: Berry Picking and Hunting in the 21st Century, "While the role of Indigenous oral traditions were to remember authentic realities, the role of research and written text was to propagate the superior intelligence and strength of Europeans (Gilchrist, 1997; Smith, 1999). In the context of imperialism and colonialism, Aboriginal people were and continue to be misrepresented for the purpose of propagating, maintaining and justifying control, domination and genocide (Churchill, 1992). What happened through colonization in the old and the new worlds had a deep impact throughout mankind. It's so deep that racism, social, economic and political disruptions, environmental degradation, exploitation, repression continue to exist in the colonized nations long after the colonizers have gone.
Berry picking is fundamentally tied to the Indigenous people's culture and way of life. Back in the day, families would leave their homes in Pine Creek (Manitoba, Canada) and travel for a whole day by horses and wagons for as far as 30 miles to their traditional picking areas. On arriving, they would camp and pick berries for the season. One family would know how to find another family because families would use the same camping site over years. They knew how to find each other without maps or GPS, texts or messages. Their oneness was so strong. Even today, the members of the Pine Creek First Nation (PCFN) continue their tradition of berry picking on their traditional grounds within the Swan Pelican Provincial Park. Although travelling now includes ATVs and the trip is a day activity with people returning home in the evening, the story continues. The parents or elders, who are traditional berry pickers, narrate the events of their past to their children and youth, identifying remnants of camp sites and often during these conversations tears flow and laughter is shared.
The traditional blueberry pickers of North America arrived on this land long before Europeans found their world to intrude, destroy and claim. Some purists will argue that the first people came from elsewhere too. Where they came from isn't as important as how they lived once they arrived. And, there's only one way they survived then—through the sense of belonging in the land they chose to settle. When you truly belong and you're really native to somewhere, you use its offerings to live and survive. You don't abuse it, you don't deplete it beyond its capacity to generate. You care about it. The Indigenous communities cared about the lands on which they made their home, the mountains and the rivers, the trees and their leaves, fruits and flowers, the animals, birds and all the other creatures who belonged to this land as much as they did. They recognized the interconnectivity of life on Earth and its relation to the universe. Simple, isn't it? Like Carl Sagan said, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” We are made of the same matter.
So, what does it mean to be indigenous? Perhaps, Michelle Holliday says it best in the Age of Thrivability:
Later, there alone picking blueberries and of course eating a few along the way, I realized that – if we’re intentional about it – food can help us sense the unity of life and our relationship with everything on Earth, including each other. We are all made from the same Earth, as our bodies create themselves moment by moment using the food we eat. We are what we eat, very literally. And in that way, we are all indigenous in the largest sense: we’re indigenous to the Earth. Some of us remember this; many of us have forgotten. And it’s in remembering that our world can be healed and made whole.
What about this blueberry cake?
This is one of my most favourite cakes to bake and the recipe is so easy! I love blueberries and so this cake is loaded with them (I think I went a little overboard!) You can opt to user lesser berries, but think about it. Do you really not want lots of berries in every slice?!
It is a healthier cake as it uses honey. I add some powdered sugar for dusting in the end. You can also choose to use sugar in the batter if you like. I would recommend fine granulated sugar in that case. You can use brown sugar but remember that the colour of the cake will change then.
The flavour of this cake comes out really well olive oil. You can make it with butter if you like, but I would recommend olive oil. If using butter, melt the butter and let it cool to room temperature before using in the cake.
I like a mild sour fragrant note in fruit or berry cakes, and that is why I love to add the zest of lemon and orange in this cake. You can reduce the zest according to your taste.
I have made this cake using both plain flour and oats flour, and I like the result of both. For a healthier option, I often choose oats flour than plain flour.
This cake lasts for almost a week (if I and my husband manage to eat it diligently). I sometimes cut up slices and store in the fridge if the weather is too warm, and heat it mildly before eating. So, I find it sensible to make a bigger cake and a Bundt tin is appropriate for that. You can reduce the proportions if you have a smaller cake tin or don't want to make a big cake.
I love this recipe because of its multi-utility nature. You can replace blueberries with any other berries, opt sugar for honey and butter for oil, and it works every time!
3/4 cup honey
zest of 2 lemons and 1 orange (or 3 lemons)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (or plain olive oil if you don't like extra bit of flavour)
1/2 cup buttermilk (To prepare, add 1 tbsp lemon juice to 1/2 cup milk)
1 and 2/3 cup plain flour or oats flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup (plus extra if you like I do) blueberries (or any other berry of your choice)
1/3 cup powdered sugar
Preheat an oven to 350 F. Grease and flour a Bundt tin.
Beat the eggs with honey and then add zest, vanilla, cinnamon and oil, and whisk well.
Add the flour and buttermilk alternately to create a smooth well-combined batter.
Gently fold in the blueberries.
Pour the batter into the prepared tin and bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.
Let the cake cool in the tine for at least 15 minutes before turning onto a rack.
Cool the cake completely on the rack and then dust powdered sugar on top before slicing.
Enjoy with a good cup of tea or a hot cuppa! It's perfect either way!
If you made this recipe and had fun, please drop in your comments here or tag me on Instagram with your creations!