For a long walk through time and place
by Sofi Thanhauser
Certain foods, like certain old costumes or tools or sayings, bear within them the traces of a whole vanishedway of life. The journey cake, ancestor to the “Johnny cake,” is a tough, nutritive food made from corn, nuts, and berries and designed to keep you going on the long journey from, say, Aquinnah to Vineyard Haven.
Christina Hook, a Wampanoag who grew up in Aquinnah in the fifties, makes journey cakes today with cranberries from the Aquinnah bogs, local wild hazelnuts, and corn from a gristmill in Sandwich. She travels there twice a summer to buy their preservative-free ground corn, which must be refrigerated. It is the closest thing she can find to the ancestral, “truly rough cut” cornmeal that was pounded small with a giant mortar and pestle.
A traditional Wampanoag journey cake was built tough so as not to crumble. It was carried in a leather journey pouch, along with pemmican, a food made by laying a berry slurry out to dry with venison, resulting in something Christina describes as “a fruit rollup, but with meat.” While she may not make the hike to Vineyard Haven from her home in Aquinnah, Christina still goes out foraging. As she walks through a field or woods, her eyes cast a fine net over the vegetation around her and draw forth from it a latent feast. “This flower will become a hazelnut,” she says. “Here there will be huckleberries, elderberries, wild grapes, blackberries, beach plum, chokecherries.” Under the Queen Anne’s lace is a tuber that will go in her venison stew in the fall, with a lemony wild sorrel that is growing just yards away among grasses. “I think I learned this stuff because that’s how we lived,” she says.
“It was out of necessity. Why would you go buy grapes when there were grapes growing over the door? Why would you go buy Pepto Bismol with a sassafras tree in the backyard?” Along with the knowledge of edible and medicinal plants, Christina absorbed from her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, an ethic of foraging. As she gathers wild food, she says she makes an “audible thanksgiving,” and she is mindful never to take too much. “You take what you need, you need what you take, and you never take the last one. There might be a bird or something who needs it.”
A lot has changed here since Christina was a girl. “There were no lawns in Gay Head when I was a kid, I’ll tell you that.” The very idea of a lawn, where we assert a kind of kingly dominance over nature, somehow seems a little cowardly compared with the idea of setting off into the woods alone, accompanied by the humble journey cake.