A beloved indigenous dessert evolves with each generation

Rose Shields-Jefferson, a Chickasaw Nation elder and the firstborn of 13 children, leaned into her computer screen, her red and black beaded earrings swaying as she gave a conspiratorial smile.

“I’m not bragging, you know, but we’re good cooks.”

Shields-Jefferson, 77, is well known in her community of Ada, Oklahoma, for her grape dumplings, panki’ alhfola’ in the Chickasaw language, of which she is a native speaker. Don’t try asking for her exact formula, however. “We don’t use recipes, you know,” she said during a video chat. “I just know how to make it.”

This dessert has been a favorite among various southeastern Native tribes for centuries. The tender dumplings are coated by a warm, deeply purple sauce that explodes with an uncommon grapiness.

Originally made from balls of ground corn mush boiled in the juice of wild grapes and then mostly prepared with store-bought ingredients, these dumplings illustrate the evolution of Indigenous foodways, first with voluntary seasonal migration, then because of forced relocation, cultural exchanges and developments in the food system. Modern chefs and cooks are now renewing interest in the earliest recipes, which predate current movements to eat locally grown foods.

“There was a bounty to be eaten and foraged and had,” said Elise McMullen-Ciotti, a Cherokee Nation citizen and food studies graduate student at New York University. “There are records of settlers talking about the massive amounts of grapes when they showed up.”

Any dark grape can be pressed into juice for boiling dumplings, but traditional recipes call for possum grapes, a small, seedy and prolific variety found throughout southeastern woodlands. They are distinctively tangy with very little pulp and require foraging by discerning seekers.

In the absence of the real thing, most contemporary recipes call for bottled Concord grape juice. Possum grapes “are hard to come by,” Shields-Jefferson said. “Like now, I don’t have any grapes in my freezer, so I got to go to Walmart.”

The grapes aren’t the only ingredients that have changed. The austere cornmeal dumpling recipes of previous generations have largely been laid to rest by cooks who opt for sweeter ones made with wheat flour, sugar, baking powder and sometimes eggs. Some people even use Bisquick.

The transition from corn-based dumplings to wheat ones reflects changes in taste, but also may have been influenced by Indigenous contact with European settlers and enslaved Africans.

Matthew Raiford, with his wife, Tia, owns and runs Gilliard Farms in Brunswick, Georgia, which is on land first bought by Matthew Raiford’s great-great-great-grandfather after he was emancipated. Raiford sees a resemblance between grape dumplings and Southern fruit cobblers. “It’s a commingling of food systems that slowly got pushed together, like an evolution,” he said.

Most Indigenous cooks today, like the venerable Shields-Jefferson, proudly abide by wheat-based dumplings, while some are returning to cornmeal.

Ramon Shiloh, a Creek and Cherokee chef based in Tacoma, Washington, recalled a childhood memory of dumplings made by a woman at a powwow in California. They combined corn kernels with hazelnuts, grapes and cinnamon sugar. “The flavor was a dream, and I was hooked,” he said. He now uses cornmeal as a base for his take on grape dumplings.

“The old ones used corn,” my late mother, Shermaine Noble Maillard, an enrolled Seminole, used to insist. And so I do too.

Recipes are dynamic heirlooms that connect generations. Andrea L. Rogers, a Cherokee writer in Fayetteville, Arkansas, described grape dumplings as a way to travel back in time.

“You smell that food, and you’re also hearing your grandfather speak the language,” she said, referring to Cherokee, “and it’s like I’m giving my children just a bit of what I had.”

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Recipe: Grape Dumplings

Yield: 6 servings

Grape dumplings are a favorite treat among southeastern Indigenous nations. Originally made with strained muscadine or possum grapes, they’ve been adapted by modern cooks using other dark grape varieties and bottled Concord grape juice. In a blend of old and new, this take on the popular indigenous recipe pays homage to the historic use of cornmeal while observing popular contemporary practices of adding flour and sweetener. The dumplings incorporate blue cornmeal and whole-wheat flour to intensify the rich evening shades of the dish, and the sauce substitutes agave for sugar. Pair them with vanilla ice cream and a sprig of fresh tarragon for a delightful explosion of perfectly purple goodness.

For the dumplings:

1/2 cup (75 grams) blue cornmeal (or medium-grind yellow)

1/2 cup (70 grams) whole-wheat flour, plus more for kneading

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/4 cup Concord grape juice (see Tip)

1 egg

2 teaspoons melted butter

2 agave teaspoons (optional)

For the sauce:

4 cups Concord grape juice (see Tip), plus more if needed

1 1/2 cornstarch teaspoons

2 cups (10 ounces) dark, seedless grapes, plus more for serving

2 agave teaspoons (optional)

Vanilla ice cream and fresh tarragon leaves, for serving

1. Prepare dry dumpling ingredients: Sift all dry ingredients into a medium bowl. Use a fork or whisk to blend thoroughly. Dump the contents of the bowl onto a flat, clean workspace. Using your hands, make a round mound at least 1 1/2 inches tall, then use fingers to clear a hole in the middle. It should go all the way down to the surface to accommodate all of the wet ingredients.

2. Combine wet dumpling ingredients: In a small bowl, whisk together grape juice, egg, melted butter and agave, if using. For the mixture into the well of the dry ingredients.

3. Blend dough: Using a fork, gradually fold the dry mixture along the perimeter of the well into the wet mixture in the center, stirring to integrate. Do not overmix. When combined, use your hands to form a ball.

4. Roll out dough: Sprinkle a small amount of flour onto a dry, clean work surface. Use your hand to spread the flour into a 12-by-12-inch square. Roll the ball of dough into the flour, coating all sides. Generously sprinkle additional flour onto the workspace and slowly mash the ball with your hand. Use a floured rolling pin to flatten dough into a large rectangle approximately 1/4-inch thick and 8 by 12 inches wide, dusting the pin with flour as needed to prevent sticking.

5. Cut dumplings: Using a dry knife or pizza cutter, cut dough into strips to make 1-inch squares. Using a fork, prick each square in three parallel lines, all the way to the work surface. This will help aerate the dough to absorb the grape juice as it simmers.

6. Make the sauce: Pour 4 cups well-shaken grape juice into a wide, high-sided skillet and turn heat to medium. Dissolve cornstarch in 2 tablespoons of cold water before whisking into grape juice. Add grapes and agave, if desired. Bring to a rolling boil over medium heat.

7. Cook the dumplings: Using a rubber spatula, carefully add dumplings to boiling juice until skillet is full but not crowded. Stir the dumplings to immerse; the dumplings may touch, but not stack. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for 10 minutes. Check for overcrowding after 5 minutes, removing extra dumplings if needed. (Discard any remaining uncooked dumplings, or simmer in additional grape juice, if desired.)

8. Thicken sauce: Uncover simmering dumplings and keep temperature at medium-low. Cook for 5 minutes until the sauce thickens but does not bubble. It should be the consistency of a thick syrup. Remove from heat and let cool for 5 minutes.

9. Spoon mixture over vanilla ice cream and garnish with fresh grapes and tarragon.

Tip: Bottled grape juice tends to settle, so shake thoroughly before using.

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