I wrote this originally for Beth Cherry while she was on vacation, but I'm posting it again here by popular request. Thank you, requesters! Both of you.
Lady of the Lake
Some years ago I had an opportunity to take a troop of Boy Scouts to a campsite on an American Indian reservation and to arrange for a storyteller from their tribe to speak to us at our evening campfire.
I’m a Scoutmaster, instructor and camp cook, and one of my responsibilities is to provide meals for the other adult leaders. Since the theme for this campout was “American Indian,” I did some research to find out the kinds of things indigenous people of this region ate and how they prepared their food. My research was further complicated by the fact that the tribal land where we would camp belonged to a tribe that had been relocated from their native home in the 1800’s.
In any case, as American Indian history is an interest of mine, over the years I have collected a number of textbooks and tomes on the subject and after some study I felt comfortable enough to produce a few “authentic” American Indian recipes. I use “authentic” in double-quotes because I can’t reproduce the exact foods from their home region, but I felt I could come close to the spirit of the intended meal.
It was mid-November as I recall because Saturday night was the night of the annual Leonid meteor shower due to peak at 3 A.M. when, hopefully, I would be fast asleep. I like meteor showers as much as the next fellow, but 3 A.M. is sacred! I guess that’s why I never became an astronomer.
The dish I chose to prepare combined the traditional and the modern. The traditional was a winter lamb stew made up of lamb, onions, several kinds of squash and peppers. I deviated from the recipe slightly by using corn and a corn cob to thicken the stew. The technique is to cook the corn on the cob in the stew, then scrape off the kernels and corn “milk,” then stew the remainder of the cob. The corn starch thickens the stew nicely.
The modern part of the meal was “Indian Fry Bread” which is a soda bread that is rolled out and deep fried in oil or lard. I say “modern” because fry bread didn’t appear in Indian diets until the introduction of processed flour, oil and cast iron pots in the 1800’s.
As I was preparing my meal the storyteller arrived to make her arrangements. The storyteller was a young woman of 35 or 40, small, with long black hair and very, very grey eyes. We discussed how she would arrive to our campfire by canoe from across the lake and that she would have about 20 minutes to tell a story before the attention span of the boys was exceeded. She smiled and agreed that all was well.
I invited her to stay for dinner. We had more than enough and she would be very welcome.
She looked around the campsite. And, declined our offer. Thanks, but no thanks. See y’all later.
Well, to be fair, dinner wouldn’t be ready for a couple of hours and who could blame anyone from not wanting to eat Boy Scout food?
For the next couple of hours I tended my stew, adding water occasionally, giving it a stir to prevent sticking. On a whim I decided to roast the squash and corn on an open fire to give it that smokey flavor before adding it to the stew. I thought that the caramelized sugars would add an extra dimension. To be true to the recipe I probably shouldn’t have done that, but I did. Sioux me. (that’s a joke)
Later, when I deemed the stew was ready and the fry bread had been prepared, I called the adults to the table and we served up. It smelled great.
Just as we were sitting down to eat, the storyteller drove up, got out of her truck and gave us some last minute information. She had changed from jeans and a work shirt into a long, buckskin dress and beads. Her hair was tied back in a long, black pony tail. We’d have to push the campfire time back an hour to 9 o’clock she told us and I assured her that wouldn’t be a problem.
As she turned to leave, she paused. I figured she had more to tell us but she just stood there looking into the distance. She tilted her head up and closed her eyes. After a few seconds she turned to me and asked, “What is that I smell?”
I was caught off guard by her question but recovered enough to reply, lamely, “Dinner? Would you like a bowl of winter lamb stew and some fry bread?”
As in a trance, she nodded slowly, sat herself at our table and we set her up with the last bowl of stew (there wasn’t much left) and a small piece of fry bread.
She ate slowly and in silence.
Sensing something different going on, and with a guest present, we all ate in silence; the normal banter abated.
When the storyteller finished her meal she looked up at me and said, and I’ll never forget her words,
“My grandmother made this.”
I took it to mean that her grandmother made the same lamb stew, although as I reflect on that moment many years later, and many reflections later, I’m not so sure.
“My grandmother made this for me as a child. She roasted the corn which was not the tradition, but she did it anyway. I remember the smells. I remember the texture. I remember the taste. My grandmother made this.”
Rising from the table the storyteller said her good-byes and told us she’d see us at nine at the campfire. I recall her eyes cast down as if deep in thought.
As she walked across the grounds to her truck she paused, looked back at me and said, “Thank you.” To this day I can’t remember if I heard the actual words or read her lips.
We held our campfire at the shore of the lake. Sang songs. Performed skits. Typical Scout stuff. Around 9 P.M. a torch-lit canoe glided across the water carrying the storyteller. We told the boys she would be coming and there was much anticipation.
Once on shore the storyteller introduced herself and told the boys that everything she was about to relate was the Absolute Truth. Ah, the mark of an expert storyteller. The boys were held in rapt attention for nearly 40 minutes, twice as long as I expected. The story was about a grandmother and her experiences as a child. I confess, I got lost in the story and don’t remember the details.
Then, it was over and the storyteller glided back across the lake to her home and her bed and a good nights sleep.
Not so me.
Around 3 A.M. I awoke with a start. My heart was pounding. I was sweating. I had been chased by something, but now I was awake and the something was gone and I was in my tent looking out into the night across the lake.
Whooosh! A meteor flashed across the sky. The Leonid meteor shower! Whoooosh! Another one even brighter than the previous.
Whooosh! The brightest yet, illuminating the entire lake shore. And, as I looked out I saw an old lady standing on the shore of the lake. She was very tall, wore a long, buckskin dress and beads. Her grey hair was tied back in a long pony tail.
The lady raised her left hand which I saw by the light of a dying meteor. I raised mine in return.
Whooosh! Another meteor exploded in the early morning sky into a shower of green and yellow sparks and I blinked in reflex. When I opened my eyes and got accustomed to the night, the lady was gone.
I watched the meteor show for a short while after that then drifted off to sleep.
The next day we struck camp, packed up and headed back home. I thought about the storyteller and the lady from the lake. I was half-awake. Maybe I imagined the whole thing. In time I put the weekend behind me.
One thing I can tell you, though. I’ve never been able to duplicate that recipe for winter lamb stew and I’ve tried many times. I’ve done the roasting, I’ve tried combinations of peppers and squash and it’s close but no cigar. Not quite the same satisfying taste, not quite the same texture. Not quite the same as I remember.
Oh, and one other thing. I tried to contact the tribe so I could talk to the storyteller and find out more about her and her grandmother and maybe that recipe, and the tribe has been pretty adamant about this:
“We don’t have a storyteller. We’ve never had a storyteller.”