This is the fifth and last installment in a series on Best Indian Food 2013. Also read: Smothered Muskrat, Tail Off, Teeth Showing; Salmon Roasted Over an Alder Fire Pit; Slow-Cooked Corn Soup; and Red Chile Stew With Pork.
The Iowa Pow Wow is held on the third weekend in September on the Iowa Tribal Reservation in White Cloud, Kansas. Like many food vendors at pow wows, Melinda Scates sets up her food stand and cooks all the usual suspects—fry bread, Indian tacos, chicken soup—and milkweed soup.
The elders are familiar with it, says Scates, Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, but young people may not know it, and that’s why she makes it. Her children grew up with milkweed soup because, she explains, she and her husband, Duane, wanted to pass along traditions and tribal values to their family, in the same way she learned about her own heritage. “When I was young, we went out and picked different greens, barrels of this stuff for our grandmother—nettles, dandelions, crows seed,” says Scates. “I could tell you everything that we gathered.”
Over time, much of that knowledge about plants has been lost even to her, but not the importance of the food itself, which connects multiple generations through the process of gathering, preparation and cooking. It takes time and effort, Scates says, but it’s an excellent soup, if you know what you’re doing at the stove.
There are several kinds of milkweed—a plant with a reddish-purple stalk, which can make you sick, and the milkweed with a green stalk, that is right for cooking. Scates snaps off the top of the plant, which leaks sticky white milk, before it has blossomed. The plants are washed several times, even using a bit of detergent to wash away any herbicide contamination, and the clean shoots are boiled in water for three or four hours with some bacon, an onion and some tenderizing seasoning. The result is a green spinach-like soup with a bit of an edge or bitter taste. Sometimes it is served with a dumpling.
When her children were young, she and her husband would go out as a family to look for milkweed patches along the road or near the Missouri River until they gathered a couple of sacks of fresh shoots "among the bees, the butterflies. It's nice to be in the fresh air and to talk and walk together," she says. "We used to do it as a whole family, now my husband and I take our grandkids out to find the plants."