Caroline Vaughan

Trail of Tears Squash and Cherokee Bean Bread

At their mountain farm bordering Cherokee reservation lands, the family of Harold and Nancy Long cultivate Cherokee heirloom varieties, save the seeds, and then assemble garden kits for the Eastern Band of Cherokee to distribute to tribal members.  Farming is not new to the Longs—Harold’s Cherokee ancestors have called this part of the world home for thousands of years. While her connections are more recent, Nancy is equally passionate about cultivating the land, preserving Cherokee culture, and providing healthy fresh food to their rural neighbors.

Harold and Nancy’s lifelong commitment to caring for the land and for their community recently led the North Carolina Extension Service to name them North Carolina Small Farmers of the Year. When we first met Harold and Nancy Long, we saw a family living out the themes of our documentary on Southern food and people —the deep history of native peoples in the region, their rich tradition of agriculture, their brilliant ingenuity and adaptivity, and their determination to honor the past while preparing for the future.

The Longs are active in the movement to promote traditional Cherokee seed varieties. Native heirlooms can grow with an awe inspiring vigor, covering fields and clambering up nearby trees as you can see in the image of Harold in the field of squash vines. This particular variety, the Trail of Tears Squash, was carried by tribal members out to Oklahoma during the Removal and has recently been reintroduced to its native habitat in western North Carolina.

Over the course of a recent summer, we filmed Harold sowing heirloom corn, harvesting ears from the giant stalks, and grinding the kernels into meal. We capped off our corn visits with Harold mixing the fresh ground cornmeal into Cherokee bean bread, a dish eaten by the Cherokee for hundreds of years and still enjoyed today.

Recipes for bean bread abound on the internet. Some include modern additions such as flour and baking powder. Many use corn husks to wrap the dough, much like tamales. Harold Long drops his straight into the boiling water. The bean bread on this site, Traditional Cherokee Recipes, comes closest to what Harold made for us. It was delicious—especially with bacon.

The Long Family farm continues to be a living link to the deep history of people and place in the American South, and as Chumper Walker, director of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Center for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians says, “The Longs set an inspiring example for other farmers and for young people.”