Diane Rothenberg: Corn soup & fry bread, a reminiscence

Early this October Diane Rothenberg and I had the chance, too long delayed, to revisit the Allegany Seneca Reservation in upstate New York, where we had spent two years (and many visits besides) in the late 1960s & early 1970s.  In the interim, our dearest & closest Seneca friends — most older than us, some younger — had “passed,” as the expression goes, and the couple of returns we attempted brought a repeated sense of emptiness & loss. This time it was different, largely through the efforts of Maurice “Moe” John, whom we had also known, & who was now serving his second term as president of the Seneca Nation. Diane Rothenberg’s work, much more than mine, was & remains of great interest to the Senecas, and we look forward to an ongoing exchange on the basis of a long & now truly enduring friendship.  And though what follows isn’t a matter of poetics as commonly understood, I would put forward a notion of some link between food & poetry & let it go at that.  The re-posting of her essay now is also a celebration of a return that we hope will last into the future. (J.R.)


For several years before and for two inclusive years from 1972 to 1974, we lived on the Allegany Seneca Reservation in Salamanca, New York. Food was among the first things we exchanged — poetry only later and never really fully. From our end the items served were dishes such as sukiyaki or pumpernickel rye; from theirs the common foods of rural America and two specially prepared dishes that indicated that a uniquely Native American festivity was underway. One of those dishes was “corn soup” (more specifically “hulled corn soup” [hominy], because there are other ways of using corn in soups), and the other one was “fry bread.” During the years that we lived in Salamanca, we encountered both of these dishes many times and in variant versions. Different people whom we knew approached their preparation in individualized ways — congruent always with their own tastes, their interest in food preparation, and their concern (or lack of it) with “authenticity.” When we reproduce those dishes now for special occasions of our own, these same considerations inform our sense of how to go about it. As a reflection on the issue of “authenticity” in the preparation of traditional foods — as well as the contribution of a couple of good recipes to the present volume — I offer up the following.

“AUTHENTIC” HULLED CORN SOUP a la Archie Johnson, who knows how to do many things the “old way”

1 quart dry corn
1 pint clean hardwood ashes
Water to cover

Place in cast iron kettle, and bring to a boil. Boil until the hulls slip off the kernels (about 20 minutes). Place in corn basket, and rinse in cold water until clean. Reboil corn in water until suds form, and rinse again in basket. Repeat once more.

3/4 lb. salt pork cut up
1/4 lb. dried red kidney beans (pre-soaked)
Prepared corn (hominy) from first step

Boil all together in kettle for 3 or 4 hours. Makes about 4 quarts of soup.

“CONVENIENT” HULLED CORN SOUP a la Richard Johnny John, who loves it but, for all kinds of reasons, takes short cuts

3 large cans of hominy (undrained)
1 can of red beans (undrained)
1 lb. pork (or maybe more if using spareribs)

Water enough to create a thick soup. Cook everything together until the pork is done.

“ROTHENBERG” HULLED CORN SOUP, being a variation of Dick Johnny John’s recipe, but accommodating to non-Seneca expectations

2 lbs. of pork with bones
1 carrot
Couple of handfuls of celery and celery tops
1 onion
Salt and pepper to taste
Water to cover

Cook until pork is separating from bones. Drain through a strainer, and save the pieces of meat.

3 large cans of hominy (undrained)
1 can of red beans (undrained)

Combine broth, pork, and canned ingredients, and cook together for a few minutes. Season to taste.

FRY BREAD is known among the Senecas as “Ghost Bread,” because it is always included in the feast that follows the ten days of mourning after a death. A look at the ingredients suggests immediately that even the “authentic” version depends entirely on store-bought ingredients; yet fry bread, with minor variations in shape and ingredients, is emblematically “Indian” all through North America.

2 cups white flour
3 tsp. baking powder
2 tblsp. sugar
Pinch salt
1 cup water

Knead together, and let stand for 15 minutes. Break off golf-ball sized pieces, and roll each out, using flour to prevent sticking. Stab with a fork twice through the center of each. Fry in deep fat until brown on both sides. Eat hot.

FRY BREAD a la Thelma Shane, one of the best cooks around

Same as above but add along with other ingredients:

2 tblsp. oil
1/2 small can crushed pineapple.

Proceed as above. Roll out 1/2 inch thick, and fry until brown. (Thelma usually serves these with margarine and preserves, accompanied regularly by coffee.)

“FAST FRY BREAD,” which is what you usually get at our feasts


This recipe was revealed to us at an Indian Foods Dinner — a tourist-oriented feast offered, as a fund-raiser, around Thanksgiving, i.e. harvest time. One or another Seneca organization is allowed to prepare the dinner each year, at which time they serve hundreds of diners, both white and Indian, who have reserved well in advance, eager for the opportunity to taste the variety and abundance of “authentic” Seneca food. The Senecas with whom we ate would snicker a little when fry bread was presented in the following way:

Open a tube of store-bought prepared biscuits (not the sourdough type, but it hardly matters). Separate the biscuits, and flatten each using a little flour to prevent sticking. Pierce with the tines of a fork, and fry in deep fat. They rise and brown very quickly, so keep watching. Drain and serve.

With a genuine taste for the inauthentic (as much as for its counterpart), we have made this recipe our own.

[Reprinted from Diane Rothenberg’s The Mothers of the Nation & Other Essays, Ta’wil Books & Documents, 1992. An active player in the emerging discourse around an ethnopoetics, she is also the co-editor of Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward an Ethnopoetics (University of California Press, 1983), soon to be reissued, and the author of Friends Like These: An Ethnohistorical Analysis (University Microfilms International, 1976). Writes Nathaniel Tarn in summation: “Biographically, Diane Rothenberg’s essays are witness to the history of ethnopoetics. They continually approach art without ever leaving unattended the disciplined language of anthropological investigations. Their continuity of concern with women’s matters, from Seneca Indian nineteenth-century adaptations to those of a populist woman artist of today, bring a feminine viewpoint to ethnopoetics perhaps more powerfully than ever before. Here is the voice of a woman who is herself becoming a ‘mother of the nation.’” Copies of Mothers of the Nation are available through Ta’wil Books, joris@albany.edu, & additional excerpts appear here & there on Poems and Poetics.]