Native American foods, cooking methods to be explored at Historic Hanna's Town

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Traditional Native American foods and cooking methods will be presented by Todd Johnson, also known as Ghost in the Head, at a program Friday at Historic Hanna's Town.

A Huron on his mother's side, Mr. Johnson, 50, of McKeesport is no stranger to demonstrating the way of life practiced by his Native American ancestors.

"Todd has been a Native American presenter for many years," said Joanna Moyar, education coordinator for the Westmoreland County Historical Society, sponsor of the event. "In the past, the society has worked with him to find things in the Native American culture that would be of interest."

Nicknamed Ghost in the Head because of his efforts to learn about and bring back the traditional ways of his ancestors, Mr. Johnson has taken his knowledge to such places as the Meadowcroft Museum of Rural Life in Avella, the Pymatuning Pioneer Festival and the Springs Fall Festival in Springs, Somerset County.

"I've been going to Springs for years demonstrating how to cook stuffed pumpkins that I grow myself from seed," he said. "I consider the pumpkin a sort of crock pot I stuff with a combination of various Native American foods, such as wild rice, crayfish, potatoes, jerky, ham hocks and berries."

After stuffing the pumpkins, Mr. Johnson places them near the fire and continually rotates them for as long as six hours. When the pumpkin starts to collapse, it's a sign that the cooking process is over.

"My favorite is a mix of wild rice, green onions, cranberries and crayfish taken from local streams," he said.

At Historic Hanna's Town, the cooking program will focus on traditional methods and food items, especially corn. Mr. Johnson plans to prepare seven items, basically corn tortillas mixed with different seeds, fruits, nuts and meat -- mostly elk purchased from the Bugle Ridge Elk Farm in New Castle.

"I'll roll balls of cornmeal and put them in corn husks and either bake or boil them using hot stones or reproduction trade kettles from the18th century," he said. "The trick is not to cook them too fast but to make sure they're done all the way through without burning."

Mrs. Moyar said some modifications will be made to the traditional Native American cooking methods, such as the use of refrigeration to ensure food safety. Participants will be limited to about 20 people and will help in the food preparation process and get to taste the finished product.

To prepare for his demonstrations, Mr. Johnson researches and uses recipes he finds in Native American cookbooks, such as Frog Pond Stew and Thunder Turtle Rice.

"For the Frog Pond Stew, all the ingredients are found in or near North American ponds, such as wild rice, cranberries and frog legs," he said. "Thunder Turtle Rice is a combination of wild rice, snapping turtle, cranberries, blueberries and green onion."

Four years ago, Mr. Johnson and a colleague, Carol Fortunato, who is part Cherokee, conducted a scout training program at Historic Hanna's Town. Part of the program involved what he calls "quasi-Native American cooking."

"My favorite dish was gopher cooked on a hot rock," Mr. Johnson said. "All I had to do was eat and judge the finished product."

At Historic Hanna's Town, he has presented Native American traditions for older middle school students as part of the site's Hands on the Past Program. He also has set up a wigwam and displayed his collection of skins, tools and weapons and explained how they were used in the era before white settlers arrived.

Each March, he and friends participate in the Culinary Classic at the Washington County Fairgrounds. For the past two years, he and his team have taken home a trophy for the best-decorated booth, done in Native American style.

While Native American cooking may be his forte, his favorite food, sushi, originated an ocean away.

At home, his wife, Kitty, doesn't cook his ancestors' traditional dishes. Mr. Johnson said that task falls to him, especially when entertaining.

"Kitty's favorite thing to make for dinner is a reservation," he said.

Mr. Johnson believes that a restaurant specializing in Native American food would do well in our area, citing the success of the restaurant at the National Museum of the American Indian in the nation's capital .

"If there are any backers interested in opening one, I'm available," he said.

Hanna's Town is at 809 Forbes Trail Road, near Greensburg. The Mr. Johnson's cooking and food program starts at 1 p.m. Friday. Cost is $10, $5 for children. Registration is required: 724-532-1935, ext. 210.

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Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer:


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