Kanuchi and the Search for a Native American Soup for Thanksgiving

A bowl of kanuchi (Cherokee nut soup) with a sweet potato garnish, seen from directly above

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

As a first-generation Chinese-American, I didn't grow up with a sufficiently standard Thanksgiving tradition to think much about what I ate. At our table, green beans gave way to garlicky pea vines; mashed potatoes were swapped for preserved egg congee; stuffing was replaced by oval rice cakes. For a solid decade or more, I thought our family’s (very dry, often-microwaved) Butterball boneless turkey roast was how all Americans cooked turkey. But now that I’ve begun hosting Thanksgiving in my own home, the question of why feels much more pertinent: Why do we eat what we eat for Thanksgiving? What are these traditions I'm participating in? Do I even understand them?

The answer is no, but it took me pursuing a recipe for the Cherokee kanuchi, a creamy, nut-based soup, to realize just how much I didn't understand. I’ve been working on this soup series for Serious Eats, and when we were discussing what to do for Thanksgiving, they asked whether I'd be interested in developing a Native American soup. It seemed obvious enough—Thanksgiving has become the time of year when every US food publication gives a nod to “Native American cuisine.” And when I first found online accounts of kanuchi, I was immediately excited that I'd found the perfect one: The nuts are pounded whole! They’re formed into balls and stored in stone pots or wood barrels! What in the world is a hickory nut?

But I quickly learned that just because kanuchi is Native American doesn't mean it has any relation to Thanksgiving: There are hundreds of tribes in North America, all with their own cuisines, allegiances, and wars, and—as Chef Taelor Barton told me—each with a different relationship to the colonizers. Barton, who identifies as part of the Cherokee Nation, is a private chef and indigenous foods activist. She explained to me the event we now depict as the "first" Thanksgiving was in actuality a harvest celebration (a common autumnal event practiced by various tribes) that took place in what is today Massachusetts, attended by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people. The nature of the peace was debatable, however, given the European-introduced epidemic of leptospirosis the Wampanoag had suffered just years prior; this had decimated a large part of their population and given the Pilgrims an unexpected advantage.

For Chef Barton and many other Native Americans, Thanksgiving is considered a day of mourning—a reminder of their profound loss and suffering after the arrival of Europeans. So for those of us who do observe the holiday, is it even appropriate to include indigenous recipes on the Thanksgiving table? And if so, when? Is there a way to use food to change the narrative of American Thanksgiving?

These were the questions I posed, unsure, to Chef Barton as well as Andean Chef Andrea Murdoch, the founder of Four Directions Cuisine, which is a culinary business rooted in contemporary indigenous food. While my interviews were conducted separately, a common thread emerged: Both chefs encouraged focusing on Thanksgiving's harvest roots by featuring indigenous ingredients and highlighting the nuances of different Native American cuisines. By doing that, they suggested we can help re-center the day as a celebration of the land and of the indigenous tribes who turned the land into fertile reservoirs of pre-colonial foods that set the foundation for staples like turkey, cranberries, green beans, and corn.

In this sense, paying respect to a dish like kanuchi, unmarred by colonial influence and made to honor the entire plant, seemed fitting—even if its Cherokee origins means it was largely eaten in the Southeastern region of the US and was never a part of that "first" Thanksgiving table in colonial New England. The soup can serve as a jumping-off point for incorporating regionally accurate nut soups in Thanksgiving menus across the US, from Apache acorn soup in the Southwest to black walnut and pumpkin soup and hazelnut soup from the Northern woodland tribes whose territories extended into Canada.

Shagbark hickory nuts, the main ingredient in Cherokee kanuchi. [Photograph: Shutterstock]

The classic base of kanuchi is hickory nuts, the edible nuts of the indigenous hickory tree. “Nuts were very important to the tribes because they were calorie-rich and had a long shelf life to last the hard winter months,” Chef Barton says. These particular nuts, which taste like a cross between pecan and walnut, are one of the few indigenous nuts that can be eaten raw; fortunately, they also do not have any poisonous look-alikes. Barton learned from her grandmother to choose nuts from the shagbark hickory, which yields larger pieces of nutmeat and has a slightly softer shell that's easier to crack, over other varieties, like the pignut hickory.

Given how difficult it is to find hickory nuts (they are not commercially produced), Barton recommends using its close relative, the indigenous pecan nut called so-hi-a-ni-nv-hi-da in Cherokee. When I ask, somewhat nervously, if publishing a recipe in the style of kanuchi with pecan nuts may be offensive to some Native Americans, Chef Barton further explained her philosophy on the matter. “[Substitutions] are okay if you are serving a need. Because we had these [ingredients] from before, pecan for hickory nut [is okay].”

In contrast, using wheat flour in place of cornmeal is a different scenario: “Why did the Natives have [flour]? It’s because change was forced upon them,” Chef Barton said. This tension is especially well reflected in contested “Native” recipes like fry bread, which includes refined flour, perhaps the result of Native Americans relying on rations instead of on the land. As Chef Murdoch described it, “We had a hard time growing ancestral foods on the land ‘given’ to us for use by the government. As a result, there are incredibly high rates of obesity and heart disease in the community.”

Pecan or hickory, the classic and time-consuming method is to crack whole nuts in a hardwood kanvn, or hollowed-out tree stump, historically also made from hickory trees, using a wooden pestle-like tool, often also carved from hickory. This is not an easy process, and special care has to be taken to remove bad nuts, as it only takes a few to ruin a whole batch of soup.

Pecans in a food processor, before being processed.

Pecans have a similar flavor to hickory nuts, and are much easier to find. Processing them to a paste in a food processor is the first step in making kanuchi at home.

Chef Barton described good-quality hickory nuts as creamy in color with a fresh, clean, and oily smell; those that are discolored, darkened, or black with a rancid odor should be removed. After the cracked shells are picked through by hand, the leftover nutmeat is pounded into a paste and formed into softball-sized balls. (It is worth noting when this "pounding" is done in modern food processors, the final paste may be looser and thus more resistant to being formed into balls, but it still makes for great soup). Kanuchi balls would be kept in wood barrels or stone pots as a form of food security over the winter. These days, freezing is a more common choice for long-term storage.

To turn nut paste into nut soup, the nut ball is placed into water, boiled, and brought to a simmer for roughly 45 minutes. “Let the fat go into the water; let the simmer emulsify it together,” Chef Barton instructed me. When I made the soup, I saw what she meant: The nut oils first separated and pooled on the surface, but after a long simmer and rapid boil, they bound together again into a creamy base.

A mixture of pecan-nut puree and water simmers in a saucepan on the stovetop; you can see from residue on the inner walls of the pot that it has already reduced quite a bit.

Kanuchi simmering in a saucepan until thickened.

When the soup has reduced to one’s preferred thickness, it's strained to remove any remaining bits of shell and either sweetened or salted. “All the Southeastern tribes have their own version,” Chef Barton told me. “My family’s tradition is to sweeten it with maple syrup as [our tribes’ lands] had maple sap–producing trees.”*

*Food as a form of connection to the land is a recurrent theme here, driving home the point of just how devastating a loss it was for the Cherokee and neighboring tribes to be forcibly relocated west to what is now Oklahoma (Chef Barton currently resides in Stillwater, OK). Chef Murdoch explained that this moving of “indigenous people from somewhere they have farmed and hunted for generations to somewhere else where they are unfamiliar” was not just about extracting real estate: “It was an act of genocide.”

The final presentation of kanuchi may look plain, but it reflects the complex interconnectedness of the cuisine. It is typically served over a grain, historically hominy, and just as the trunk and branches of the hickory tree are incorporated in the making of the nut paste that serves as the base for kanuchi, so are the ashes of spent hickory wood used in the creation of its accompanying hominy. By mixing together ashes with simmering water, the Cherokee created an alkaline solution known colloquially as “wood ashes lye.” This was used to soften the hull on dried corn kernels and kickstart the process of nixtamalization, or the breaking down of corn’s cellular walls, to make the final product easier to digest.

A bowl of kanuchi (Cherokee nut soup) with a sweet potato garnish

In addition to hominy, serving kanuchi over roasted sweet potatoes or white rice has been accepted by many families, including Chef Barton’s. Neither are indigenous to the Americas (the origin of sweet potatoes is still being probed), so this complicated weaving of Native with non-Native offers its own tale of assimilation and identity: “Limes are not indigenous to Mexico, but they grow very well and have been widely adapted into the cuisine,” Chef Murdoch offered as an example. “Pork is not pre-colonial, but pig roasts are hugely important for the Cherokee.”

While Chef Murdoch said she is comfortable utilizing some technically non-pre-colonial ingredients, both she and Chef Barton reminded me there are implications here beyond food. Many of the now-older generation of Native Americans were subjected to “Indian boarding schools” and indoctrinated with the colonizer philosophy that non-Native beliefs, foods, and practices were superior, which has since played out across generations. “Because of [how] invasive American traditions are, Native families often adopted white traditions to assimilate,” Chef Barton said. “The goal was to disrupt [our] culture and knowledge.” Now, where each person chooses to draw the line of "indigenous culture" has also become a core aspect of personal choice.

Thanksgiving may forever be a cornerstone of US culinary tradition, but we can still encourage it to grow and adapt to better reflect all Americans. “If people feel it is integral to [their] American identity to practice Thanksgiving, then [let’s] use the platform to better ourselves and American culture,” said Chef Barton. One simple way to do this? Supporting Native American farmers of indigenous crops, so they can regain sovereignty over the foods their ancestors grew and ate and lands they once rightfully inhabited, and that we now call home.

The impact of how we eat at Thanksgiving extends beyond the table. By readjusting our intent, so that we more mindfully celebrate this land and what it continues to offer us, this tradition can have a better chance to come full circle for the Native Americans with whom we so strongly associate the holiday. “Cooking takes a long time,” Chef Barton said with a small chuckle as she reminisced about learning the kanuchi process from her grandmother. It afforded them the time to connect and bond. "That’s how you pass history down.”