A Fine Spread: A Visit to the Parkin Archeological State Park
Park interpreter Mel Harvey digs into the Native American table
Melissa Harvey has a lot of initials after her name — Ph.D., RPA, CIG, which means she’s earned her doctorate, is a professional archaeologist, and is a certified interpretive guide at Parkin Archeological State Park in Arkansas. And she likes to cook.
For the past few years, Mel has taken on the massive task of researching, gathering, storing, and cooking a fall feast for visitors to the park. The Casqui Foods event, each November, showcases foods that the American Indians who lived at the Parkin site in the 1300s through the 1500s may have eaten.
Venison, squirrel, pumpkin, acorns, sumac, persimmons, pine needles, sunflower seeds, pecans, corn, squash, tubers, and prickly pears all have a place at the table. Staying as true to traditional methods as possible (guests probably appreciate the substitution of butter for bear fat in the hoe cakes), Mel creates an authentic tasting tour of native Arkansas.
This past November, persimmons were collected, puréed, and dried into a subtly sweet fruit leather. Pemmican, a high-energy food with good storage and travel properties, was made with venison and dried fruit. Mel made several drinks — pine-needle tea, sumac-berry tea, and prickly-pear juice. Dried pumpkin, stewed vegetables, and smoked venison rounded out the offerings.
Mel is most proud of her popcorn. She grew and harvested the few cobs herself from a heritage variety.
Mel admits, “Acorns are really hard to stomach no matter how processed they are.” And that process is arduous. Mel has to grind, leech, and dry the acorns to make flour, which she then uses in an acorn “bread.” It has a nutty, earthy flavor and tastes much better than some commercially made cookies.
Amid stations where kids and adults alike could try their hand at grinding corn between stones, cracking tiny native pecans, and extracting oil from sunflower seeds, there were informative displays, cooking and history books, and period utensils.
What people ate historically can be a bit of a mystery. The Native Americans left behind utensils, cooking baskets, pots, and preserved stores of food, but no recipes. Mel’s reconstruction of a Casqui table gives us insight and inspiration into the original local foodies of the area.
Parkin Archeological State Park
60 Highway 184 N., Parkin, Arkansas 870-755-2500 • www.arkansasstateparks.com