HOLLYWOOD — The smell of wood smoke wafted from the cooking chickee near the Hollywood Reservation baseball field on Feb. 7, in preparation for making apashkee, or roasted corn.
That morning, a lesson in the traditional roasting process was handed down to a very new generation. A class of 3- and 4-year-olds from the Seminole Preschool watched as Hollywood Cultural director Bobby Frank split wood to feed the cooking fire, then as elders parched raw corn in giant skillets on a grate over a roaring fire until it turned dark brown. Finally, it was fed and turned by hand in a shiny red grinder and sifted through woven baskets into bowls.
“This is apashkee,” Hollywood Community Culture Department language instructor Letitia Foster told the rapt group of youngsters. “You’ll have to learn how to make this. It’s very important.”
The Culture Department staff took turns stirring the corn with one hand while holding their intricately stitched patchwork skirts away from the fire with the other.
“Way back when I lived at the camp and my grandma was alive, I used to watch her do this,” Culture Department staffer Bonnie Williams said as she guided the process with occasional gestures and a few quiet words of encouragement. “This is how we used to do it before there was electricity for the stove.”
A giant pot of water also simmered on the cooking grate in preparation for what comes after the corn preparation process is complete, which takes about an hour.
Nowadays, Williams said, apashkee is mainly used to make sofkee, although it is sometimes used for flour.
After sifting, the cornmeal goes into boiling water along with baking soda and is mixed well – that simple recipe creates the popular drink.
Frank provided most of the muscle, between cutting wood and turning the grinder. “Do it again,” his young audience urged as he swung the ax into wood chunks with a satisfying crack.
In the old days, they used a mortar and pestle carved from a tree trunk to grind the corn, Williams said. Then people got mills.
Because grinding corn the traditional way is hard work, two people pounded with the pestles, said Hollywood Culture Center manager Jo Motlow North. “Now they use the more new-fangled method,” she said, waving to the waiting grinder.
“But you have to have strong arms, stronger than mine,” she said.
After singing the “Traveling Song,” the preschoolers lined up to watch the parched, fragrant corn being poured into the grinder and come out in golden shavings. After Foster gave a demonstration, they all got a turn at sifting, tentatively shaking the flat-bottomed baskets of cornmeal into bowls.
“You see that stuff coming out of the bottom?” Foster asked. “[That’s] what you use to make sofkee.”
Tribal elder Paul “Cowbone” Buster observed the youngsters’ enthusiasm and concentration on the lesson, new to them but done just the same for many generations before. The Culture Center language instructor and musician works diligently to share Seminole culture, both within the Tribe and outside, having ventured as far as Germany.
“These little kids probably won’t remember what we said here today,” Buster said, emphasizing that while formal education is necessary, the learning of traditions and customs at home is equally vital. “Parents must be the teachers.”