Did Indian Cookies originate from the Gaelic New Years’ Soul Cake?

There was a lot of culture sharing when settlers came to these lands. In particular with the Iroquois people. Dutch, German, Scots, and English peoples were our friends, some became family. They were a part of our daily lives and as much as they adopted some of our traditions — their ways of life slowly started to mix in with our ways. So much so that now we consider some of their traditions to be ours as well.

Take for example, the Indian cookie.

On New Year’s Day on Six Nations and on other Haudenosaunee territories there is a tradition called Nu-yah. It’s a lot like Hallowe’en trick-or-treating in that children go door-to-door or to their families homes, knocking on doors and cry out ‘Nu-yah! Nu-yah!’ In exchange for the visit, they are given treats, usually what we call ‘Indian Cookies’.

An Indian Cookie is a fat cookie — soft and delicious with warm spices and usually contains raisins. Its not hard or chewy. It’s more like a scone in texture, that is British tea scones and not rez scones.

In any event, there is no agreed up on standard answer for when or where the tradition of Nu-yah-ing and the giving of Indian Cookies actually comes from.

Some folks on Six Nations say that the day is a time for children to celebrate their father’s family and the clan relationship they have with their loved ones on that side of their families and that it was how the New Year was always celebrated – minus the cookies.

Tuscarora families say the tradition came to the Iroquois territories with them as something they borrowed from the German people who lived nearby when they were in the Carolinas.

Varying origin stories aside – the facts are that Indian cookies were not something that Iroquois or other indigenous nations had as a traditional food pre-contact. They are something that we learned, loved, and incorporated as something that is now near and dear to all of our bellies in Haudenosaunee country.

But did you know there is another cookie that is similar to an Indian cookie that has an interesting connection to New Year celebrations that may shed a light on where this tradition came from?

In the 17th century – right around when settling in North America was getting busy — the Brits, Scots and Irish brought with them a New Year tradition of handing out ‘Soul Cakes’.

Now a Soul Cake is very similar to an Indian Cookie – being a soft, fat cookie with warm spices and fruit. The recipes are incredibly close, minus just one ingredient: baking powder.

Here’s the cool part — unlike Indian Cookies handed out on New Year’s Day (January 1) — Soul Cakes were given during Hallowe’en. Back then they called it All Hallow’s Eve, or the feast of Hallowtides (which means holy times). It’s also known as the Gaelic New Year. Some people still call it that, referring to the time between October 28 – November 1.

History tells us that the tradition began in the middle ages, somewhere in the regions of Wales, and became was a tradition of blended faiths itself, bringing together the Gaelic New Year’s festival of Samhain and the Christian tradition of All Souls’ Day that commemorated departed loved ones.

Folks would travel from house to house, “souling” knocking on people’s doors and collecting soul cakes. Each cake collected was believed to be a prayer said for your departed family members. In the Irish tradition, peasants would travel door to door asking for food to celebrate the tradition. Homeowners would give soul cakes and doing so would guarantee their home would stay free from curses and pranks.

Could it be that our closeness in the 17th century helped create the Haudenosaunee Indian Cookie tradition from these Gaelic New Year Soul Cake traditions? It’s an interesting thing to ponder. And a nice thing to consider that though our history is filled with conflict between settlers and indigenous people – there are also these peppered moments of sameness and shared human experience that we still cherish today.

Here’s the recipe for Soul Cakes. Happy Hallowtides!

To make Soul Cakes:

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 egg yolks (free range)
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 pinch saffron (or turmeric for the colour)
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • 2 tbs milk
  • 1/4 cup raisins

Instructions:

  • Cut up the butter into small chunks to allow it to soften. Preheat oven to 350°F
  • Soak the raisins in a cup of hot water for about 10-15 minutes.
  • Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar together in a medium-sized mixing bowl until light and fluffy.
  • Whisk in the egg yolks.
  • Add the flour and spices, adding enough milk to form a dough that holds together.
  • Drain and stir in the raisins.
  • Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and roll out to about 1cm thick .
  • Bake about 25 mins

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