Re­viv­ing Na­tive Amer­i­can Cui­sine

It’s all about eat­ing lo­cal

Bonita & Estero Magazine - - FRONT PAGE -

The story of Na­tive Amer­i­cans and pil­grims shar­ing a healthy fall har­vest din­ner usu­ally arises only around Thanks­giv­ing. Yet with all those won­der­ful farm-totable choices, many of us will spend the hol­i­days eat­ing canned sauces, sugar-sweet­ened pies and green beans smoth­ered in mush­room soup con­cen­trate—hardly au­then­tic or hearty Na­tive Amer­i­can foods.

The re­vival of au­then­tic Na­tive Amer­i­can cui­sine, how­ever, is build­ing mo­men­tum in the hands of for­ward-think­ing Na­tive Amer­i­can chefs in Florida, the South­west and other ar­eas of the United States.


Al­though roast turkey was likely ab­sent at the uni­fied har­vest cel­e­bra­tion in 1621 on the East Coast, turkey and other game birds were a part of the Semi­nole peo­ples’ reg­u­lar diet. A Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion re­port from1883-1884 noted, “The Semi­nole… is never at a loss when he seeks some­thing [good] to eat,” only be­cause Florida’s en­vi­ron­ment pro­vided an abun­dance of foods. In ad­di­tion to quail and duck, the Semi­nole tribe also brought deer, pigs, opos­sum, rab­bits and the oc­ca­sional bear to the ta­ble. The sea of­fered fish, tur­tles and oys­ters, and the in­dus­tri­ous tribe skill­fully cul­ti­vated a va­ri­ety of grains, veg­eta­bles, roots and fruits.

The Semi­noles ate so­cially—and in­for­mally. Ethno­g­ra­phers in the 19th cen­tury re­ported that food was al­most con­tin­u­ously pre­pared at the camp­fire, the tribe’s

so­cial hub. Dur­ing reg­u­lar meal­times, in­di­vid­u­als sat around a good-sized ket­tle con­tain­ing stewed meat and veg­eta­bles; how­ever, the Semi­noles were wel­come to eat when­ever hunger struck, the ket­tle and big spoon al­ways ready. The Semi­nole tribe gen­er­ously shared food at all times, yet par­tic­u­larly dur­ing com­mu­nal gath­er­ings.

Through­out the years, the Semi­noles’ com­mu­nal as­pect of pre­par­ing food and din­ing has per­se­vered. His­tor­i­cal pho­to­graphs from the Semi­nole Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Mu­seum in Clewis­ton demon­strate the col­lec­tive as­pect of meal prepa­ra­tion: men fish­ing to­gether in a tra­di­tional dugout ca­noe; chil­dren watch­ing a woman pound­ing maize; and a gag­gle of women tend­ing to a pot on the fire. The tribe de­pended upon each other to pro­duce a hearty meal, and fam­i­lies ea­gerly crowded be­neath open-air chic­kee huts to share that bounty.

The Semi­nole tribe pre­serves na­tive cook­ing meth­ods by con­tin­u­ing to ed­u­cate the next gen­er­a­tion. Last year, for ex­am­ple, Semi­nole chefs led a pop­u­lar six-week cook­ing pro­gram af­ter school. Ear­lier this sum­mer st udents at Pe­mayetv Ema­hakv (Our Way) Char­ter School in Okee­chobee “stepped back in time as they pre­pared a com­mu­nal meal” dur­ing a day full of cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties, as noted in the tribal news­pa­per, The Semi­nole Tri­bune. The chil­dren cleaned fish and chopped swamp cab­bage to ac­com­pany the meal of a 200-pound hog and roasted wa­ter tur­tles.


Al­though there are only a hand­ful of Na­tive Amer­i­can eater­ies scat­tered across the coun­try, na­tive cui­sine is com­ing into vogue. Na­tive food “can cen­ter us,” ex­plains David Ruiz, ex­ec­u­tive chef of the Pue­blo Har­vest Cafe in Al­bu­querque, New Mex­ico. “It can an­swer our ques­tion of, ‘What’s our home food?’ ”

Ad­di­tion­ally, Na­tive Amer­i­can cui­sine aids in the gen­eral quest for whole, nat­u­ral, lo­cal and sus­tain­able foods. Boris Revilla, food and bev­er­age di­rec­tor at Pue­blo Har­vest Cafe, says, “Na­tive Amer­i­can cui­sine rep­re­sents the orig­i­nal lo­cal, fresh, healthy ap­proach to eat­ing―and it’s full of de­li­cious fla­vors,” prov­ing there are many ben­e­fits of eat­ing tra­di­tional na­tive cui­sine, he adds.

Na­tive Amer­i­can food is gain­ing a larger pub­lic foothold, and na­tive restau­rants are of­ten open­ing that door. In New Mex­ico, for ex­am­ple, Pue­blo Har­vest Cafe seeks to ex­pose din­ers’ pal­ettes to in­dige­nous in­gre­di­ents in ex­cit­ing ways by rein­ter­pret­ing them. For ex­am­ple, its Three Sis­ters Rata­touille dish in­cor­po­rates tra­di­tional squash, beans and corn, yet fea­tures a black-bean purée and sweet corn. Mod­ern rein­ter­pre­ta­tions in­vite food­ies to sam­ple na­tive cui­sine; recipes may bring a rich Span­ish mix­ture of chilies, sautéed cac­tus and cal­abac­i­tas con puerco, for ex­am­ple.

In Min­neapo­lis, The Sioux Chef uses food as a plat­form for Na­tive Amer­i­can cul­tural out­reach. The cater­ing com­pany holds for­ag­ing events and leads cook­ing classes, dis­sem­i­nat­ing an­ces­tral knowl­edge as tribal mem­bers also re­claim their gas­tro­nomic her­itage. These ed­u­ca­tional ini­tia­tives in­vite Amer­i­cans of ev­ery back­ground to learn about Na­tive Amer­i­can cul­ture, thereby in­creas­ing their pres­ence in gen­eral Amer­i­can cul­ture, by way of food.

With its rich his­tory, Na­tive Amer­i­can cui­sine is not just a trend and can be ap­pre­ci­ated any day of the year, not just on Thanks­giv­ing.

Ali­son Roberts-Tse has been hap­haz­ardly scrib­bling in jour­nals since she was a small-town small-fry. She has de­grees in com­mu­ni­ca­tions and dance from the Uni­ver­sity of Wis­con­sin, Madi­son. She now lives in Lon­don, spends time on Sanibel and ob­ses­sively plans getaways, both near and far.

Pre­par­ing din­ner at Chest­nut Billy's In­dian Vil­lage along T ami­ami Trail. Be­low, top pho­tos: Stu­dents from Okee­chobee pre­pare and taste Semi­nole cui­sine. Bot­tom left: Sean Sher­man of The Sioux Chef in­structs teens on Na­tive Amer­i­can in­gre­di­ents. Right:...

Tra­di­tional Na­tive Amer­i­can cui­sine is see­ing a re­vival across the United States.

The Bi­son Poyha Sand­wich with chokecherry sauce at Pue­blo Har­vest Cafe. Top: The cafe's chef David Ruiz (left) and the award-win­ning Tewa Taco, a com­bi­na­tion of pue­blo beans, ground beef, shred­ded cheese, let­tuce, tomato, onion and chile on fr ybread.

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