Re­viv­ing Na­tive Amer­i­can Cui­sine

It’s all about eat­ing lo­cal

RSWLiving - - Contents - BY ALI­SON ROBERTS-TSE

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 stu­dents 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.

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

Pre­par­ing din­ner at Chest­nut Billy's In­dian Vil­lage along Tami­ami 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:...

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