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Sep 5, 2010 05:44 PM

Native American "cuisine"

The Chowhound Team split this tangent from a the Los Angeles Area board.

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I think it's possibly a cultural misnomer to speak of Native American "cuisine" in the same way we speak of Italian, German, etc. especially in conjunction with a restaurant experience. Traveling during the time before the Europeans' arrival meant being welcomed in by the local tribe and receiving their hospitality while you lodged with them. The European idea of staying at an inn and paying for your lodging and meals wasn't the cultural norm, and was likely nonexistant among the Native Americans. Even today, driving through reservation lands, you are very unlikely to see restaurants featuring Native American food, much less "cuisine." Before the coming of the Europeans, they had no metal utensils or pots to cook in, so cooking took far longer. Most of the people gathered and ate what was available seasonally. The Mono Indians around Mono Lake for example, used large sieve baskets to gather flie larvae from the lake which they dried and ate later. Acorns from the many oak trees in California provided a kind of flour after intensive preparation, and meat was usually caught or hunted, not domesticated. Excess meat was made into pemican (jerky) for traveling or later use. Most likely, the emphasis was on getting enough food, rather than raising the experience to a level of "cuisine."

"Indian Fry Bread" came into existence when the Indians who were forced onto reservations were given only minimal supplies (and often not even that) such as flour and oil or lard and had little access to fresh vegetation, etc. because they had been cut off from their normal migratory gathering routes or moved away from their cultivating areas. Despite that, "fry bread" has become a unifying cultural symbol among Native Americans. Unfortunately, this is why in some areas diabetes is rampant among Native Americans now - too much refined flour and fat and far less variety of vegetables, herbs, etc. in their diet.

There is in Native American culture the idea of the "three sisters" - corn, beans and squash - they were planted together - the beans grew and were ready first and used the emerging cornstalks as a support, corn harvested in summer, and the squash grew later and was harvested in the fall and lasted through winter. The beans helped put the nitrogen back into the soil that the corn had depleted. In this way the three kinds of food could be grown in the same square footage, requiring less area, less labor, less watering. This is why (at least on the eastern coast) "succotash" is a traditional dish that most likely originated from the Indians there.

"Authentic" Native American food cultivated, gathered, or caught and prepared in historically traditional ways is just too labor-intensive to be practical to provide in a restaurant in an on-going basis. You're probably going to have to content yourself with the Powwows Susans mentioned, or volunteer to spend a week or more at a reservation assisting with a project of some kind, or do some research and attempt to gather and cook your own. A museum or mission might be able to give you some local insight.

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  1. "Unfortunately, this is why in some areas diabetes is rampant among Native Americans now - too much refined flour and fat and far less variety of vegetables, herbs, etc. in their diet."

    Yes and no. There are many people doing PhD work trying to explain this phenomena and the results aren't yet in.
    The Native American diet has remained somewhat the same for thousands of years, but changed drastically in the past 200-300 years. I don't think it takes a PhD to figure out that changing a people's diet in 10 generations or so will have some side-effects.

    1. JM's is kind of a sad answer, sad in the sense that it essentializes the Native American experience into some nebulous past that cannot be recaptured, and so on. In what is now California alone there were 800 "tribes" at contact with hundreds of separate languages and traditions, including culinary traditions. There are many people in our southern California communities who blend these traditions into their daily lives, including in their cooking. Hopi people in Arizona and Pueblo people in New Mexico have maintained continuity of their language and traditions for around a thousand years in intact communities. If one travels to AZ or NM, there are many restaurants owned and operated by Native Americans. They don't all serve the same thing, nor do they necessarily serve pre-contact food. This doesn't make it less authentically Native American. Rather this is the food that some Native Americans, meaning the individuals designing the menu and preparing the food, consume. Just like food at "Italian" restaurants doesn't necessarily represent ancient Roman or Etruscan, or pre-Etruscan, cuisine but rather the food that the owner identifies as being "Italian," even if that represents a regional or micro-regional approach. Similarly, "Mexcian" restaurants might serve food that people eat in Oaxaca, the Yucatan, Sinaloa, DF, la frontera, or other areas of Mexico. Most likely it is not an exclusively pre-contact menu, although there are some restaurants in Mexico and a couple in the US doing wonderful things exploring pre-contact cuisine.

      I second the suggestion of attending a powwow. The OP can interact with some folks interested in sharing the cuisine and other aspects of Native American a lived experience that's just as diverse as that of other cultural groiups..

      1 Reply
      1. re: stuffed

        I'm speaking in grossly generalized terms, but I feel people are let down when trying to 'experience' Native cuisine. It does vary from region to region, but in general it becomes less....ahhhh...'complex' the further north you are.
        I like your point about Italian restaurants not representing ancient Roman cuisine. I think a region's cuisine is shaped by interaction with other cultures (friendly, hostile, or otherwise) - rice introduced to Spain by the Moors, Marco Polo bringing noodles to Italy, etc etc.
        European contact with Native Americans wasn't very interactive and resulted in a population decimation of 90%. Add to this overt and covert assimilation policies and the reservation system.
        Yeah, many Nations retain their heritage, culture, and language, but like everything else, it is at the mercy of concerted effort and perhaps even trends.
        I'm not trying to stir up debate, but rather put everyday, modern Native 'cuisine' in perspective.
        Most Natives (that I know) prepare their meals just like others do in the US or Canada. It is, sometimes more, sometimes less, supplemented or augmented by ancient traditional items and practices.
        Lotsa people I know will have a moose and a couple of deer in their freezer for the winter, so they don't rely on supermarket meats. Some will make a traditional meal once a week as did their parents and so on.

        1. Check out the book "Where People Feast" by Dolly and Annie Watts. I am sure you will love it.

          1. The problem with the term "Native American" is that it is a generalizaton. There are many different Nations that comprise this group, and there may be additional groups within any given nation. I advise to think more like Tuscan or Sicilian cooking vs "Italian" cooking. In NM alone, there are several pueblos.

            One cook/photography who has researched the Native American cooking in New Mexico is Lois Ellen Frank. In NM these are largely the pueblo cultures. She's written a few cookbooks - one of which is:

            The Santa Fe School of Cooking sometimes offers Native American cooking classes - where I first met Lois -