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Focus Global Kitchen

What it means to bring back Native American Food as ‘Gourmet’

When we rip our calendar’s pages to reveal the orange letters of “November”, it’s a popular topic for American journalists to revisit the origins of Thanksgiving and how it relates to Native America. I wanted to try relating my own life story in my newly appointed position of global kitchen columnist to have a chance to talk about Native America. First, I tried to understand what Thanksgiving means to me on a personal level. It is definitely an American holiday I have participated in voraciously. I then try to put it into a discussion around how we take Thanksgiving, remember the Native Americans by serving up Native American food, but how this all takes away from the potential to have a much deeper understanding of what Native America is and what they try to do for themselves when the United States government still marginalizes them.

Growing up in New Hampshire, I learned about the Thanksgiving meal eaten by the pilgrims in 1621 from my elementary school teachers. While most of these lessons were only myth, I barely paid attention, focusing instead on the crayon colorings of turkeys with my five fingers mimicking bright plumes or memorizing lines I had to sing for Thanksgiving plays, hoping I could be one of the “Indians” because they always had better outfits. I had no sense of how these plays could have hurt American Indians if they were watching.

At home, I helped mash potatoes for our family’s Thanksgiving meal which we drove up to Farmington, New Hampshire, amidst about thirty relatives from the American side of my family. I wouldn’t care about the five different kinds of meat—turkey, ham, fish, chicken, and sometimes veal—nor would I be concerned with the sides—marshmallow sweet potato, roasted vegetables, three different kinds of pasta salads all heaping with mayonnaise, and soft, homemade bread rolls—I was focused on desserts. I usually had two. One slice of pumpkin pie, one morsel of apple crisp (my mom’s was the best) and some vanilla Friendly’s ice cream on the side. We always played board games after dinner or took a walk around my uncle’s farm to pet cows and black faced sheep, and sometimes almost fell through the dilapidated farm floor boards in the barn.

Once I became more interested in food cultures, I was shocked at my own failings in focusing more on a holiday about food, rather than the historical marginalization of people. Furthermore, I am shocked at how little time we spend thinking about American Indians. In The New Yorker article “The Invention of Thanksgiving”, Philip Deloria writes about how autumn is the “Season of Native America.” She writes how Thanksgiving likes to invoke imperialist nostalgia because that’s mostly what the Pilgrims were: White, protestant, democratic imperialists that found ways to pit Native American people against each other to profit and claim land. Anthropologists call this rewriting of pilgrim and Native American history hard for contemporary America to digest, a challenge to ingrain in our psyches. A narrative that spoils our Thanksgiving meals. 

This raises a question: Could we commemorate Native Americaby incorporating Native American food into our own Thanksgiving meals? On November 6th, 2019, The New York Times published an article called, “The Essentials of Native American Cuisine,” which discussed several of Native American chef Sean Sherman’s recipes incorporating traditional ingredients. At first, I was worried about the article, thinking it was merely a trivial invitation for non-Native Americans to try cooking Native food. Maybe it was, but some might say involving the Native American food tradition can help non-Natives to understand the,  Native American struggles and identity through which they create their traditional food. “My identity is inseparable from the food that I eat,” said Tashia Hart, a Red Lake Anishinaabe and culinary ethnobotanist, writer.

So maybe food is an avenue for reconciliation with the wrongs of the past. After all, Sean Sherman is rising in popularity. Sherman wrote the cookbook The Sioux chef  published on October 10, 2017, about the indigenous food from the Northern Great Plains of the USA. He currently runs the catering company The Sioux Chef and plans to launch an Indigenous Food Lab by 2020.  He is one example of Native Americans defining what narratives to communicate with traditional food. See video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocm6DRIF9oU

Sherman’s recipes can also point to how Native American food has changed over time as well. As with its people, the cuisine has also struggled and adapted throughout history. For example, the creation of Fry bread 150 years ago is typically associated with Native American culture, even by Native Americans themselves. However, the doughy, fried frisbees only developed after a government subsidized food program was introduced by the USA Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) program, where wheat flour and lard were some of the items available.

Historically, Native Amercian foodways relied on bison and other wild meats. The three sisters, maize (corn), beans, and squash are known as the staple ingredients of traditional Native American food culture. The ability to farm and raise these products for themselves has been destroyed for many Native cultures. It was also forcibly taken away to socialize American Indians within European customs. Traditional foods are not available from the FDPIR program. Instead, they have been substituted for items such as “canned fruit, canned meat, powdered milk, bricks of yellow government-issued cheese, and dry cereals and oats packaged in white cardboard boxes with black block lettering.

Nowadays, being raised on canned goods and federally provided commodities is a source of cultural identity for reservation-raised Native Indians. The “common bod” means “commodity food body” and pokes fun at how the food provided by the government is unhealthy, and those who eat it will probably gain weight. That’s what the Native American food culture has turned into, but if we insist that traditional Native American trendy, we forget the dire state of the current Native American diet. 

It is a societal issue for Native American food to be considered gourmet because it doesn’t highlight the little known fact that Native American food systems have changed and Native American history is not appreciated on a daily basis. It emphasizes the focus on Native America only in November, around Thanksgiving. While it is great that people like Sean Sherman want to construct a different Native American food narrative, celebrating the diversity and resilience of people to survive and express their own traditions, I think he markets his dishes toward an audience who want it for “special occasions” and who only want to focus on the healthy, wholesome nature of how it used to be. The Native American narrative should not be for special moments. It should be a commonly acknowledged fact in American society that institutional racism forced native populations into situations that are still harmful for them today. Native American people have some of the worst health outcomes in the United States. Some of the worst crimes, unsolved, occur on Native American reservations. More than 50% of American Indians reside below the poverty line.

Thanksgiving is very much a part of the Western culture in the United States, Canada, and has even crossed oceans to be celebrated throughout the world. Ignoring the Thanksgiving tradition would also be avoidance of another cultural identity, and that’s not something I’d advocate in doing. I hope to make my Thanksgiving much less of a manic gluttonous and consumerist occasion, and try to learn and share about Native American heritage and culture. For final thoughts, I will make my best effort to not only think of Native America in November, but to make it apart of my daily perspective and hopefully each year, I can become more knowledgeable about how other people view the holiday in relation to their own histories.