Photo: NMAI staff photo, http://blog.nmai.si.edu
Photo: NMAI staff photo, http://blog.nmai.si.edu

Native Foods in Flavor Just In Time For Thanksgiving

We’ve all heard the tale of the first Thanksgiving: a feast where settlers from England and Native Americans gathered around a large wooden dining table outdoors and passed turkey, stuffing and other treats around until everyone was full, happy and thankful.

While turkey and stuffing have become staples in the cultural zeitgeist, Native American food hasn’t, until now. The tide is shifting, and according to an September CNN article, Native American fare is undergoing a refreshing revival around the country. In DC, there is only one restaurant dedicated to its promotion: the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe located on the first floor of the National Museum of the American Indian.

The Mitsitam menu is designed by Head Chef Freddie Bitsoie, who became the first Native American chef for the cafe in 2016.

“I think the reason why [there is a resurgence] is because of people like myself,” Bitsoie says. “Native food is something that wasn’t popular until Native chefs started talking about it. I had always been taught at a young age that people aren’t going to care until you make them care. So most Native chefs have that mentality. Whatever your point of view is, make them talk about it.”

Bitsoie also references Bobby Flay and Martha Stewart making fried bread on their shows, which caused people to tag and text him snippets with comments indicating the famed and white chefs had no right to culturally appropriate the dish. He disagreed, simply saying that he makes a “damn good” ossobuco, and if he could demo it on TV then he would.

“No Italian chefs would say, ‘I don’t have the right to do that,’” Bitsoie says. “Appropriating Native arts like jewelry [and] fashion, to me, is fine. But food is personal and people want to go home and try things they like. It’s a very fine line to promote and talk about it. But if people are mimicking it, we’re doing what we’re supposed to.”

One reason Native American foods continue to climb in culinary popularity is the fact that they are immeasurably diverse and expansive. As a person without in-depth food knowledge (I’m not really a foodie, if you will), the first thing I think of on mention of Native American food is corn-based dishes and buffalo meat. I was uneducated about salmon planks or the wide variety of soups indigenous chefs have concocted throughout history.

“People really do think boring, bland and grainy when they think of Native foods,” Bitsoie says. “These are things myself and other chefs are trying to change. For instance, New England clam chowder is a soup that has an ancestral path to the North Atlantic. Tribes from Nova Scotia would make soup with clams, sunchokes and sea water. When the English came, they added their cream and butter and that’s how it came to be. I researched and researched to see if there was a clam chowder from England, and I couldn’t find one.”

With Thanksgiving this month, there’s no better time for these dishes to move to the forefront of the culinary world and find homes on menus nationwide. For Bitsoie, Native American foods should still hold weight during the holiday because of its historical significance.

“When it comes to historical stories and historical things, a lot of genocide and other things occurred,” Bitsoie says. “I think more people got along than what we’re portraying, and fed each other. We still have things like the state fair, [which is] a celebration of sharing food.”

Bitsoie says Thanksgivings were pretty standard growing up, with the exception of being at his grandmother’s house where they would pick a sheep and butcher it for an evening meal. These days, his work includes concocting the cafe’s holiday specials. This year’s Thanksgiving options range from your standard turkey to change-up tastes like bison and salmon.

“I think people should be more interested in eating gourd squash,” Bitsoie says. “I think it’s used more as decor right now. What I like to do is rough chop it, toss it in sugar and bake it. It’s a very versatile dish. And I think people should utilize quail a lot more. It’s a very good bird.”

To learn more about the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe and its food specials for the holidays, visit www.mitsitamcafe.com.

National Museum of the American Indian: Independence Avenue and 4th Street in SW, DC; 202-633-6644; www.mitsitamcafe.com