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Photo: Trent Johnson
Photo: Trent Johnson

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

Photos: Michael Loria
Photos: Michael Loria

Americans at the National Museum of the American Indian

The main gallery space of “Americans,” a new long-term exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian, has the immersive feel of Nam June Paik’s “Megatron/Matrix” at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art on F Street. Though it isn’t frenetic like Paik’s field of TVs, “Americans” is still mesmerizing, and has the same quality of making familiar objects appear strange.

“Americans” doesn’t read like a typical museum exhibit, and the feeling it leaves you with is quite different as well. This is due to the question that the exhibit poses, which museum director Kevin Gover shared in an exhibit preview before the public opening on January 18. 

“American Indian images, words and stories are all around. Why?”

The exhibit goes into the commonly referenced American Indian stories of Pocahontas, Little Big Horn, The Trail of Tears and Thanksgiving, but it’s the main gallery space that has the most palpable effect, and which so plainly encapsulates Gover’s words.

View from main gallery space.

Stand in the center of the main gallery space, and all around you will see how American Indian imagery is ubiquitous in American branding and how American Indian words are ubiquitous in American geography. You will see countless schools and spirits that take their imagery from American Indians, and there’s even a poster of Cher in an American Indian headdress.

Granted, many of the objects on display come from an older generation, but there are so many more which we encounter still, including Land O’Lakes butter, any number of sports teams (the Washington team chief among them), American Spirit cigarettes and, on the wall, there’s even a deactivated Tomahawk missile.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest plays at one end of the gallery

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest playing in the gallery

The side galleries that go into the aforementioned stories are very interesting and enlightening (e.g., did you know that John Smith was a fabulist and Pocahontas likely never saved his life in so dramatic a fashion, but that her marriage to John Rolfe still saved the life of the colony?) But it’s the main gallery space that is not to be missed.

The main gallery even made me reconsider my Hydro Flask canteen, which I was drinking from during the preview. There isn’t anything particularly American Indian about Hydro Flask, but it’s the Wyoming state sticker on my canteen that gave me pause.

IMG_2186

The sticker depicts a bison, and what is that bison but a synecdoche for American Indian imagery otherwise? Will I remove it? No, probably not. I have the sticker because it reminds me of a summer spent camping with friends in Wyoming and Utah, and that reason still stands. But I also won’t ever look at my canteen in a so “la vie en rose” way again.

“Americans” is on view every day from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Learn more about the exhibit here

National Museum of the American Indian: 4th Street and Independence Avenue in SW, DC; 202-633-1000; www.nmai.si.edu

"The last image of an american indian i saw was i looked in the mirror"

“The last image of an American Indian I saw was when I looked in the mirror.”