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A Navajo Chef on the Complexities of Modernizing Native American Cuisine

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In the culinary world, Native American food—let alone its various tribal iterations—is incredibly difficult to find, even amongst New York’s uncountable ethnic cuisines. Silverbird, New York’s most recognized Native American restaurant, shut its doors in 1989 after just under three years in operation, despite its novelty dishes (salmon jerky, blue corn soup) and showbiz ambiance (Paul Newman was familiar face).

To try Native American food, I had to travel to Mitsitam Native Foods Café in Washington D.C., at the National Museum of the American Indian. The fourth floor of the museum is dedicated to documenting the horrors of over 100 years of forced assimilation, plus many more of cultural erasure, of Native peoples. It makes me wonder if the relative absence of Native American food from the mainstream American palate—specifically the palates of a non-Native Americans like me—signifies the suppression of the wider culture, history, and struggles of Native American people. Our ignorance has resulted, however indirectly, in dire consequences, namely the Dakota Access Pipeline, which cuts through sacred Sioux land and threatens the area's water supply.

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Back at the Cafe, I ate a Navajo taco made of thick fry bread covered in buffalo chili; hominy salad with watercress in a creamy sauce; and delicately flavored sautéed root vegetables that had a tender bite. Mitsitam showcases the flavors of five regional cuisines, adapted to modern tastes. The differences in bounty and technique between the areas are obvious: dishes from the Great Plains rely heavily on bison; the Northwest Coast inspires dishes like salmon in leek sauce over an indigenous quick bread called bannock, as well as roasted yellow beets in a seaweed vinaigrette. Atlantic clam soup, an ancestral version of the well-known clam chowder, and maple-brined turkey with blueberry sauce and braised kale, represent the cuisine of the Northern Woodlands. The Mesoamerican section resembles modern day Mexican food, with pinto beans, carne asada, and guacamole.

To learn more about this menu and Native American cuisine, I sat down with Freddie Bitsoie, the executive chef at Misitam and ethnic Navajo—or Diné, as Bitsoie prefers to identify himself, as that word is actually derived from the Navajo language; it translates to "the people." (According to the National Park Service, "navajo" is derived from "nava hu," a Tewa-puebloan word meaning "place of planted fields.") Before arriving at Misitam, Bitsoie studied at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute and was the executive chef at a Navajo casino in Gallup, New Mexico, where he attempted to cook healthy foods to combat ailments like diabetes and obesity, which is high in Native populations. This was met with disinterest by the casino management, so he decided to travel across the country giving lectures about Native American culture at various organizations, like the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, and Yale University. He began working at Misitam in October 2016.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Chef Freddie Bitsoie
Chef Freddie Bitsoie

Native American cuisine is extremely underrepresented. Why do you think that that the public hasn’t yet gained appreciation for it?

As much as we claim we aren't racially or ethnically biased, food [gives us away]. We put labels and projections on our foods based on the ethnic identity of who eats them. [What is eaten] is based on where the culture stands, and it happens to be that most of Native culture, along with other ethnic cultures, are at the bottom of the food hierarchy.

What people are willing to pay for food is also based on this. Last night, I went to Carmine’s, and my group spent $500 and that was fine. If you sold Native American food for $500 dollars, people are going to ask, “Why?” French food is the same thing. It is expensive but no one argues about it. But when it comes to Ethiopian food, Native American food, Mexican food—foods that are based on cultures that aren't predominantly wealthy, people are going to ask, “Why are we paying so much for this?”

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Can you describe to me some of the foods, ingredients, and techniques that are commonly used in Native culture?

Some ingredients in Native American cuisine are rare and hard to find. Cholla buds, which have an asparagus-like flavor, are the blossom of a cactus before they bloom into flowers. Around April, the tribes in the Sonoran Desert go out and harvest the buds. They then roast and dry them. The process of getting them is difficult. First of all, you're working with cacti. So even if there is a little gust of wind, the little glockets will blow up and they will get stuck to your face or arm. The desert is also 110 degrees on a good day and there are rattlesnakes. Saguaro seeds are the seeds of the fruit of a tall cactus, which have a very good, nutty flavor and are very high in calcium. They are like poppy seeds. So you can put them on muffins, and I usually crust quail with them.

For Native cuisine, the techniques are simple and aim to extract as much flavor as possible from the ingredients. There is a cooking technique that involves sautéing and steaming. For potatoes, for example, you just put a little bit of oil on the bottom of a pan and cook the potatoes until you get a crust on some of them. Then, you cover them with a lid to keep all the moisture in, steaming at the same time you are sautéing. It is a very weird technique that I did once for a French chef. His response was that I overcooked the potatoes. Native people also completely cook their onions to the point of them falling apart.

In early European cooking, spices were often needed not for flavor, but to cover the taste of spoiled food. In Native food cultures, it was understood that the animal is alive one day, dead the next, and completely consumed. Food was only preserved as far as making jerky, but it wasn’t stored. Aside from the Incas, everybody else killed the animal, picked what they needed, and ate it immediately. So there was no need for spices; there was no need for aromatics; there was no need to cover up anything.

What are some of the current misconceptions that you know people have about Native American cuisine, and how do you think they developed—considering the large unfamiliarity in this country with Native Food?

I think people need to be a little more educated about Native cuisine from something other than a humanities perspective. Take the “Three Sisters” crops, for example. Companion planting is actually an intelligent farming technique, but in humanities, it is often framed as a cute story, feeding into this simplistic caricature of Natives as “one with the Earth.”

People tend to think of Native food as boring, bland, grainy, and weird looking. It gets a bad reputation. I lived Albuquerque, New Mexico, a city that is surrounded by mountains and Indian reservations. There are at least six Indian tribes surrounding the city. One day, my co-worker saw some Pueblo [line cooks] and she said, "Freddie, come here. Can you just stand by me? I don't know if you are going to need to translate." And I told her, "But I don't speak their language." And she replied, "I thought you all spoke the same language." If someone can live in Albuquerque, where the the saturation of Indian culture is so obvious, and still not know each tribe is different, it is as much as they know about the culture and food. What it comes down to is that people just don't know enough. Whether they want to or not, I don't know. But they just don't know enough.

You have often said that your mission is to broaden the popularity of Native American cuisine. This means making it more palpable and comfortable to an audience that isn’t familiar. Why did you choose to combine Native ingredients with western ones and modernize Native cuisine, instead of adopting a cooking style that is more pre-colonial? How do you maintain authenticity?

I stopped referring to anything as authentic. I stopped this because Native food is like any other ethnic food, where “everybody's grandmother cooks better than the other.” It drives me crazy when people say this isn't Native enough or this is too Native. Where is the gauge? When people put a gauge on culture, it is very divisive. I constantly felt like I was trying to create an argument about food rather than just appreciating it and letting it take its force. Foods become extinct, something better comes along, something more efficient. Something will always change. And if we don't adhere to the change, especially in the food world, things become boring. And so far, with this particular way that I am presenting the authenticity of this food, nobody is questioning it. Nobody is saying, “This isn't Native.”

I realized that in order to make any type of change or make any type of impact, there has to be a little bit of danger. Otherwise, if you are safe and do everything from the past, you are just going to be a boring one-hit wonder. I will still make the traditional stuff, which I lecture about and teach, but there has always gotta be that new element. This is not grandma's food, but [includes] some of grandma's food.

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Food is often seen as a very safe place to learn about and enjoy other cultures, but I personally always see a limit to this. For example, a racist grandmother who enjoys tacos is still racist. For you, where does the line stand between appreciation and appropriation? Is it problematic to enjoy a part of a group's culture, for example their cuisine, without having a true understanding of the history and struggles of that group?

I really don't put appropriation and food in the same sentence. Francis Ford Coppola opened a Native American restaurant and the Natives were up in arms about it. I celebrated it because it let me know that the movement is still happening and people are trying to make Native food popular. I make the best osso buco of anyone I know, and no Italian chef is coming to my door and saying, ”You can't make that." If it is the case globally that other people can cook other people's cultural foods, it should be the same for Native American food. When people say I am the first Native chef at the museum, it it true but this isn't a necessary position to be filled by a Native American. The only time I think it matters is when it is based on ceremonial purposes, but you will rarely find any non-Native person at a Native American ceremony, so that is highly unlikely.

In what way can popularizing Native cuisine give way to more discussion about Native culture and awareness?

Food was never meant to divide people, and we use it a lot to divide people. We use it a lot to tell stories that separate cultures. People are so caught up with being politically correct with the food and it drives me nuts. But helping people understand where the food is coming from, and how the food is cooked, makes more sense and it allows people to understand that there is a history.

When people come [to Mitsitam], they get good food, but the guests are also more than welcome to ask questions. I stress this all the time to the staff upstairs. If the guests have a question, I don’t want them to answer it. Call for me and I will go up there and personally explain it to them—whether it is allergies, history, or acquiring the ingredients. I think Native food is more popular now than it has every been. And when people experience Native culture in that capacity, they know it is still there and not going anywhere.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview was originally published in March 2017.

Tags: museum restaurants, native american food