Native Variety: Old American foods liven up the Thanksgiving spreadTurkey: check.
Cranberry sauce: check.
Pumpkin pie: check.
Fry bread: … eh, check?
It may not have been on Sitting Bull’s meal rotation, but fry bread, a flour-based quick bread that’s pan- or deep-fried, has been all the rage in Native American diets since government rations of flour and lard first hit the reservations in the mid-19th century.
This relative latecomer joins perennial staples such as wild rice, squash, cattails, corn and foraged herbs and vegetables – foods that graced the table around the time of the first Thanksgiving celebration – as cornerstones on the Native American menu. But while many of those ancient dishes resurface for the holidays every year, modern Native American cooks are finding new ways to incorporate them into the Turkey Day meal.
Kathy Dickerson said her mother, a full-blooded Kiowa tribeswoman, got the knack for fry bread while growing up on a Kiowa reservation in Oklahoma in the 1940s and ’50s. Although Dickerson grew up in The Hill neighborhood with her mother and her Italian father, she took up Native American arts and crafts as a member of the Indian Arts and Crafts Association – and, later, started making that multitextural bread.
“We don’t hardly have a meal without it,” she said. “It’s a multipurpose bread, kind of crispy on [the] outside and soft on [the] inside. It’s one you can dip in gravies and use in soups or sprinkle with sugar for dessert. You can use it for anything.” Like “Indian tacos,” for example, which Dickerson described as fry bread, taco meat, beans, lettuce, tomatoes and salsa; they are popular at Kiowa powwows.
So why not stuff it with cold turkey? With deep fryers in heavy use these days, all that’s left to do is drop a few disks of dough into the hot oil. But even if Grandma isn’t set up for the task on Thanksgiving Day, fry bread is perfect for handling leftovers. Dickerson has even folded strawberry preserves into raw dough before cooking for a fry bread dessert pie of sorts. “My kids went nuts over that. My mom was like, ‘What?!’”
Dickerson also deviates from tradition by frying in lighter, healthier vegetable oil instead of the lard that is usually employed – and doesn’t think the taste has suffered. “I had cousins come in from Arizona and I made them fry bread and spaghetti. That’s the Italian side coming out.”
When dinner hour looms, it’s not unusual to find Janice Chilton, chef at Minwanjige Café in Ogema, Minn., scouring about the woods for wild sage, sumac and bergamot, or waist-deep in a swamp yanking up cattails and niibish.
When creating her traditional Native American dishes, Chilton relies on foods taken from the land rather than packages pulled from a grocery store shelf. The café and gift shop share ground with Native Harvest, a company that produces Anishinaabeg Ojibwe wild rice and coffee. Both are branches of the nonprofit preservation organization White Earth Land Recovery Project.
“The café overlooks a swamp, so we go right out back and get swamp potatoes – cattails. We pull them up and cut off the root and slice them and they taste like cucumbers,” Chilton said. “We use them on salads.” Adventurous eaters can also cook the plant’s starchy tuber or pickle the flower heads for snacking.
True to her Ojibwe roots, Chilton gathers as much as possible from the surrounding property and buys from local farmers. Bison, Scottish Highland beef, turkey, venison and fish provide the proteins on a typical plate, while local squash, cranberries, wild rice, cattails and other fruits, vegetables, grains and herbs round out the menu.
“We use a lot of the wild herbs like bergamot,” she said. “It’s like a leaf and we put it into a bowl and crush it and put it onto meat.” Niibish, a plant picked from the swamp during low water, is dried, steeped in hot water and sweetened with honey to make a pungent, medicinal tea. “It is good for you for everything, whether you’re sick or not.”
Chilton harvests the berries of the sumac plant for use in her sweet vinaigrette dressing, gathers cedar juice for cedar jelly to smear on bread or roast and personally plucks the herbs with which she seasons meat dishes. “We us a lot of wild sage; it just grows wherever out here,” Chilton said. “People should really go out and get it and try it if they can. It does not taste the same [as store-bought].”
That sentiment is echoed time and again when Chilton and other Native American cooks and growers talk about “authentic” foods.
“That word, ‘authentic,’ is a mighty hard word to define when you’re talking about Native American foods,” said Jerry Kinsman, general manager of Santa Ana Agricultural Enterprises in Bernalillo, N.M. The company’s operations include Santa Ana Native Plant and Tree Nursery, a tribal farm where Tamaya Blue brand blue corn is grown and milled, and The Cooking Post, an online store selling Native American goods.
“Really, a large percentage of the foods we eat every day could be considered authentic Native American. There’s an awful lot of food across the world that started in Native America, but Native Americans have prized blue corn above all others for centuries,” said Kinsman. “Blue corn has a really distinctive flavor and, of course, that blue color.”
Blue cornmeal can easily be substituted for its yellow counterpart in turkey stuffing or corn bread. “The most authentic way to use blue cornmeal is to have it roasted,” said Kinsman, whose company offers both the roasted and unroasted versions. “The roasting gives it a nutty flavor. If I put two barrels of cornmeal side by side, one unroasted and the other roasted, you’d be able to tell immediately. Around here, you wouldn’t find anyone using anything but roasted.”
Above all, the key to capturing the spirit of the Native American Thanksgiving feast, Chilton said, is starting with fresh, flavorful ingredients. At the Minwanjige Café, that means using true wild rice – not paddy rice – in dishes such as wild rice turkey stuffing. She gets her supply from WELRP, which harvests it by canoe from the native Minnesota grasses.
“It’s hard to find wild rice in the store. Even around here there’s paddy rice in the store. You can tell the difference.” Would-be wilds are easily identified by the supernaturally inky hue. Chilton describes paddy rice as looking “like little mouse turds. The wild rice, it’s not as dark and there’s other colors kind of mixed in it.” And then, there’s that undeniably hearty, nutty flavor and texture that is missing from paddy rice.
“There’s an old joke,” explained Chilton. “If you cook the paddy rice with a rock, when the rock is done, the paddy rice is ready. Paddy rice, to me, just doesn’t have flavor at all, and the wild rice is just so good. Just serve it with butter, salt and pepper: That’s all you need.”
If a backyard marsh isn’t available for cultivation of cattails, cranberries and swamp tea, visit Canadian sellers Hills Foods Ltd. at www.hillsfoods.com or Forbes Wild Foods at www.wildfoods.ca. Both companies sell a variety of Native American foods including vegetables and wild fruit preserves; Hills Foods also carries an assortment of game. Wild rice, coffee, bison and other Native American products are available from Native Harvest at www.nativeharvest.com. Get fry bread mix and blue corn, among other things, from The Cooking Post at www.cookingpost.com.