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A Renaissance of Native Culinary Philosophy

A return to all things Native has long been a popular if oft short-lived pursuit for many of us when the holidays draw neigh, starting with November, the official month for feasting, giving thanks, and reflecting on (and sometimes defending) our true history as a nation. But soon thereafter we’re back to our more post-contact oriented track of consumption-based activities and more often than not indulging in foods whose growing methods are far removed from the principles by which our ancestors coaxed life from the stubborn soils of rock-strewn lake-shores, high-desert mesas, or dense mossy woodlands, and whose very substance is of questionable integrity.

But thanks to a renaissance of sorts in Native-based culinary philosophy, quite literally from farm to fork, and a big appetite among the discerning masses for tastes new (which usually really means very old in the Native-influenced-fare conversation-a look ahead is often really a look back) and rare (unusual, really), there has risen a new wave of appreciation for the old ways of doing things and this familiar annual scenario is changing. We need not fall back into food-oblivion—literally, a place of forgetting—upon depletion of our turkey and stuffing reserves. Instead, we can remember our long history of food-wealth and centuries-old knowledge of agricultural practices and living-off-the-land sensibilities and re-awaken our ancient connections to the gifts of abundance and plenty-ness that sustained our journey so graciously for so long.

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As we know, returning to places of remembering often requires hard work, and nowhere has this been truer in recent years than where Native foods and foodways are concerned. When indigenous seed-bank and -preservation programs were established in Stockholm, Sweden, and at Cornell University’s Akwekon House in Ithaca, New York, respectively, the revitalization of endangered seeds became a reality and saved many a plant in peril, preserving their respective cellulous possibilities for generations next. It was widely assumed that the benefits of returning to Native-based food philosophies—and indeed remaining in that place of greater insight--would be easy once we were able to stretch our righteous dietary endeavors past the unimpressive several-day mark during our once-a-year round.

Though diets that rely more on fresh, local and traditional ingredients do necessitate a bit more effort than those heavily dependent on processed foods, their value goes far beyond vitamin, mineral or caloric. Largely seasonally- and tribally-based, indigenously-conscience diets are in harmony with natural growing seasons and contribute to a more holistic approach to a healthy lifestyle, meaning one that starts on the inside.

Access to healthy, cell-supporting and life-giving foods is the cornerstone of any progressive, self-sustaining society: better food equals better health equals better quality of life. And better quality of life for Indian people translates to continued political sovereignty and tribal autonomy, and less dependence upon non-Indian entities in our pursuit of that which enriches the human experience and nourishes body and spirit alike.

As this series will explore more extensively in future installments, food is in so many ways at the center of Indian culture and identity. Our choices have the power to keep us connected to the age-old practices that promise to sustain our health and well-being, or to make those connections obsolete as we move further away from the ways of the old ones.

Cheers and Happy Holidays.

And now for something completely different, an Eastern Woodlands Holiday Menu:

Wild-rice, Oyster and Mushroom-Stuffed Braised Quail

Rinse and peel 1 medium sized parsnip. Cut into thirds, then julienne lengthwise into very thin pieces.

Blanche 5 minutes, remove from water and place onto cloth to drain. Set aside for garnish.

Roast ½ cup shelled pumpkin seeds in medium-hot un-oiled skillet for 3 minutes, gently tossing every half-minute or so. Set aside for garnish.

Cut 2 green onions in half lengthwise; sauté in very hot oil until browned. Set aside for garnish. 

Chop 4 oz. oysters and 4 oz. mushrooms into small pieces; sauté in 2 tablespoons butter over low-medium heat for 5 minutes.

Cook wild-rice: ½ cup rice in 1 cup, lightly salted water.

Rinse and pat dry four fresh or thawed quail.

Stuff each quail with 2-3 tablespoons pre-cooked (al dente) wild rice, 2 tablespoons oyster-and-mushroom mixture.

Place on tray and brush with olive oil.

Sprinkle with a bit of sage and a tiny pinch of salt.

Cook at 375 for 5 minutes. Turn quail, brush with oil and sprinkle with seasonings.

Cook for 4 minutes. Increase heat to 450-475; cook another 2-3 minutes. Turn and oil once more, cook an additional 1-2 minutes, or until browned.

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Serve on a bed of water-cress; place 1 sautéed onion length across each quail, diagonally; sprinkle with dried cranberries, roasted pumpkin seeds, and slivered (blanched) parsnips.

Makes 2-4 servings.

Blue Cornmeal and Maple Pudding

Stir ½ cup finely-ground blue cornmeal into ½ cup warm water to make a smooth paste.

Add a pinch of salt and stir again.

Pour mixture into 1½ cups boiling water.

Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, for 15-20 minutes.

Allow to sit and cool to thicken.

Pour into mixing bowl.

Stir in 1 small egg and ¼ cup maple syrup.

Pour into baking dish or individual ceramic ramakins.

Bake at 250 for 20-25 minutes.

Makes 4 servings.

Wild Raspberry-leaf Tea

Place ½ cup fresh or dried raspberry leaves into 2 quarts water that is just beginning to boil.

Remove from heat, cover and let stand 20 minutes.

Makes 4 servings.

All food items listed in recipes are available at (or orderable from) most organic, local and specialty markets.

RoseMary Diaz (Santa Clara Pueblo) is a freelance feature writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She studied literature and its respective arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts, the Naropa Institute, and the University of California at Santa Cruz. Her work has appeared in Native Peoples magazine, the Santa Fean, Beadwork magazine, Indian Market Magazine, New Mexico Magazine, and other notable publications.

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