The first Thanksgiving that Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie cooked for his family was in 2009.
“When I started making a name for myself, my family asked me to cook,” said Bitsoie, the owner of FJBits Concepts and Consultant, based in Scottsdale, Arizona. “They had never asked before. In a [traditional] native family, the women usually cook. So my family said,
Agua Caliente Tribal Council presents $25,000 checks to local charities.
"Why don’t you prove to us why people think you’re so important’—you know how families mess with each other.”
So Bistoie got to work, preparing a Thanksgiving feast of global flavors—Italian-seasoned turkey with lemon and a white-wine-herb sauce, asparagus, pureed parsnips, butternut squash soup, corn salad, and for dessert, pumpkin bread pudding.
As it goes with multi-course feasts, preparation was time consuming.
When the meal was served that afternoon, they dived in. “I was eating away, thinking it was great and hoping everyone was happy,” Bitsoie said. “I knew everyone was liking the food, but no one seemed excited.
“I had a moment where I looked at everyone at the table, and they looked like they were all in elementary school with this sad look of disappointment.”
That’s when his brother spoke up: “Freddie, this is really good; it’s one of the best meals I’ve ever had. But where’s the mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes? Where’s the pumpkin pie?”
Bitsoie realized his family wanted the classics. “My younger brother said he likes to mix things together,” Bitsoie said. “My older brother said he likes a particular dish the way mom makes it. My sister said, ‘There’s no pecans in this menu.’"
Finally his younger sister laid the final blow: “We just wish somebody else had cooked this; this is not how it usually tastes," she said, as Bitsoie recalls.
Initially, the criticism didn’t sink in very well. “It hurt me at the beginning because there was a lot of work involved,” Bitsoie told ICTMN. But then he got over it, although he joked with his siblings that he would never cook the family Thanksgiving dinner again.
Coincidentally, the Heard Museum hired Bitsoie to host their annual Harvest Feast, observed on Thanksgiving Day, in 2010 and again in 2011. The museum’s cross-cultural celebration honors “a time of community and friendship, a time to share the gifts of a bountiful earth with family, friends and strangers alike,” the Heard website states.
Both years, Bitsoie designed an artful menu and prepared a widely praised feast with dishes that reflected regional American Indian food traditions.
And now in 2012, the celebrated culinary mastermind is back at his family’s dinner table and ready to embrace their honesty. But this time he will play more of a sous chef role to his brother’s girlfriend, who is serving up a southwestern-style Thanksgiving meal.
For Bitsoie, there are no bitter feelings left over from his family's reaction to his 2009 Thanksgiving dinner. Just like Thanksgiving may be viewed as a controversial holiday by Native Americans, Bitsoie chooses to make the experience his own—a time for sitting down with family, enjoying their company and speaking truthfully.
“We can argue the politics and history of Thanksgiving and the U.S.,” Bitsoie said. “But rather than having these types of issues, we can also sit together and put our weapons down, whether they are in words or thoughts."
Likewise, he prefers to keep food out of the argument and focus on the social occasion.
“We can get together, share our honest opinions and be thankful for that. It’s a powerful experience to be around the people you care about most," eating and engaging in conversation, he said.
“Nowhere in the world has food ever intentionally separated people,” Bitsoie told the Phoenix New Times. “It always brought people together. Every culture in the world celebrates the harvest. It’s that primordial sense of us being animals knowing that we’re thankful to have food.”
And Bitsoie looks forward to appreciating just that, while his brother’s girlfriend takes the lead in preparing chili-rubbed turkey and corn bread with jalapeno, among other southwestern-inspired foods. “We’re going to celebrate the flavors of the harvest in New Mexico at my mother’s home, which has a southwestern feel and ambiance to it,” Bitsoie said.