Redefining Native American Cuisine By Culture

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Calling the food in Indian country “Native American fare” isn't quite correct, and chefs Freddie Bitsoie, Navajo, and Nephi Craig, Apache, are two voices in a growing campaign trying to redefine the concept of Native American edibles.

“Native American food can’t be one generic, homogenous, category because food is a product of culture and all Native American cultures are different in preference and preparation,” says Bitsoie, a member of the Edge Water clan. “Just as tribes across the nation have similar, but different, ceremonies, they each have culturally-specific foods and instead of lumping them together, we should celebrate their differences. When I cook, I strive to prepare dishes that have substance to the point where elders can taste them and recognize a version of a dish they’ve had all their lives. In the Utopian world within my mind, when people use the term ‘Native American food,’ I hope they define it according to region or tribe.”

The purist in him says, “Using blue cornmeal doesn’t make polenta Native, and while I remember bison on the table when I was growing up, I don’t remember it drenched in hollandaise sauce.”

It’s a bit like defining the universally recognized term, “pizza”—lots of similarity here, but vastly different if eaten in New York, Chicago, or Italy. “I’d like consumers to distinguish the concept of Native American foods the same way they would with regional differences elsewhere in the world.”

He cites one of his banquet menus as an example—a meal that was culturally specific to regions and utilized indigenous ingredients. Imagine satisfying hunger pangs by partaking of Ute-style stewed rabbit; apple- and bacon-wrapped bison medallions; woodland-seared venison with wild berry sauce; herb-crusted roasted turkey with cattail bread stuffing, and corn pudding and mesquite cake with prickly pear frosting for desert. What’s not to like in that table spread?

FJBits Concepts

Freddie Bitsoie, garbed in a freshly starched chef’s coat, gets ready to rattle those pots and pans.

Food, in all its aspects, is what Bitsoie is all about. Originally headed toward a career in archaeology, cultural anthropology lost out to enrollment in the Scottsdale Culinary Institute and an advocacy mission to redefine American Indian cuisine. His campaign has picked up both support and some steam as American palates are beginning to change in measurable ways. Consumers are acquiring more discriminating tastes and making intelligent modifications in their food choices.

Culturally-specific American Indian foodstuffs are not only delicious, they are also healthy, a beneficial byproduct of the traditional way of cooking. “It’s a stereotype that healthy cooking ends up as bland, boring, and tasteless,” says the Utah native. “Putting healthy in front of cooking can be a deterrent for people to experiment. I did a public appearance once, billed as a Healthy Cooking Demonstration, and few attended. When I dropped ‘healthy’ from the title, the place was packed.”

The crusader to redefine Indian cuisine says the concept is catching on. “Native foods are delicious and when you add the unintended health benefits, that concept gets even easier to sell.”

Craig, of Arizona, is already sold on the idea. As founder of the Native American Culinary Association, a group dedicated to the research, refinement, and development of Native American cuisine, he says, “Everything is back to our roots for me.” He lives this by supervising 32 Apache tribal members, an all-Indian cooking and serving staff at the White Mountain Apache Sunrise Park Resort.

FJBits Concepts

Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie, a proponent of traditional Native American cooking, gathers cactus buds in the field.

“Food is very powerful, and I’ve been given an opportunity to weave an intricate traditional pattern of culinary history,” Craig said. “Everything reverts back to earlier days and Native people are emerging from a great interruption in traditional foodways. Pre-contact, we were hunters, gatherers, fishermen, and farmers. Then came reservations with high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods and a turn away from the most important ingredient in Native cuisine, healing. Today, Native foods are not only a trend, they are a way to recover our communities.”

It’s Craig’s mission to articulate the ingredients of a meal and what they mean culturally and socially. And while he still beats that drum for the general public, he’s starting to refine his focus internally. “As a chef, I’m shifting to working with our people at home within our communities. It doesn’t make sense to prepare wholesome native foods for a general audience and not serve it to our own people. We are a sharing people, but this crusade is a process of revitalization. There’s a lot of culture and philosophy involved with traditional foods, and that’s a powerful supplemental form of education not found anywhere else.”

When Bitsoie, the Gallup, New Mexico-based owner of FJBits Concepts, which specializes in Native American food, is not teaching or addressing clients like Kraft Foods or the Mayo Clinic, he is in advancing production of a TV show called “Rezervations Not Required.” He calls it “a first-time concept show that breaks new ground.” The show blends culture with food and tradition and involves only Natives in starring, feature, or production roles. “We look at the fun side of Indian Country—the heritage, the dancing, singing, celebrating, and the many contributions Native peoples make to the world of food.”