Wednesday, September 17, 2008

In Praise of Native American Cuisine

In late August I attended the Mashuntucket Pequot green corn festival. Called "Schemitzun," it is the largest gathering of Native American tribes on the East Coast. There are drumming and dance competitions as well as a rodeo and craft dealers. They also set up a small area as a traditional woodland indian village. In that village they offer a variety of cultural and craft demonstrations.

In the village, the area I found the most interesting was the cooking fire. I spent a good deal of time there talking to a young Pequot guy who was giving demonstrations of Native cooking. He was steaming clams, roasting duck and talking about how the local tribes cooked in the old days and in contemporary times. As we parted ways he directed me to a Wampanoag tribe food vendor and I was very impressed with the food I tried there. I learned quite a bit that day, but more importantly, a new food passion was ignited within me.

I am part Native American and while I love cooking all kinds of foods and I'm quite adept at cooking a good range of international cuisines including Italian, Portuguese, Hawaiian, Mexican, Thai and Indian (Asian not American), it had never dawned on me to explore Native American food beyond some of the dishes my grandmother used to prepare (johnnycakes, rabbit stew, squirrel, etc.).

That has since changed, and I am presently immersed in learning about not only how good Native American cuisine is and how to prepare it, but also the profound impact it has had on the world's cuisine. The examples are dramatic and numerous. Consider that before the Native Americans introduced their foods to European settlers, there were no tomatoes in Italy, no potatoes in Ireland. no pineapples in Hawaii and most profoundly no corn. That is just a small sampling.

The foods that Native Americans introduced to the world and their impact are much too broad a subject to broach in one entry in my humble little blog. If you're interested in learning more and getting some great recipes, I'd like to suggest two wonderful books on the subject:

Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking by Martin Jacobs and Beverly Cox, is an extremely well-done book, beautifully designed with great background into, excellent photography and many great recipes. It is among my top five favorite cookbooks and that is saying something because I own MANY!

The Art of Native American Cooking by Yeffe Kimball and Jean Anderson is a paperback book with related illustrations, but no photographs. It makes up for that with some great in-depth writing and a plethora of great recipes. Some of the recipes are traditional and some have contemporary slants/ingredients.

The Americas have a rich native heritage and while the food and cooking contributions of its Native people are now universal, they have gone largely unrecognized. If you love to cook and eat as much as I do, it is time for you to explore this great cuisine. Trust me, you will not be disappointed! Either of these books are a great introduction to the subject.

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