Finding Native American food online

Published in Slow, the magazine of the Slow Food Movement, in 2001; the information was correct at the time of publication.
New York City, late winter: It all began simply enough. We had run out of maple syrup, and my family—my husband, my son, and I—wouldn’t be going north to Vermont, where we usually buy it, for a few months. A quick search of the Internet led me to the website (www.cookingpost.com) of the Santa Ana Pueblo in New Mexico, which sold maple syrup made by the White Earth Band of the Anishinabeg. Members of the Minnesota native community use horse-drawn sleighs to gather the sweet sap of the maple tree and then boils the liquid down in wood-fired vats. Traditionally, they use the honey-like substance, or a crystallized sugar form, in preparations ranging from roasted game to herbal teas.

But wait: More delights appeared on my computer screen, all adorned with point-and-click dialogue boxes. Wild rice from the Anishinabeg scrolled into view, followed by a Pueblo processional: blue-corn meal from Santa Ana, San Juan’s spicy soups, and chile-charged salsas from Laguna. Smoked salmon from a Siletz family in the Northwest paraded by, then herbal tea and piñon-nut coffee from a Lakota purveyor. I pointed, clicked, and keyed in my credit card number and address. A few days later, a package arrived at our house in New York City, and the next morning the three of us were pouring maple syrup over breakfast pancakes.

One bite, and we could imagine the dark, cool northern forests whence this lavishly flavored, glistening liquid arose. We paused, looked at each other in surprise, then dug in. “Food as a sacrament,” I realized. No no mortification of the flesh, and no plain crackers, were called for in this faith, though: The devotional was delectable.

The observances continued in the ensuing months. I baked breads of blue-corn meal, whose sweet earthiness was thanks to Santa Ana’s traditional whole-grain grinding method, which preserves the corn kernel’s germ. On chilly days, we warmed up with San Juan’s posole, a savory dried-corn soup, and Three Sisters stew, made of corn, beans, and squash, the sacred trio of Indian gardening. Anishinabeg wild rice had a rich, dusky quality. Tribal members plying the verges of lakes in canoes collect the rough brown grains—not to be confused with commercial paddy-grown “wild” rice.

When supplies ran low, I logged on and ordered more from Anishinabeg’s web address, www.nativeharvest.com; The American Indian Tea Company’s www.rt66.com/amer_indian_t_co; and San Juan’s www.puebloharvest.com. San Juan’s site is convivial, sharing with viewers modern and historic photographs of the pueblo (known in its Tewa language as Ohkay Oweenge and inhabited for the better part of a millennium), a calendar of feast days the public may attend, as well as stories and cooking tips from tribal elders, affectionately referred to as the research-and-development department. I phoned the pueblo. “The elders worked on the recipes for our soups and stews, along with a Potawatami chef, Loretta Oden, who has a restaurant in Santa Fe,” explained Jeff Atencio, manager of Pueblo Harvest Foods, part of the tribal agricultural cooperative.

When I queried the printed instructions for the posole—I had been cooking the mixture far longer than the time recommended—he warned me that the dried, hulled corn in it should be eaten al dente (“It should have bite, like meat”). The farmers plan to make the web pages more personal by posting pictures of members of the cooperative at work. “That way, when customers buy our food, they’ll be able to see the very people who go into the fields to handpick the vegetables,” said Atencio.

“Agriculture is our life,” he continued. “It’s central to our dances, our language, our society, how we think of life. We have to keep it going in that respect.” Schoolchildren are taught to grow cultivated plants in the centuries-old gardens around the village and to forage for wild herbs and foodstuffs. “We also have to protect our water rights,” said Atencio. 

Water is a precious resource in the West and subject to many regulations. Were the people of San Juan—or other communities—to stop tending their crops, they would forever lose access to waters that flow by their settlements. During the 1970s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a dam upstream of Cochiti Pueblo. Badly installed, the dam leaked, turning 750-year-old farmlands into swamps and putting the pueblo in danger of losing its water rights because its people couldn’t cultivate the soggy earth. Gabe Yellowbird, a maker of the world-famous Cochiti drums, was among the few whose fields were spared; as soon as his grandson, Kyle Sloan, was old enough to handle a small shovel, he taught him how to grow Cochiti varieties of corn, chile peppers, melons and other produce. They shared their harvest with neighbors and donated it for ceremonial occasions. Recently the pueblo has won its lengthy court battle for funds to fix the dam and formed a tribal farming enterprise.

Spring arrived in New York, and I wanted to see if I could add Indian foodstuffs to the various plants I grow in my backyard garden. Hopi amaranth was available through the website (www.azstarnet.com/~nss/) of Native Seeds/Search, an Arizona not-for-profit organization that collects the seeds of culturally and nutritionally important plants and returns them to Southwestern tribes that lost them during the conflicts of the last centuries. Despite the wet, cool climate of my Northeastern garden—so different from this particular amaranth’s dry-land origins—the plants produced their dark red edible leaves (good raw in salads or steamed with oil and salt) and magenta spires of tiny nutty-tasting grains. 

Zuni tomatillos from Native Seeds/Search provided a meal first for nectar-thirsty bumblebees—as they fitted their legs around the centers of the yellow flowers, drinking and trembling and finally buzzing away, dusty with pollen—and then for us. Using far more prosaic harvesting methods, I peeled the papery husks off the tangy green fruits and chopped them into tomato-and-chile-pepper salsas. We ate Amarillo del Norte beans from northern New Mexico off the vine as well as cooked. 

The Southwestern plants did so well, I thought I’d try cultivating local indigenous ones—native asters, wild roses, tobacco, yellow clover, lady’s thumb, purslane, and other garden escapes and weeds. They all grew prodigiously, and some showed up at the dinner table in teas or salads. From summer into fall, the honeyed fragrance of tobacco blossoms drifted over the garden. 

One Saturday in early September, after dropping by the National Museum of the American Indian in Lower Manhattan to see Lee Marmon’s photographs of his native Laguna Pueblo, my son and I fortified ourselves for the trip home with buffalo jerky from the gift shop. Riding the Staten Island Ferry and gnawing vigorously on the strips of dried meat, we were surprised at the cloying taste. “It’s not what I expected, mom,” Joseph said. The fine print on the label revealed that the meat had been cured with wine and soy sauce—and plenty of them. 

Though the multicultural jerky was not a success, it did help me identify what I admired about my favorites among my Internet acquisitions (including the corn products, the soups and stews, the wild rice, and the maple syrup): They have complexity—typically a subtle sweetness overlaid with the barest tinge of bitterness or pungency. You sense not just a plant’s flesh, but its stem, germ, or hull—even the soil it grew in. My favorites were both splendid and austere.

For millennia—up to 10,000 years for squash, the oldest crop of this hemisphere—Indian horticulturists bred ever-more-diverse plants that could grow in a multitude of microclimates, including forbidding deserts and mountains. Corn, beans, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, tomatillos, sunflowers, chile peppers, and others were meticulously tailored to the water, temperature, growing-season length, soil type, and companion plants available in even very small areas. In addition to unique botanical properties, each variety had its own texture, flavor, culinary and/or medicinal application, and ritual use. 

Five hundred years ago, thousands of varieties of corn were cultivated on this continent, said Clayton Brascoupé, a Mohawk/Algonquin farmer who directs the Traditional Native American Farmers Association. Today, some of the old ones remain in small farms around the country. However, he noted, the big commercial operations feeding the bulk of the populace grow just a handful of hybrids in fragile monocultures that require immense inputs of chemicals to survive. Increasingly, a few multinational corporations control the world’s food supply and sales of the chemicals required to sustain it.

“Generating food for ourselves is a political act,” said Brascoupé. “We maintain sovereignty and self-sufficiency by doing so. We also regain our culture and values.”

Later in September, there were several cases of an encephalitis-like mosquito-borne disease in New York City. Officials decided to spray the entire city from the air with the pesticide malathion, a pesticide that seems relatively safe in tiny doses—until it breaks down into the very dangerous malaoxon, particularly when exposed to heat or water. Safer, even pesticide-free, options for mosquito control exist, but were not used. The public was told to stay indoors during spraying. However, due to confusion about when it would take place, many were doused, including children playing outdoors after school. It has been announced that spraying will continue periodically.

The cricket chorus, usually in full cry at this time of year, is silent. Hundreds of fish threw themselves out of a lake near our house to die on the shore. Birds have fled. The bumblebees are gone, and the widowed tomatillos won’t be bearing any more fruit. I dare not gather the rest of the vegetables. In my own backyard, I contemplate the consequences of continuing—despite all the warnings—to crush the natural world into submission.

c. Stephanie Woodard.

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