The last time I visited Washington D.C. in the spring of 2010, I toured the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, new to the Mall since the previous time I had visited in the spring of 2001. It's an exhilarating piece of architecture, and the collection is absorbing; it's well worth the visit.
Online opinions about the museum's Mitsitam Cafe, which serves foods based on Native American traditional dishes, are mixed. Chowhounders were divided about whether it really rated a stop for culinarily-inclined visitors in what would naturally be a carefully parsed schedule of "best of D.C." meals.
I was duly confused by the web chatter, although it all turned out to be a moot point as, at 11:30 a.m., the line for the cafeteria was already way out the door and we had to make our appointment for our Capitol tour.
A chance to see and taste what I missed comes in the form of the Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook by Richard Hetzler (Smithsonian, $22.95). Hetzler, the executive chef of the cafe, has put together a beautiful and appealing book. It will supplant your notions of Native American food based on material presented to you in the third grade -- for instance, pemmican does not appear here.
In fact there's nothing one-note about the recipes at all; dishes are drawn from foods used by tribes in the Northeast Woodlands and Great Lakes, Great Plains, North Pacific Coast, Mesoamerica, and South America, and the culinary range reflects the geographic range. There are lots of salads and soups. Fresh and seasonal -- yes. "All of the cafe's dishes [are] based on indigenous American ingredients and cooking techniques" but adapted to a contemporary cafeteria, writes museum director Kevin Gover in the foreword.
What might be most surprising is how familiar many of these dishes are -- ceviche, squash soup, clam chowder, baked beans, chili, tacos. Modernized to appeal to the cafeteria crowd, or indigenous dishes that have become so familiar to us, we don't think of them as "native"? Some of both. It's easy to quibble about the indigenous roots of some of the recipes -- lobster roll, for instance, may give a nod to the fact that lobsters were eaten by the Wampanoag, but it was certainly without buttered hot dog buns and mayo.
I was attracted by the salads, like the quinoa salad, based on an Inkan staple. A lemon vinaigrette and fresh tomatoes and cucumbers and cilantro create a variation on tabbouleh. The wild rice salad (Ojibwe-based) uses an apple cider vinaigrette and incorporates pinenuts, pumpkin seeds and watercress as well as dried cranberries. A roasted sunchoke salad (Cherokee-based) uses a ginger vinaigrette tossed with berries, sunflower seeds and arugula. My favorite here, Fennel salad with fig vinaigrette, isn't mentioned as coming from any tribe or tradition, but I'll be making it often.
As the harvest comes in, too, I'll be mining the roasted vegetable recipes, like honey-roasted rutabaga -- a simple prep, with honey and butter -- and the veggie medley known as succotash (m'sickqquatasch) in which walnut oil "replaces the bear fat called for in some traditional recipes." Whew.
The exhibits at the National Museum of the American Indian are honest about the ways that European culture was destructive to native ways; here too, the recipe for Fry Bread explains how the U.S. government pawned off surplus food that was bad for Indian diets on the tribes stuck on reservations. Make fry bread if you must, or fry bread tacos, as they have become part of tradition too.