Freddie Bitsoie never imagined a career in food when he was younger, although in retrospect it has always been an underlying theme in his work, he says The Independent. In fact, it wasn’t until an impromptu conversation with his professor of anthropology at the University of Albuquerque that he really thought of it.
He had studied ancient food systems in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Archaeologists had discovered remains of macaw feathers and cocoa beans in the area, suggesting that the ancient Pueblos, the largest group of people to live there 900 years ago, had huge road and trade systems between Central America and what is now Phoenix. “It was really fascinating to me that we tend to think of native culture as people who generally stay in an area and just pick berries and eat them, instead of having a systematic way of wanting to have those things. that they don’t have access to,” he explains.
Several years later, he is due to appear at the Santa Fe Literary Festival next month, not far from Chaco Canyon, to share his culinary knowledge of Native American cuisine and the rich heritage of Native American cuisine.
For his teacher, the leap into food seemed obvious. “Every article you write is about food, whether it’s storage, transportation, or preparation. If we combine all your papers together, you pretty much have a thesis for a book. So why don’t you go study modern cuisine and then relate it to prehistoric and historical cultures to see if there really was a food culture,” he told Bitsoie, who thought, “Yeah… I like this idea!
So he jumped ship… for Scottsdale, Arizona, where he enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. He got a job placement at a Marriott hotel (“Best $8 an hour I’ve ever made in my life”) and fell so in love with working in the kitchens that he didn’t go back there for more. complete his degree in anthropology. That’s not to say it didn’t stay in the back of his mind, though. “All my time in college seemed like a waste if I didn’t try to enjoy it.” He saw a poster at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona’s largest Native American museum, advertising (what they described as) “Native American cuisine.” “The anthropologist in me kind of clicked on it,” he says. “I’ve broken down the semantics of the term ‘Native American cuisine’. It didn’t make sense to me, because there are over 570 tribes in the United States alone, and there are more in Canada. There are so many tribes in Alaska. They only talk about the lower 48s.
It reminded him of his grandmother, who grew up on the border between southern Utah and northern Arizona. The Navajo food she cooks and eats would be completely unknown to natives of the Pacific Northwest, for example, nor would she recognize the tribal food of northeast Florida, for example. “So I thought, OK, there’s no way to lump everyone into this term ‘Native American cuisine,’ because that’s just going to distort how we feel as individuals in our own respective cultures” , says Bitsoie.
The environment plays an equally important role in shaping Indigenous cuisine, he says. “Salmon is probably the best example because you can get salmon from the tip of the Alaskan islands and southern Alaska all the way to northern California. They’re pretty much the same species, but the The food they eat in each region is different, the water temperature is different, so the flavor is different. , in a braided cedar rack and placed in butter – and on the other hand further south, where they cut the salmon into fillets and cooked them individually over a fire.
This difference in flavor can even be tasted in plants that grow in different parts of the country. “I always like to use the French word terroir,” he says, which is more commonly used to refer to wine and how different soil minerals affect grapes and, in turn, flavor. “The berries taste so different in Washington state compared to northern Oregon. It’s those flavors that drive the differences in how the tribes eat.
Another good example is… sheep. Although there is evidence of wild species of sheep originating in parts of North America, domesticated farm sheep did not appear in the Americas until brought over by the Spanish. The impact of this introduction rippled through how different tribes approach meat. “The Hopi Tribe [from northeastern Arizona] sometimes use sheep, but for the Navajo it’s like their staple protein, and other pueblos in western New Mexico also use it. Most tribes use the whole animal, not only eating the meat but using the wool for weaving.
The professional cook was trying to find a way to explain this to a mainstream Western audience when one day after work he turned on the television and came across Lidia’s Italy, a series in which celebrity chef and Emmy Award-winning author Lidia Bastianich travels across the country, learning about and cooking the dishes of each region. “She would highlight a region, then melt [that episode’s] menu out of this particular region,” says Bitsoie. He was captivated…and inspired. “I thought I could do the same thing, but make it my own. That’s how I started talking about native cuisine.
Since then, he has spent a decade traveling across North America, cooking alongside other native chefs, participating in their rituals, and learning all about their techniques and sacred dishes. This led to him becoming executive chef at Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. in 2016, a position he held until it closed due to the pandemic in 2020. He built a menu around everything he had learned on his travels, featuring indigenous foods from across the western hemisphere. “There was this great dish with zucchini, summer squash, corn and just a little onion to add a little flavor,” he recalls. “You let it cook until everything is completely wilted. One day there was a Native American lady from Mexico in the cafe, and she said, “You cook badly. You cook it like we cook it at home. I go: ‘What are you talking about?’ She says, “The gringos don’t like it. If you have the vegetables al dente, it’s French style. So those two small differences are huge cultural differences when it comes to food preparation.
His new book, New native cuisine, was also born out of that journey and reads a bit like a roadmap itself, but it’s called “new” for a reason, says Bitsoie. “It’s not called traditional aboriginal cooking. It’s not called grandma’s kitchen. It’s my experience of traveling across the country and Canada, and my knowledge of living in the Southwest,” he explains. The book is not just “how I enjoy these foods as a professional, Native American, and Navajo cook,” but “how we think food culture should evolve.”
“Right now there are a good number of Indigenous leaders across the country who are focusing on the past, which is good because we need that knowledge,” he says. “We need instructors and cooks to present these foods the way they were presented. [back then]. And then we also have modern-day cooks, who will merge everything. So we get southwestern food and we get southeastern food, and then it’s fused together, like what we do with any type of cuisine in the world. Bitsoie has been playing with recipes like this for a decade, drawing on both her culinary education in the primarily French technique and her knowledge of Native American cooking.
There are a few things he won’t change, however. “In the book, there’s hardly any frying because frying was introduced when the conquistadors arrived in central Mexico,” says Bitsoie. “So these kinds of techniques are culturally different and the flavors are different, even though everyone likes fried foods today.” Likewise, fat has always been used as an ingredient, but not in the same way as it is today. “So, for example, they used animal fat inside corn dough to make tamales, but that was never put on a grill. Until the arrival of the Spaniards, cooking with dairy products was the same thing. So those are things that are not in the book,” he says. Instead of butter, Bitsoie uses coconut milk unless absolutely necessary. You won’t find flour in the book either.
Although Bitsoie has certainly added his personal touch to recipes inspired by dishes he has discovered on his travels, he believes that “there is no original recipe”. One of her favorite dishes in the book, chicken and tomato, is inspired by a dish her grandmother used to make at family gatherings. “They used to sear the chicken, then they would take it out, put in the onion and some peppers, put the chicken back in with the broth and let it simmer before tossing in the tomatoes,” he recalls. “They put it on the table and everyone ate it with a tortilla. I always thought that was the best thing ever. But, when he became a chef, “I was looking at the recipe and I said to myself: it’s just a game of chicken cacciatore!
Even now, he sees things through an anthropologist’s lens. “Some of my favorite terms are ‘infusion’ and ‘diffusion’, because both must exist for a culture to grow or evolve. Infusion means things that we bring into our own culture,” such as sheep from Iberia. Bitsoie hopes the modernity of the book will bring Indigenous cuisine to a wider audience who may never have considered or understood it before.
“When I was starting out as a new cook, I helped out at this Native American event. This chef served what she called ‘the three porridges’: blue corn, steamed corn and sumac, all to a pulp,” Bitsoie told me. “I walked around the tables and all I could hear was non-Natives saying, ‘Native food is boring, bland, and grainy.’ in my head.” Well, with recipes like Chocolate Buffalo Chili, Sweet Prickly Pear Pork Chops, and Pan-Seared Sumac Trout with Onion Bacon Gravy, and a passionate voice like that of Bitsoie at the helm, New native cuisine is sure to show the world that native food is anything but boring.
The first Santa Fe Literary Festival will take place May 20-23, 2022. The four-day event aims to explore issues in a time of extraordinary change – in politics, race, immigration, environment, etc The Independent, as the event’s international media partner, will cover every day of the festival as well as during the build-up with exclusive interviews with some of the lead writers. To learn more about the festival, visit our Santa Fe Literary Festival Chapter or visit the the festival website here. For more information on purchasing tickets Click here.