NPR Story
2:13 pm
Fri November 22, 2013

In 'Original Local,' Thanksgiving Recipes From The First Americans

Originally published on Fri November 22, 2013 12:09 pm

Heid Erdrich's new book Original Local is part cookbook, part memoir and part meditation on the interplay of tradition and fusion in American cooking. Guest host Celeste Headlee talks to the author and poet about the Native American food traditions Erdrich grew up with in the Upper Midwest.

Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Ojibwe people, whose traditional foods include berries, wild rice, and game animals. Along the way, her family's recipes have incorporated global flavors as new family members are introduced. For example, Erdrich's sister married a man whose family was from India, and the book includes a recipe for "India Indian Grilled Corn," which is sweet corn with red chili, black pepper, salt and lemon.


Interview Highlights

On finding Native American ingredients

Sumac, which was a seasoning we used all over the Upper Midwest a lot, is found in Middle Eastern food as well...so you can go to a Middle Eastern grocery or online for a Middle Eastern seasoning of sumac. The same thing with nopales, which are considered a Mexican food, but the prickly pear cactus was eaten in the Upper Midwest. It's a matter of recognizing and seeing how some of the foods are the same.

The de-colonized green bean casserole

I don't like that green bean casserole that we have at Thanksgiving, you know that everybody has at what I like to call the indigenous foods holiday...So I had to find some way to approach it that would make me comfortable with it because it really does contain a lot of indigenous ingredients, the green beans being the star ingredients.

Cowboy Kicker Beans and Wiiyaas

Sometime in the 1970s, some Don Draper advertising genius urged everybody to make "cowboy beans" by adding barbecue sauce to canned beans to serve at cookouts. Well, that was also the era of Billy Jack, the Indian-Hippie B-movie hero who took off his socks to kick racist behinds. These tribute beans use sauce from Ojibwe restaurateur "Famous Dave" Anderson and dried meat/wiiyass. They could be made vegetarian, like Billy Jack's weeping, washed-out blonde, pacifist girlfriend. To paraphrase Billy Jack, "You're gonna take these beans and whop them right next to some gullet and there's not a dang thing you're gonna be able to do about it." These beans are for you, Billy Jack. So good, you'll go beserk!


Recipe: Cowboy Kicker Beans and Wiiyaas

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 red onion, chopped

2 cups cooked or canned black beans, drained

1.75 ounces bison jerky, cut into bite-size pieces

(optional for pacifists --- kick wiiyass)

1 cup stock

1/2 cup hot or mild Famous Dave's BBQ Sauce

(Devil's Spit for hotheads)

1/4 cup maple syrup or honey

12 cup sundried tomatoes, cut into bite-size pieces

In a medium saucepan, set over low heat, warm olive oil and fry red onion until very soft, 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in beans, jerky, and stock, increase heat to medium, and let mixture bubble for 1 minute. Stir in barbecue sauce and maple, turn heat to low, and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in sundried tomatoes and simmer 30 minutes, adding stock if mixture seems dry. This dish is done when jerky is softened (which can vary with the type of jerky) and sauce is thick. Serve hot or cold.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Maybe you've heard a foodie friend of yours talk about the benefits of shopping at a neighborhood farmer's market for seasonal delights. And maybe you decided to be brave and try it yourself. But then you got there and you saw some pinkish-orangish tomatoes, or maybe some green things in papery wrappings. You had no idea what to do to them.

You had no idea how they would taste and, in the end, decided not to pick them up. Well, we are here to help you because our next guest says shopping locally with locally sourced ingredients isn't just good for your health, it's not just good for the environment and the economy, but the practice dates back to America's earliest residents. And we're not talking about the pilgrims. Heid Erdrich says the traditions of Native Americans in the Upper Midwest have taught her a lot - not just about food, but about preserving important cultural traditions. Her latest book is called "Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories, and Recipes from the Upper Midwest." And Heid Erdrich joins us now. Welcome.

HEID ERDRICH: Thank you, Celeste.

HEADLEE: You're a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, right?

ERDRICH: Yes.

HEADLEE: So what are indigenous foods or traditional foods for the Ojibwe?

ERDRICH: Well, the Ojibwe is a really enormous group...

HEADLEE: Yeah.

ERDRICH: ...And it goes all the way through the Great Lakes area into the plains where I grew up. But I can pretty much say that our traditional foods surround berries, manoomin, which is wild rice, maple syrup in the woodland areas and all the game animals that come from that area as well.

HEADLEE: You didn't train as a chef, and you say that you don't consider yourself to be a foodie. Yet, here you are writing a cookbook. How did you get involved in indigenous foods and cooking?

ERDRICH: Well, the funny thing is, I'm actually a poet, too. So even one step removed from the process.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

ERDRICH: But I wanted to tell the story of how people are working to save and preserve and resuscitate some of these indigenous foods to bring them back into the lives of tribal people, especially. And also just to get people to understand and think about that local component of eating that's so popular right now was something that was actually preserved for us by indigenous people.

HEADLEE: Although, I think that sometimes people look at some of the more indigenous cookbooks or recipes and they get confused. Many of those ingredients are things that they don't recognize and they're not sure where to get them. Your book addresses that. It tells people how to get these ingredients, right?

ERDRICH: Yeah. And I think it helps people recognize that, you know, some of the things that might seem exotic are actually more commonly found now, but maybe not where you'd expect it because our foods have gone all over the world. So sumac, which was a seasoning that we used in the Upper Midwest a lot, is found in Middle Eastern food because they used it as well. So you could go to a Middle Eastern grocery or go online and buy Middle Eastern seasoning of sumac and have a similar, if not exactly the same, product. So, you know, the same thing with Nopales, which are considered a Mexican food, but this prickly pear cactus was eaten up in the Upper Midwest as well. So it's a matter of recognizing and seeing how some of the foods are the same. You know, corn in many forms has gone all over the globe. It's one of the most eaten foods on the planet. But it originated in this hemisphere.

HEADLEE: Corn, obviously, one of the three sisters. Corns, bean and squash, which we very much associated with, say, three sisters salad, which is something I grew up eating in the Southwest.

ERDRICH: Sure.

HEADLEE: You know, a lot of people go to Arizona and they'll eat a Navajo taco, for example.

ERDRICH: Sure.

HEADLEE: But that is not indigenous to the Navajo people.

ERDRICH: No, not necessarily. Yeah, white flour fried in lard. Yeah, it's not necessarily an indigenous thing. But it's a fusion of indigenous foods, the beans and so forth.

HEADLEE: And that's what I wanted to talk about was this fusion you're talking about because one of the things is that some of your family recipes changed over time as new family members were introduced. For example, your sister married an Indian man, an East Indian man...

ERDRICH: Yeah.

HEADLEE: ...And that created this very unique recipes.

ERDRICH: Yeah, well, and part of it was just recognizing through the process of writing the cookbook, but also of cooking with my brother-in-law Sundeep's family and realizing that we had shared traditions. And it was, you know, to me, unique the way the Indian Indian - as we call them - they would, for instance, grill corn in this very unique way and use spices on it that I wouldn't have thought of. And then when I would do research about the way people used corn in - historically in native tribes of the Upper Midwest, I would see similarities. And it was really interesting and exciting to me to see the similarities more than the differences and the sharing that goes on with food. You know, that's so important, how we share food.

HEADLEE: So that resulted in - let me read off a couple of these recipes. The one is, you were just talking about, "India Indian Grilled Corn." I think it's hilarious that you specify that as India Indian.

ERDRICH: Well, we have to say something.

HEADLEE: Yeah, to make sure we're not talking about Native Americans - which is sweet corn, but with red chili and black pepper, salt, some butter and some lemons as well. And that's paired with India Indian sloppy joes.

ERDRICH: Yep. And it's a vegetarian food. But almost every ingredient in that food, other than some of the spice mixture, was grown here indigenously before 1600 - lima beans, corn, green beans, you know, a few other ingredients. And then I add butternut squash into that mix, which would normally not be used, but it tastes great. So I just adapted them slightly, often substituting butternut squash for a carrot. And just, you know, looked around me and looked at the foods we're eating, and just appreciated those indigenous ingredients that are so common and we don't think about it.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Heid Erdrich. She's a poet and author of "Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories, and Recipes from the Upper Midwest." I found it interesting that one of the things you talk about, which is less a recipe and more just a tradition, the idea that, for many Native American tribes, food is medicine.

ERDRICH: Yeah.

HEADLEE: It's not necessarily something to sit down and just kind of gorge yourself. But it's actually the medicine with which you are treating your body.

ERDRICH: Yeah, I think that sort of holistic idea - it's common to other cultures as well, too. But that - and, you know, it's even part of the health fads that we go through in American culture. But food is our original medicine. It's what keeps our health. And there's sometimes just more of a recognition of that. And then there's also some - in some of the tribal groups that I looked at researching the people, the members of those tribes that I talked to, there's, you know, some foods that you only use for medicine. You only use them when you're unwell and you need some balance restored. And for other tribes, those were everyday foods.

HEADLEE: For example, sage...

ERDRICH: Exactly.

HEADLEE: ...Which people often use for smudging, but I guess Native American tribes don't usually eat it.

ERDRICH: Yeah, in the Upper Midwest - and we're not talking culinary European sage, we're talking wild sage.

HEADLEE: Right.

ERDRICH: But in the Upper Midwest, it was mostly only used as an aromatic for incense. But, you know, in the Southwest, people use it in some cooking. And there were just a few places where I found where people suggested its use in more towards the plains part of the upper Midwest. So, you know, I did a couple of instances of including that. But for the most part, I did not use things much that were considered sacred or that would be in some way making people uncomfortable about the use of their foods.

HEADLEE: So how did this idea of food being a medicine - how does that lead into what you see as one of the main concerns of many Native Americans, which is food equity.

ERDRICH: Yeah, well, I think, you know, you have to realize that in the Upper Midwest, and in the U.S. in general, more than half the population of Native people live in urban areas. And so living in urban areas may not have the foods, the access and the resources of fresh foods that you would have elsewhere. And then, even on reservations, there's less of a focus on growing your own gardens, which was something everyone did when I was growing up, of canning your own foods. And because often these areas are hard to reach, you don't have the access to supermarkets with a lot of fresh vegetables. And it's become an issue for people to get the foods that they need and get that healthy medicine in their daily lives.

HEADLEE: Let me go back to your cookbook here and talk to you a little bit about some of the recipes because you say each one of these recipes is a story.

ERDRICH: Yeah.

HEADLEE: Which is, I guess, partly coming from your poetic view of the food as sort of a family history, right?

ERDRICH: Yeah, but it's also literal. I realized when I asked people to share ideas about foods and stories about their foods, and then I would ask them for a recipe, and what they really give me was basically a list of ingredients and the story of who they cooked it for. And so I realized that, actually, when we share recipes - you know, you're sitting around the table and you're telling people about what you cooked or, you know, you're at a restaurant - you're really telling them the story of the food, of the gathering it and the eating it. And often we don't share exactly how it was made. And this was a new thing for me, to translate from the story - the cast of characters, the ingredients - to the recipe on the page. And it was hard.

HEADLEE: I love some of your titles, too. For example, the "De-colonized Green Bean Casserole."

ERDRICH: Oh, yeah. I didn't invent the idea of a de-colonized recipe. There's a lot of scholarship and activism around that right now. But I don't like that green bean casserole that we have at Thanksgiving. You know, that everybody has at the - what I like to call - indigenous foods holiday or at other holidays. So I had to find some way to approach it that would make me comfortable with it because it really does have a lot of indigenous ingredients in it. The green beans, you know, as being the star ingredient. So, yeah, I had to find a way to go at that one.

HEADLEE: Now tell me how to pronounce this. One of your recipes is called "Cowboy Kicker Beans and Wiiyaas."

ERDRICH: Wiiyaas, yeah, which just means dried meat. That one I really loved writing what's called the head note. I liked writing the notes for that one. That was when I was sort of fooling around and...

HEADLEE: Do you have it in front of you? Can you read it for us?

ERDRICH: I do, yeah. I'll read that one for you.

HEADLEE: It's on page 112.

ERDRICH: So you have to remember that I grew up in the '70s. And so this one's a little tribute. A couple of these are little tributes to the '70s 'cause, you know, food has so much memory tied to it. So "Cowboy Kicker Beans and Wiiyaas." Sometime in the 1970s, some Don Draper advertising genius urged everyone to make cowboy beans by adding barbecue sauce to canned beans to serve at cookouts. Well, that was also the era of Billy Jack, the Indian-Hippie B-movie hero who took off his socks to kick racist behinds. These tribute beans use sauce from Ojibwe restaurateur "Famous Dave" Anderson and dried meat, wiiyaas. They could be made vegetarian, like Billy Jack's weeping, washed-out blonde, pacifist girlfriend. To paraphrase Billy Jack, you're going to take these beans and whop them right next to some gullet and there's not a dang thing you can do about it. These beans are for you, Billy Jack. So good you'll go berserk.

HEADLEE: Yeah, right. And then you have - included in the recipe is one and three-quarter ounces bison jerky, cut into bite-size pieces. Optional for pacifists. Kick wiiyaas.

ERDRICH: Yeah. And that - actually, that describes me. I'm a mostly vegetarian human being with very pacifist in danger. So I was kind of making fun of myself for people who won't have enough meat in my recipes.

HEADLEE: Do you - I mean, have you showed some of these recipes that you updated to some very, I guess, traditional cooks?

ERDRICH: Yeah, I have. And I had really good fortune of having cooks cook alongside me, and show me what they did. And they enjoyed it. You know, I think they all have concerns about diet, as most Americans do. And, you know, it was just fun to see what we can do and be imaginative about it, and use things like dried meat, which are easy to get. You can get bison jerky at almost any gas station these days. So that's what is in the "Cowboy Kicker Beans and Wiiyaas." And, you know, just to have a chance to introduce people to foods that were so important to us.

HEADLEE: You know, we associate the foodie culture with kind of a upper-middle class, often Eastern elitist kind of group of people who shop at Whole Foods. I mean, it's incredibly unfair to say...

ERDRICH: Oh, sure.

HEADLEE: ...But it is a stereotype.

ERDRICH: Yeah.

HEADLEE: Are there Native American foodies?

ERDRICH: I bet there are. And, I mean, I guess I do know a couple, but they're definitely not upper-middle class. That's not by a long shot. But I think that might be why people work so hard to gather their own foods. People exchange foods. We have urban gardens and tribal gardens so that people can get access to really good foods. And, you know, and then I think being a foodie is more about understanding the complexity of the foods you have in front of you, and being able to talk about them at length than it is what you actually get on your plate and pay for and eat. And in many ways, I think that's part of it, too. It's being enthusiastic.

HEADLEE: OK, so, Heid, give me your best elevator pitch here. For the person who's out there thinking this all sounds really interesting, but was way too scared to ever really pick up a cookbook based on tribal cooking, right? What's your best pitch to this person to give it a go?

ERDRICH: I think one of the easiest things is to think about the traditional holiday dinner. And most of the things that you have there - turkey, cranberries, green beans, squash or pumpkin, corn - these are the foods we're talking about. They may be treated slightly differently. You may have hominy instead of, you know, corn on the cob, but these are foods we're familiar with. And I think you'd be surprised at how comfortable and familiar it all seems. And then, you know, how fun it could be to mix it up a little bit.

HEADLEE: Heid Erdrich, writer and poet. She's also author of the book "Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories, and Recipes from the Upper Midwest." She was kind enough to join us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Heid, thank you so much.

ERDRICH: Well, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.