You start to think you know a thing or two about food, then you sit down with Richard Hetzler, the executive chef of Mitsitam Cafe at National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C and you realize you have just scratched the surface in the world of food and culture.
Richard recently published the Mitsitam Cookbook (Fulcrum Publishing).
Here's my conversation with Richard.
Q: Richard, when did you start at Smithsonian? Was 'Mitsitam Cafe' your idea?
I started in 2002. Prior to American Indian Museum opening, I did all the recipe development and so on. The concept itself based on 5 regions was created by museum in collaboration with a consultant.
I built the menu and original recipes on that foundation.
Q: For both menu and cookbook did you take inspiration from actual dinners like the one pictured in the book at Winebago Reservation?
Inspiration for both comes from native people and culture then I had to decide how to express that through food.
Q: Amongst dishes you created over time, was part of it influenced by the settlers?
Not really, we took native staples andapted them to modern taste for everyday diners while keeping a strong emphasis on techniques like smoking with cedar plank salmon for example and traditions.
Q: Which ingredients, staples, dishes did settlers adopt from native Americans?
I would start with brined items. Virginia cured ham was taught to settlers by native Americans. How to cook and eat lobster also came from the natives. Add clam bakes and the technique of digging holes in the sand, covering it with seaweed to add flavor and moisture.
Q: Fiddlehead ferns grace the cover of Mitsitam Cookbook, were they part of these native elements?
Definitely, fiddlehead ferns grew in the wild on West Coast from California to Alaska and the East from Maine to Alaska. They were foraged and very popular, used in many ways.
Q: You've researched Native American food culture and cuisine since 2002. Were there ah ah moments in your understanding of it?
Rather than Eureka moment, it is a work in progress with new items coming to the fore year after year. Besides cooking, our work is also about protecting heritage food. We collaborate with Slow Food and ark of Taste. There is a strong education component to what we do.
Q: Are dishes like 'Oyster Pudding' (page 110) your own twist on history?
Oyster pudding is definitely an adaptation.
Q: How key was the switch from corn to wheat with 'Fry Bread' for example?
Fry Bread (sweat bread in Italy) would not have happened otherwise. It was a controversial item when settlers and native got flour and lard. The change of diet created health issues.
Q: A number of recipes in the book might be considered as 'Hispanic' food (burritos, enchiladas, tortilla soup). A sizeable porion of the Mitsitam Cookbook is dedicated to Aztec and Mayan influences. How are they connected to Native American culture?
Corn, from growing it to harvesting it and making it a basic food staple comes from the Mayan. You can include tomatoes and chocolate in the list of their influences.
Q: Why corn and chocolate tamales?
I was inspired.
Q: Have you considered tackling other Native cultures?
The thread is far from exhausted. Recent additions are Chola Buds whose nectar is close to Agave. I am also working with tepary beans, native of the Southwest...No need to change to stay inspired.
Q: Last, how often do you change the menu at Mitsitam Cafe?
The menu changes with the seasons, on the equinox.
Richard Hetzler was kind enough to discuss the Mitsitam Cookbook and his constant discoveries during Book Expo America 2011 in New York.