CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
And now we turn from fiction to something a little more tangible and delicious. Food. Everyone knows the story of the first Thanksgiving. Right? The pilgrim settlers came together with Native Americans from the Northeast to share a meal. The original menu was something of a joint venture, but over the years a lot of our traditional Thanksgiving dishes have lost the Native flavor, so for those who want to mix things up a bit tomorrow and perhaps try a spread that celebrates the first settlers and our country's first tribes, we have a menu for you.
Here to help us out with our Native American feast is Richard Hetzler. He's the executive chef at Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian here in Washington, D.C., and he joins us now. Welcome.
RICHARD HETZLER: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
HEADLEE: Before we talk about this incredible food you have laid out before us, I understand your training is actually in French cooking, and then you were involved in actually putting together the menu for the Mitsitam Cafe from the very beginning. What kind of learning curve is that? Is Native cooking completely different from, say, your French training?
HETZLER: You know, I think what I've realized is that it's actually very close to the training that we receive. If you think about, you know, the history of food and where food was, a lot of that dates back to the Native Americans and what they were doing, pre-contact.
HEADLEE: Is it flavorful? You know, a lot of people would assume that it's very simple food, that it doesn't have a lot of finesse.
HETZLER: And most of it was. I think it depends on the regions you're talking about, like if you're talking this region that we're in, the Northeast, you're going to be kind of bland in flavors. There's not a lot going on. They weren't growing a lot, but if you go down to, like, the Southwest, you know, chilis we're growing. Tomatoes we're growing. So all those flavors were part of their everyday meals that were tasty.
HEADLEE: All right. So let's get to the food here. You've prepared a multiple course menu for us, so tell us first what this menu is and why you chose these particular things.
HETZLER: You know, kind of talking about the first Thanksgiving, you know, looking at items that would be grown in the Cape Cod, Massachusetts region, obviously turkey is something that would have been available. It's been here from the very beginning. Native Americans were eating it for thousands and thousands of years.
A couple of the other things we did was the Three Sister Salad. Kind of talks about synergy between Native Americans and the land. You know, they were very big on how things grew and how to work the land, to be able to give back to the land, not just keep taking and taking and taking.
So the corn would grow up and then the bean would actually use the corn as a stalk to grow up. Now, the nice thing is, corn steals nitrogen from the ground. Well, the beans actually put nitrogen back into the ground. And then the squash would actually shade the ground so it would keep the ground nice and moist. So the synergy between those three ingredients together are called the three sisters and how they took care of each other.
It's got some great heirloom beans in it. There are some scarlet runners. There are some anasazis. Got some fry bread, obviously, which is kind of a little on the controversial side.
HEADLEE: We'll talk about that more later.
HETZLER: But I think we have to represent it. We have some wonderful roasted root vegetables, so they're in there. There's rutabagas, there's turnips, there's parsnips, there's carrots, golden beets in there. And then we did - for dessert we did a bannock bread. Bannock bread was kind of one of the first breads that Native Americans started to use. It's kind of based off of flowers, one of the ingredients in it. It can be made with cornmeal as well, baked, and then we just did a little bit of fresh berries using the berries that would have been harvested and then just a little bit of whipped cream on there as well with it.
HEADLEE: Now, all of the things that you've prepared here - and it looks like all the things in your cookbook as well - are things I could make in my house. But that must have been difficult, to come up with recipes at this point that use traditional methods, but the ingredients were accessible and you could cook them the way they needed to be cooked. How did you go about doing that?
HETZLER: Well, and that's where I think the research really came in, because we would never be authentic Native American. There's just not enough research out there. The food that is available and the recipes that are available don't work for the foodies of the 20th century.
For example, cornbread was a very dry, dense bread Native Americans would have carried around in their pack and they would have had that with water or some kind of beverage, you know, where today, if we tried to pass that off to the everyday consumer, it probably wouldn't work as well in the setting that we're in.
HEADLEE: It might break their teeth.
HETZLER: So what we did was we took the approach to use native indigenous foods from the regions we're representing - South America, Central America and then all of North America. And then we found those ingredients that are still available today or like ingredients that are available today, figured out how to put them together in a way that works for the everyday person.
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Thanksgiving is tomorrow. Here to bring us a little variety to the menu and celebrate the native roots of that holiday, Richard Hetzler. He's the executive chef of the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
So let's get to the start of the dinner. That's, of course, the turkey which you were talking about. You've brought the special roasted maple brined turkey breast, so you know, while you're talking about that and explaining how somebody who's trained in French cooking comes around on the turkey - because it gets dissed by a lot of chefs...
HETZLER: Yes, it does.
HEADLEE: ...explain to me how you arrived at that, and while you're doing that, I'm going to eat something.
HETZLER: No problem. The process of brining is a way to add moisture into it, but Native Americans were actually doing this for years and years prior to contact in pre-settlement. They were actually - the Native Americans on the East and the West Coast used salt water, actually, to cook and brine their food, not probably so much as we're doing it today to where we're imparting the maple flavor and things into it, but they would actually use it for methods of cooking and different things like that.
HEADLEE: It's delicious, and I wonder, what do you say to people who are out there listening, saying, look, Thanksgiving is about traditional foods, and by traditional they mean the foods they've eaten all their lives on Thanksgiving, comfort foods, things that their grandparents made. So what do you say to somebody who is perhaps a little hesitant to try something new on a holiday like Thanksgiving?
HETZLER: I would say you'd be surprised. The foods that you think of of your grandmother, the succotashes and those different things, all have their roots in the native communities and the native foods that were grown and eaten a long, long, long time ago. So I would say branch out. Nobody wants to change their whole meal, but you could incorporate one piece and start making some traditions of your own to carry down to your children or your family members that keep going from there.
HEADLEE: You know, I have to ask you. You mentioned fry bread earlier and that it's controversial. And I didn't know when - before I had cracked open your book, I wondered if you'd include it, because every time I go to a powwow, every time I go to a fair that's close to a reservation, there's always fry bread heaped with something. Right?
HETZLER: Right, right.
HEADLEE: And yet it's not necessarily traditional. You know, making a fry bread does not go back very far among tribes, and it's terrible for you.
HETZLER: You know, the story about fry bread goes back to, you know, basically the Road of Tears. When Native Americans were put onto reservations and Native Americans were then given those commodity foods, the flours, the sugar, the lard, things that they had never cooked with before, and then they formulated the fry bread, so that's where the first fry bread really started.
It's been a very controversial piece for us at the museum. The museum realized, though, that you cannot go, like you said, to any powwow or any festival, you know, and not have fry bread. So they wanted to be able to represent it. It's a big seller in what we do, but really led to a lot of what's going on in the native communities now - the diabetes, the obesity and things of that nature.
HEADLEE: Well, let's talk about your cafe itself. It's been incredibly successful. It's gotten rave reviews, even from very picky critics. It's recognized as one of the major food stops in D.C. that you need to go to. Your cookbook, which is beautiful, won second place in the Best Local category at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Congratulations.
HETZLER: Thank you very much.
HEADLEE: Why do you think it's having such success right now? Is this a moment when we're more open to the idea of Native foods?
HETZLER: There's always an intrigue about Native foods and what Native foods are because, you know, we all kind of know the back story of Native Americans and what happened, but people want to know and they want to recognize and understand kind of our history and where we've come from.
I think the other piece of it is, though, is there's a health factor coming into it now. I mean, if you look at the foods you're tasting here today, you know, they're very light. They're very healthy in the sense that there's not a lot of stuff put into them to really change those flavors or manipulate what you're tasting.
HEADLEE: But they're delicious.
HETZLER: Right. So you're tasting parsnip that really just has a little bit of maple syrup on it, a little bit of butter, but that's really about all you have on it. And you're getting the natural flavor of that parsnip with a little bit of that maple, so you're really not manipulating these flavors and you're getting the true healthiness of that dish, are what you get in the taste.
HEADLEE: That's true. Richard Hetzler, executive chef at Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian. He's also the author of "The Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook" and he joined us here in NPR's Washington studios.
Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving.
HETZLER: Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving to you.
HEADLEE: You can get recipes for the dishes we tried today by going to NPR.org. Click on Programs and then on TELL ME MORE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.