We celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on Oct.9 by chowing down on some Native American food.
Now, if you asked a random person what Native American foods they regularly enjoy, they might need to think for a moment. But there’s a lot of Native American food that goes beyond fry bread – the common dish created during the indigenous peoples’ forced relocation – and that you probably eat quite often.
For example, Mexican food is one of the most popular cuisines in the United States; heck, we have at least 10 Mexican restaurants in our Oak Park/Forest Park neighborhood: Maya del Sol, Tacos ’76, Hecho en Mexico, Tacos el Tio #4, NRebozo, Boss Burrito, Cactus Grill, Margaritas, Taco Mucho, Chirrion Mexican Grill and probably others. However, native North Americans had a heavy influence on Mexican and Southwestern cuisine, offering them the corn, beans, tomatoes, chocolate, and chilies that have become staples of those diets.
In northern parts of the U.S., turkey, wild rice, and berries were introduced to Pilgrims. Cranberries, which annually appear on our Thanksgiving tables, were used both fresh and dried by native peoples. In mid-September, we were in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, and we visited a cranberry marsh in Three Lakes. Janel Depuis, who owns the marsh with her husband, explained to us that their marshland had traditionally been harvested by indigenous people, and when they revived the area to produce cranberries commercially, they hired Native Americans to help pick berries.
Later, at the downtown Three Lakes Winery, we sampled fruit wines, which have never been high on my list of favs. This cranberry wine, however, was much more subtle and much less sweet than I’d thought it might be; this best-selling wine won a gold medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition.
The McCain family runs Three Lakes Winery, and Mark McCain told us that many of his wines have a cranberry component; fermenting the whole cranberries “softens the acidity,” making for a very pleasant quaff. I could see pairing this wine with a fatty fowl, like duck or goose: the slight acidity would mellow the lush fattiness of the birds.
Driving around the Northwoods, we almost shot past a small sign announcing “mounds.” We hit the brakes and turned into the Lake Tomahawk camp area, weaving through densely wooded roads until we spotted interpretive signage. This signage marked the location of the mounds which, if you were not looking for them, would be easily unnoticed.
The Lake Tomahawk Mounds were created perhaps two thousand years ago, and they’re in geometric forms (linear and conical), rather than Sheboygan’s animal-shaped effigy mounds that we reported on earlier this year. Just as we may not tend to think of tacos or cranberries as Native American food, these mounds, looking simply like piles of dirt, are touchstones of indigenous culture. Walking in sacred spaces like these gives one respect for the Native Americans who lived – and who still live – here. We are grateful for the cuisine they offered us.