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Native American cuisine and ancestral traditions in the kitchen at Tulalip Casino

LISTEN: Native American cuisine and ancestral traditions in the kitchen at Tulalip Casino
Salmon on sticks, being cooked in the traditional Tulalip tribe method (Photo courtesy of Tulalip Casino)

Inside the Tulalip Casino, there is a seafood restaurant called Blackfish, where salmon is cooked using traditional tribal techniques over an open fire pit. Tribal members thought it was important to share their culinary traditions with non-natives who come into game and dine. Chef de cuisine, David Buchanan, says they skewer the sockeye on special sticks that are positioned near the open fire to roast.

“A tribal member goes out and harvests ocean spray, which is also called ironwood, and hand carves us these sticks that the tribe still uses to this day in their ceremonies, meetings and so on,” said Buchanan. “We’ll use those to skewer the salmon and slowly roast it over the fire.”

Buchanan is not native American, in fact only one person in the kitchen is, yet they follow traditional Tulalip practices in the kitchen.

“If a cook is angry or frustrated, it’s believed that that energy is put into the food and then ingested by whoever is consuming it,” Buchanan said. “I mean, it’s a Friday night, you got 300 covers, you’re not going to be able to stop and say, ‘Hey, dude, chill out!’ But we do pull them aside when we can. Or at least say, ‘Get your head back on. Focus.” Then we can follow up later, in order not to put that negative energy in.”

If a piece of salmon were to fall into the fire…

“The tribe believes that is an ancestor asking for their portion of the meat so we never throw it out, we never try to reutilize it, we actually feed the fire,” said Buchanan.

Native American chef and educator Lois Ellen Frank, who has a Ph.D. in culinary anthropology, says there are four periods of Native American cuisine. There’s Pre-Contact, prior to 1491, when native Americans ate a diverse diet of regional foods. Then there’s the First Contact period when European explorers came from the “old world.”

“There were eight ingredients that in 1491 didn’t exist outside of the Americas at all,” Frank said. “Those were given to the old world and foods from the old world came here. So I call it the Magic Eight and it includes corn, beans, squash, chili, tomato, potato, vanilla, and cacao. So we can deconstruct old world cuisine and say, well, the Italians did not have the tomato and the Irish did not have the potato and there were no chilies in any Asian cuisine or east Indian cuisine and the French had no confection using vanilla or chocolate. So our foods changed the old world. But then the old world brought things to us.”

Things like domesticated farm animals, which resulted in dairy. Next came the Government Issue period, when Native Americans were stripped of their land, relocated to reservations and given government subsidies they never ate before, like lard, flour, sugar, and Spam. This spawned new foods like fry bread but also created a diabetes and obesity epidemic.

Frank says we’re currently in the period of New Native American Cuisine, where native chefs are turning back to using hyper-local ingredients the tribes ate, cooked in modern ways. Here is a dish Frank is cooking through her catering company, Red Mesa Cuisine, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“Empanadita, so a little turnover stuffed with bison, local heirloom carrots, and red chile and we serve that with guajillo chile sauce. Then cornbread made and grown by one of the local tribes, both blue and white.”

Her company also teaches healthy, ancestral cooking classes to help fight obesity and diabetes. Here’s a recipe.

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