Sunday, February 17, 2008

American Indian Food

The American Indian museum is on the National Mall across from the Capitol, among all the many branches of the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art. Its collection of American Indian artifacts is outstanding, but its restaurant, the Mitsitam Native Foods Café, upstages the museum, as far as I'm concerned. It follows the pattern of self-serve restaurants in the many museums on the Mall: a number of specialized stations. Instead of salads, grilled foods, full meals, and sandwiches this cafeteria has stations representing the Plains Indians, the Southwest Indians, South and Central America, the Pacific Northwest, and the Eastern Forests.

The museum itself represents both the distant past and the present -- Indian life before and after European intrusion. Similarly, the Mitsitam Café offers foods of modern Native Americans and traditional New World foods. Hamburgers and fry bread are examples of foods that modern Southwestern Indians enjoy today, though their ancestors may have eaten differently. Some people are quite worried about the introduction of fat and white flour into their diet, but that's a completely different issue. Perhaps some of the Indians who participate in designing the presentations of their ancient and modern arts and crafts will eventually deal with this issue as well.

For lunch last Friday, I selected a wild rice and cranberry salad and a baked apple with maple and cranberry topping. I was tempted by many other dishes: frog legs, corn and bean salads, tamales, chocolate soup, duck, venison stew, and many frankly modern desserts. While the apple and the carrot shreds in my salad were old-world foods that were introduced by Europeans, I think that the chefs of the restaurant have combined various traditions to make a very enjoyable experience. I'm impressed at the quality of food that's made, especially since they serve large numbers of customers. (In fact, the crowds on weekends and the small portion sizes are a problem for some other people -- not everyone is as fond of this place as I am.)

From the website of the museum:
"'Mitsitam' means 'Let’s eat!'in the Native language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples. The museum’s Mitsitam Native Foods Café enhances the museum experience by providing visitors the opportunity to enjoy the indigenous cuisines of the Americas and to explore the history of Native foods. The café features Native foods found throughout the Western Hemisphere... . Each food station depicts regional lifeways related to cooking techniques, ingredients, and flavors found in both traditional and contemporary dishes." (See the website: National Museum of the American Indian)

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