The dining room at the consul general’s residence in St. Petersburg was packed. I was preparing dinner for dozens of local leaders, business professionals and educators. My goal was to teach them about American cuisine. Not just American — Native American.
I walked down the buffet line, talking about each dish and the significance of each ingredient. Although the smell of bread was familiar, our guests had never seen a traditional Native American blue corn bread. Beside each basket was a bowl of local Russian honey, infused with a traditional New Mexico red chile powder. As I demonstrated how to drizzle a little of the honey on top of the bread, I could see the anticipation.
I moved next to the handmade tamales. Each was stuffed with local pork seasoned with herbs and spices and slow cooked for hours, then mixed with traditional New Mexican red chile sauce. Corn masa encased them. Most of our Russian guests had never tried a tamale, and I had to teach them not to eat the cornhusk. But they embraced the traditional red chile sauce even though it was hotter than any of their local dishes.
I’ve been researching Native American cuisine for decades now. It was the topic of my dissertation work, and I’d been invited to Russia to share this culture with others through cooking classes, demonstrations and dinners. Before my trip, I wondered how the foods I would present to the Russian audience would be interpreted. But I quickly began to see the parallels between Native American and Russian dishes. In many instances, ingredients that we used were familiar to our Russian audiences. It taught me something about the value of eating locally — and the relationship between culture and food.
Today, few people appreciate Native Americans’ rich culinary history. But the cuisine is vast, and dates back millennia. Native groups harvested ancestral ingredients like corn, beans, squash, chiles, tomatoes, potatoes, vanilla and cacao. They are foods that originated in the Americas and were spread to the Old World via Christopher Columbus, most likely on the second and third voyages of his trips between the Old World (Europe) and the New World (the Americas).
Think about this for a moment. In 1491, none of these foods existed anywhere in the world outside of the Americas. There was no Italian tomato. Half of Britain’s national dish, fish and chips, didn’t exist yet in that country. There were no chiles in any of the Asian cuisines. East Indian curries were savory, not spicy. Vanilla didn’t grow in Madagascar or Tahiti, where much of it is now produced. There was no European chocolate or any kind of chocolate confection.
The potato, now a staple in the Russian diet, has only been so for approximately the last 500 years. The distillation process for making vodka from potatoes didn’t exist before this introduction, except for vodka spirits that were made from other fermented cereal grains (including rye, wheat, barley and millet) local to that part of the world.
Even many of the dishes Americans prepare for Thanksgiving are Native American. For instance, a typical dish of baked acorn or butternut squash is Native American. Potatoes made into a mash, whether sweet potatoes or another type of potato are also Native American. Cranberries that are boiled into a relish and served at almost every American table are also Native American. Dishes like succotash, coming from the Narragansett meaning “broken corn kernels,” are Native American, too. And Boston baked beans are made from native beans and maple syrup.
These ingredients were grown sustainably, with knowledge handed down from generation to generation through songs, stories and beliefs. Elders committed to memory a body of past experiences and cultural traditions relating to food — how to hunt wild game and fish, how to find wild plants, which plants are edible, their uses for food and medicine, and how to grow, harvest, prepare and store them. Native Peoples developed trade relationships with neighboring groups and traded for ingredients that they couldn’t procure themselves.
Getting Americans interested in Native American cuisine is tough. Bringing this culture to another country is even harder. We needed to make sure we had the necessary ingredients. We shipped many from New Mexico: Tamaya white and blue finely ground cornmeal from Santa Ana Pueblo for baking bread; red, white and blue posole (also known as hominy corn) for making stew; this year’s crop of New Mexico red chile powder and red chile pods for making red chile honey and red chile sauce; corn masa for tamales and dried chiles for making mole. The remaining ingredients were purchased locally from markets and vendors in St. Petersburg.
I also worried about explaining these foreign foods to my hosts. But our guests loved trying new dishes, and saw many parallels with their own cuisine. Anastasia Troshkova, a master culinary student who helped us prepare some of our dishes, noted that one of our dessert dishes, the traditional berry crisp, could have been made by her grandmother. But she would have served it with sour cream. Stanislav Kubarev, a cooking instructor we worked with, said the stuffed green chile with the garden tomato sauce and herb roasted potatoes we shared could have been a Russian dish he ate as a child. The dish poaches stuffed sweet peppers directly in tomato sauce instead of chiles served on top of the tomato sauce.
It was a good reminder that our food is inescapably bound to our homelands. The food we prepare from each of our regions is place-based and filled with local terroir (the French word for the natural environment that gives food its unique characteristics). I wonder what each of our grandmothers would have prepared that is unique to of our distinct ecological regions. How can innovative and contemporary chefs prepare and present these foods sustainably with the roots of their local lands? Can these foods be prepared using contemporary artistry and presentation styles from our specific regions so that our guests can literally “eat the landscape” from which these ingredients have come?
If we do not pass on meaningful culinary traditions from one generation to the next — how to grow cultivated crops, how to harvest wild foods, how to prepare and cook them — part of our culture will disappear. Chefs today have a wonderful opportunity to keep alive these crucial and significant culinary traditions for future generations. At the chef’s tasting, Dmitriy Kharkov, the Demi chef de partie from the Four Seasons Hotel Saint-Petersburg, approached me and stated, “The conception of carrying on the traditions using ingredients of the past and making it new is quite familiar to me.” His statement resonated with me. We’re both creating the future by looking to the past.