We hear a great deal about what humans “originally” ate, these days. Do you want to go back a few hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand years? Do you really know what a hunter-gatherer would have eaten in your neighborhood?
We do have a pretty good idea what was being foraged and cultivated in the Americas in the last few thousand years. From Wild rice to quinoa, corn and beans to pine nuts, our sprawling continent provided many culinary treasures.
If you’d like a glimpse of the food that was consumed by the original inhabitants of North America, right up to today, take a trip to the Mitsitam Cafe in Washington DC. The cafe is nestled into the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, where it provides some edible education on the Native cultures that lived here for thousands of years before Europeans came along to start a global fusion cuisine.
Mitsitam is an award-winning restaurant, and an oasis of genuinely healthy food in a city filled with tempting restaurants. If Quinoa and Wild Rice sound like real food to you, you will love Mitsitam. It’s not claiming to replicate the original cuisine, mind you, but more of a showcase of the ingredients, with some updated touches. I noticed that fry bread was a prominent menu item, which is a food that only exists in Native culture because the US government provided the reservations commodity flour and oil, after they had taken most of their land. It’s not ancient, but many of today’s Natives grew up eating it.
And I am pretty sure that chocolate chip cookies aren’t really a Native invention, just popular with museum goers.
In keeping with the museum vibe, the cafe is arranged by regional cuisines, with a station for each region. It’s divided into:
Northern Woodlands– Region that spans from the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi and from Southern Canada to the Chesapeake
Mesoamerica– Home of the Papago or “Bean People” and spans from the American Southwest to Mexico and Central America
South America– Region that encompasses the entire southwestern hemisphere
Northwest Coast– Region that stretches from Southern Alaska to Northern California
Great Plains– Region that stretched over the great landscape from Alberta, Canada to Texas
In the photo at the top, you see my friend Rebecca ordering Sopes with Calabacitas (squash) Refried Beans, Latin Cream, Queso Oaxaca, and Avocado. This is the dish:
I had to try several things, so I went ala carte, with this feast:
The quinoa was crunchy and fresh tasting, with sweet hits of fresh corn kernels and bits of salty feta. The roasted vegetables were delicious, with the roasted squash falling apart to meld with the dressing. The tart, which I cut up and shared with my friends, was amazing, rich and creamy with an herbal note adding a bright, piney flavor.
My friend Diane ordered from the Northern Woodlands:
The fry bread was light and chewy, not greasy as is sometimes is. The wild rice salad was nutty and laced with peppery cress. The honey roasted carrots, sweetly earthy. The apple soup was like nothing I have every had, a puree of smoked apples and celery root, with no cream or anything to interrupt the sweet, smoky taste.
I also indulged in a Hunk of Concord Grape Cake.
The cake was buttery and tender, served warm with melting whipped cream on top. The meltingly soft Concord grapes were underneath, adding a genuine grape flavor and a hint of bitterness in the deep purple skins. We all shared bites of that, too.
My friend Jan also tried the Buffalo Chili, which he thought was spicy, but good.
Sonia went for the Paella of the Day, with chicken. I’m not sure how paella is Native, except that the Spanish brought it to the continent and may have taught natives to make it. There’s that global fusion.
The menu at Mitsitam changes with the seasons, so it will be shifting from the Fall selections to the Winter, soon. I thoroughly enjoyed everything I tried, as did my fellow diners. For anyone looking for gluten-free, vegetarian or vegan options, as well as whole grains, Mitsitam provides many exciting dishes.
Good food with a side order of education, now that is a meal with benefits. Getting to know more about the foods of our own continent is just as important as learning about the great foods of Europe or Asia, and touches our lives in a different way. As part of the experience of visiting our historic capital, it provides a deep and delicious part of understanding a bigger picture. The museum is filled with fascinating artifacts, and the things you see there will stay with you for years to come.
After eating a little piece of history, I was fueled to walk the National Mall, and absorb a different perspective, carved in stone and cast in bronze. I’m glad that I had a taste of the Native side.