Food and the struggle for sovereignty in Native North America
By Veronika Ederer
Special to the Daily
In German-speaking countries, the interest in Native American culture is still vivid, even if it is fed by stereotypes. Children’s comics, movies and even the textbooks in school produce a simple, uniform picture of Native Americans — even more so when it comes to food. Of course, Native Americans “all hunted bison,” which was erroneously called buffalo. (The American “buffalo” is not really a buffalo, but belongs to the bison family, which is a separate bovine category.)
At rare occasions, you can read or hear about corn, squash and beans, fishing and gathering wild plants. Working as a cultural anthropologist and as a freelancer in schools, in museums and in universities, I always tried to teach people more about Native American culture, which included getting all five senses involved. So I used pictures, objects and games, but also music and food.
I was drawn into the Native American studies when I was 13 years old; however, I remember reading the first cookbook on Native American recipes — in German — during my internship at the anthropological museum in Stuttgart, Germany: The Linden Museum. Still living with my parents, I tried to recreate the first recipes and invited friends to test them.
After finishing my studies in Munich, I moved to Frankfurt along the river Main. Step by step I not only worked on my dissertation but also acquired another two Native American cookbooks asking for ingredients that were not available in Germany. When I traveled to the U.S., I visited the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. and there I found in its gift shop the required ingredients, hominy and fry bread mix. When I got back home, I finished my dissertation and invited all my friends to my home for a first Native American buffet. Well, I think I do cook quite well, but another reason that all my friends attended the buffet might have been because the food was new and unusual for them. My apartment sure was crowded that day.
Throughout the next years, I had to live on very little money being a freelancer. Despite those circumstances, I continued experimenting with Native American recipes. The early 2000s brought an interest in bison meat and a small market provided this specialty meat, which was filled by local German breeders. Also, it was no problem anymore to get corn flour, wild rice and cranberries. Again and again I surprised friends and colleagues with Native American dishes such as wild rice salad, pudding and fry bread.
Moving to Switzerland in 2009 and having the opportunity to work several years at a museum about Native American culture (NONAM), I learned even more about these recipes. First of all, it’s easier to get foods from the Americas in Switzerland and there are a few Mexican shops selling blue corn flour, nopales and pozole (in New Mexico known as posole). After a research tour for the museum to southern Alberta — where I had my fill on bison meat — I looked for somebody in Switzerland raising bison, which I found nearby. Since I had a safe job and — you know — a “Swiss bank account,” I filled my fridge with bison meat, sausages and jerky. I gave tours in the museum and treated the students and adult visitors to some of the delicacies such as bison jerky, popcorn and blue corn chips.
My cookbook library and my pantry grew — especially after I had the chance to visit the Southwest in 2013 for the first time. I returned with chile, mesquite flour, cholla buds and blue corn posole. Teaching gifted children in Zürich, Switzerland, they benefited from having a teacher who was always hungry. In almost every class — a journey around the world or in archeology — I introduced the students to the respective food and drinks.
I continued looking for new recipes and also doing research about Native American food sovereignty when four years ago, friends of mine suggested that I should publish a Native American cookbook in German. This idea inspired me, and I immediately started working on a layout and started my research. At the time, there was not one Native American cookbook available in German. I myself had about 10 different English cookbooks in my library; I had acquired books from the Arctic to the American Southwest. With a good friend of mine, who is a professional decorator; a former colleague from the museum, who is a professional photographer and another friend, who is like me — a trained cultural anthropologist — we started the project in August 2016.
We met once a month taking pictures of two to four recipes — enjoying the delicious results afterward, of course. We decorated each dish in accordance to the region where it originated from, using a lot of natural decorative material such as wood, branches, bark, leaves, moss, stones, shells and sand. I had a lot of objects from my journeys to the different parts of the U.S., which we were able to use for almost every picture. After all, I did not only want to feed my readers, I also wanted to educate them. That’s why I decided to include the history of Native American food, about the different cultures and regions, and about special ingredients and projects concerning the Native American quest for food sovereignty.
After three and a half years — we considered the project still being a hobby, all of us had to make a living after all — we finished the last recipes. Now the search for a publisher began. Most turned us down, since the book covers such a unique specific area, and almost every page in the book was meant to be in color. We already started thinking about self-publishing when we finally had success. The book is getting printed.
Here is one of the recipes featured:
Sunflower quick bread — American Southwest
Yields 1 loaf
¼ cup honey
¼ stick of soft butter
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 ½ cups ground sunflower seeds
1 cup milk
½ cup whole or coarsely chopped sunflower seeds.
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Add the honey and butter in a bowl and mix until smooth. Add the eggs and stir until smooth. Combine the flour, baking powder, salt and ground sunflower seeds in a separate bowl. Add the dry ingredients to the egg mixture alternating with the milk. Careful that you do not overwork the batter. Fold in the whole sunflower seeds. Pour the batter into a greased loaf pan and bake for up to 60 minutes until the bread is golden brown. Cool on rack. This bread is easier to slice when cool.
If you like, you can brush the top of the bread with some melted butter and sprinkle on some more whole sunflower seeds.
Serve with butter, cream cheese or any topping of your liking.
Ederer received her PhD from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in cultural anthropology. Originally from Germany, she has worked several years in Switzerland in museums such as the North American Native Museum in Zürich and with the gifted program “Universikum” in Zürich. Ederer first visited the Mescalero Apache Reservation, 70 miles southwest of Roswell, in 2013 and has since witnessed Apache coming-of-age ceremonies and even was allowed to participate in a traditional mescal agave plant roast at the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, south of Carlsbad. Ederer visited Roswell’s Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives in 2019 for research purposes.