• Megan Mahon

Decolonizing Dinner? Indigenous Chefs and Cookbooks

Are restaurants a kind of museum?


They’re both public institutions, they’re both enjoyable, and they both involve consumption - in one case of educational materials (or art, or history, etc., ad infinitum), and the other of edible goods. Sometimes, you can even find restaurants IN museums! Anyway, I know the correlation is a bit of a stretch, but providing it gives me a creative basis for writing this article about one of my favourite topics: food.


I’ve been fascinated by food history since my undergrad, when I realized that I could meld my love of cuisine with my love of history. I’m also very interested in food present (as in, what I’m eating right now) and food future (which is what I’m going to eat in the future). But even more than being something delicious, food can comfort, tell stories, and carry culture within it.


I believe that the whole idea of a museum is, at its core, to showcase cultures. The problem with that, of course, is that if curators are not of a culture which they are representing, they will often relegate that culture to the past. Colonialism, huh? The preparation of food, however, is the ultimate subversion of this idea. Not only does it assert that yes, our culture is here – but thriving, and eating, as the very act of consuming the food is a celebration of life itself. Now, to the point.


Freddie Bitsoie, who is a proud member of the Navajo Nation and an award-winning chef, has recently launched a new cookbook: New Native Kitchen. For years, Bitsoie was the head chef of Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe, at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington (you might be interested to know that Mitsitam means “let’s eat” in the language of the Nanticoke-Lenape and Piscataway peoples). His cookbook, while containing many delicious recipes, also seeks to highlight “the diversity of Indigenous foodways” and the very many different cultures that rest under the umbrella of “Indigenous” or “Native American” (from the National Post article, linked above). Over the course of his research and life, he’s travelled all over Turtle Island and met many Indigenous chefs, from the Anishinaabe (Great Plains) to the Kwakwaka’wakw (Northwest Coast), and the Navajo (what is now called the southwestern US). Each culture has its own unique, traditional ways of food preparation - even those like the Navajo and the Hopi who, despite living close together, enjoy eating and preparing their blue corn completely differently.


Corn, beans, and squash are commonly called the Three Sisters among Indigenous communities all over Turtle Island, due to the way they grow so easily together. Courtesy of Indian Country Traveler and Photographer.


The preservation of culture through food is, to me, an absolutely beautiful concept. We talk a lot in this program about how to make culture and history come alive, both for visitor interest and social justice reasons, but food doesn’t need that extra effort because of its already existing connection to life. I think there’s enormous potential for decolonization work through food, because its preparation and presence assert automatically: we are here. Indigenous chefs such as Bitsoie are showing not only their delicious food, but resilience and the continued life and diversity of Indigenous culture.


Bitsoie, of course, isn’t alone. In Winnipeg, chef Christa Bruneau-Guenther runs her restaurant, Feast Cafe Bistro, with these ideals in mind. Although I didn’t get to go before I moved to Toronto (something I think about and regret fairly often), reviewers rave about it. Feast’s goal was not only to allow the visitor to “experience modern dishes rooted in traditional First Nation foods,” but also to become a pillar of her community. She’s since been featured on Wall of Chefs on Food Network and in magazines like Canadian Living and Chatelaine.


Bitsoie and Bruneau-Guenther are joined in their missions of promoting love and culture through food by the group I-Collective, an “autonomous group of Indigenous chefs, activists, herbalists, seed, and knowledge keepers” who are dedicated to food sovereignty and justice. The I stands for the group’s four founding principles: Indigenous, Inspired, Innovative, and Independent. Their main goal is to start conversations and create new narratives around historical Indigenous contributions to cuisine and food, and to highlight community resilience and innovations. One of their main projects is a cookbook, which will highlight the importance of food sovereignty and making traditional dishes in the face of colonialism and land exploitation.


With all these fantastic, rights-based, and delicious examples before you, I submit that food itself is a living museum (cue the traditional shouts of “Is this a museum??”). It transmits knowledge. It is a repository of culture and a hymn to the love of life. And, lovingly prepared, it is sacred.


Food, and in particular traditional Indigenous ways of preparing and cooking food, offer a beautiful example of how we can bring life to museums (I’ve noticed this is a common thread with a lot of my articles), and listening to Indigenous groups like the I-Collective can help us along the road to decolonization. So, in the service of overall human betterment - go out and have a great, beautiful meal today.