Meatpaper one

On the Range
American Indian food historian Loretta Oden
goes native in the kitchen

Interview by Amy Standen

TWO HUNDRED YEARS AGO, tens of millions of buffalo stampeded across what’s now Colorado, the Dakotas, and Montana. In the space of a century, white settlers had killed almost all of them — “Buffalo” Bill Cody alone bragged that he shot 4,000 — and with the buffalo went much of our knowledge of Native American diet and culture.

Loretta Oden aims to change that. Chef, writer, historian, and host of last year’s PBS documentary Seasoned With Spirit, A Native Cook’s Journey, Oden has spent much of her life attempting to revive vanishing Native American food traditions. In recent years she’s traveled across the continent, meeting and cooking with American Indian groups — and accumulating a vast store of meaty recipes many Americans would steer clear of. (Braised moose nose, anyone?)

It’s not just another food trend: To Oden, this culinary knowledge is key to nourishing American Indian cultures, fighting obesity, and repairing damaged ecosystems. Oden is a member of Oklahoma’s Citizen Potawatomi Nation who grew up, she says, on frogs’ legs and squirrels. She spoke to Meatpaper from her home in Tecumseh, about 100 miles southwest of Tulsa.

What are some Native American delicacies you don’t see in many American kitchens?
Moose nose is quite a delicacy in the area where moose abound. It’s kind of, well, you can imagine the texture. It’s kind of like a pig snout: tough and chewy. With beaver tail, you have the same situation; it’s tough as a board. So you have to skin the beaver tail, you know, burn off or singe the outer layers so you can peel that tough hide off. And then I just braise the heck out of it until it finally it gets soft enough. Even tendons, if you cook them long enough, will ultimately break down and get to the point where you can eat them.

Beaver tail! How do you serve that?
Depends on my audience. I mean, sometimes people are squeamish about something looking like what it really is, so if it comes out in a great big nice beaver tail shape they’re going to say, “Oh my god, no!” I have served it like that in Indian communities, just braised it and it kind of shrinks down and starts falling apart. But for other groups, I would cut it up into cubes or juliennes or something like that, in a stew or a ragu sort of thing.

They used the tendons, the bones, the horns for drinking cups — they used absolutely everything.

I think I’d prefer the ragu. But usually, when we think about Native Americans, we think about buffalo.
Certainly, the buffalo was the be-all-end-all, especially for the Plains tribes. They were hunter-gatherers and they followed the migrations of the buffalo herds — hence their teepees. Everything was portable so that they could follow the vast herds.

I’ve heard buffalo can weigh as much as 5,000 pounds, and measure 12-feet long. So without horses or guns, how did the Plains Indians catch them?
There were two ways they harvested the animals. They would either cloak themselves in buffalo hide and then kind of hunker down and sneak up on the herd, and get them with spears or bows and arrows, or they’d herd them together in a big mass and run them off a cliff. The women and older children would be down below to give the animals the final conk on the head they may have needed, and then they would spend days skinning them and preparing the various cuts of meat.

What did they do with all the different parts?
The hide was clothing; it was used for the buffalo robes, which they wore fur-side-in because then they could paint their stories on the outside. The hides were also used for blankets. They used the tendons, the bones, the horns for drinking cups — they used absolutely everything.
If there was a feast, they would cook the stomach with the contents in it, which was really just grass, so you got your stewed veggies all ready to go! And of course, there were all sorts of sausages and things they made with the intestines, from a blood sausage to stuffing the intestines with meat.
One of my favorites is the bowls that were made out of the hump skin, which is probably an inch and a half thick. They would lay the hide over a rock or a mound of dirt and then let the skin sun-dry and harden. They could also make shields out of the hump, strong enough to deflect an arrow. I’ve even seen salt and pepper shakers made out of the cloven hoofs.
When they were finished processing, there was nothing left except a little spot on the prairie. Pretty amazing.

What does buffalo taste like?
I always describe it as the way beef would love to taste if it could. It’s not gamey at all; it’s a very dense, very red-colored meat, extremely lean, and slightly sweeter than beef. The color is just beautiful. Of course if they feed-lot them and stuff them with corn and finish them off the way they would beef, then you get a little bit of fat. Then you’re really negating the health aspects of eating bison meat, because it is lower in fat and cholesterol than even the white breast meat of turkey, and even some fish.

Did Native Americans have ritual prohibitions against any particular kinds of meat, the way keeping kosher forbids eating pork and shellfish?
Well, I know that horses were too valuable a commodity to eat, but they did eat dog. Not as a common practice, though. Prior to contact, we only had five domesticated animals in the Americas: dogs, turkeys, bees, the guanacos — those are the llamas, or alpacas — and guinea pigs. Before the horse came, dogs were a very important part of the community. They were pack animals; they were friends. So if you were offered dog, it was a very high, ceremonial food to offer, because it was like offering your best friend, your most valuable commodity.

Among some groups — like, for example, the Navajo and the Dine — reptiles are verboten because the reptile represents the lightning bolt that brings down the rain, and you need that rain. So the reptiles aren’t eaten in desert areas. But throughout the Americas, people eat everything from different types of grubs to cicadas.

In New Mexico, when I opened one of my restaurants in an Indian-owned hotel, one of the elders brought in a great big jar of roasted and salted cicadas and said, “This will be a good bar snack! Real salty, make people drink lots of whisky!” And I said, “well, I don’t know if I can get away with that here, but maybe if I pulled the heads and legs off people might eat them.”

Did it work?
Well no, I didn’t serve them. But I’ve eaten them a lot myself and it’s just a crunchy, salty thing. Regardless of people’s ethnic backgrounds, there’s always the question: What are you going to do with this piece of meat, or this piece of offal, or something that’s left over here? And the answer is usually: Make it crispy and crunchy and put some salt on it! Makes anything taste good.

What about snakes?
Growing up in Oklahoma, we used to go rattlesnake hunting — in fact there’s an annual rattlesnake hunt here in Okeene, where people hunt rattlesnakes and have big rattlesnake roasts. It’s good meat. In Louisiana, alligator — oh my goodness! — we cooked alligator sauce picante; we did everything we could think of to do with alligators. Traditionally, in the Cayman Islands, all the reptiles were very valuable and important sources of protein.

What rituals traditionally accompanied meat-eating among Native Americans?
There were always blessings and ceremony, regardless of whether you were harvesting corn or harvesting an animal. Thanks were always given. The first salmon of the salmon run is always given back to the river to thank the salmon people for nourishing the two-legged. Everything from a rock to a buffalo has a spirit.

What’s the buffalo spirit like?
Usually, among the Plains people, the buffalo spirit takes the form of the White Buffalo Calf Woman. She’s responsible for these massive herds of buffalo that came up to the earth to feed the people. It’s said that the buffalo came in herds of 50 or 60 million animals and would take three or four days to pass by. They were so abundant and so revered by the people. The ground would shake; you could hear the thunder of them coming. When I go to the plains, I just imagine what it must have looked like.


This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue One.



Top: Ponca Indian Scouts Skinning a Buffalo, 101 Ranch, Bliss, Oklahoma (Undated). Image courtesy the Library of Congress.
Bottom: Photo by Allan Moss