I was privileged to attend a luncheon at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. During the 3 course meal, the Mitsitam Café Executive Chef Richard Hetzler and his staff presented the attendees with an amazing selection of Native People inspired foods. Before each course the Chef explained the provenance of the dish, the ingredients and any modifications made to create each skillfully presented dish.
It was hard to single out any one course as my favorite, as all were delicious, but I found the starter trio of Causa potato dishes quite noteworthy. That said, it is hard to forget the Bison (American Buffalo) loin served with white corn pone and grilled asparagus tips. It was all good.
You don’t have to wait for special events to enjoy this type of food, you can stop by the National Museum of the American Indian and try it for yourself.
National Museum of the American Indian
The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is easily one of my favorite museums on the National Mall in our nations capital. It is, to quote the museum mission statement, “committed to advancing knowledge and understanding of the Native cultures of the Western Hemisphere—past, present, and future—through partnership with Native people and others. The museum works to support the continuance of culture, traditional values, and transitions in contemporary Native life.”
The exhibits and presentations begin even before you enter the museum doors. The building itself is an architectural marvel, a break from the classic marble and granite buildings of Washington. The grounds are filled with all manner of fascinating displays and tidbits of information about the People.
This is not simply a collection of the artifacts of the Native People of the Western Hemisphere, but a living, breathing part of their culture. Some who visit are disappointed by the lack of “history book” displays of the past which refuse to reinforce the old stereotypes ingrained in our minds by the movies. What disappoints some fascinates me, and many others, as the visitor is presented the world of the Native People told by the people themselves. Yes there are history and artifacts, but there are also presentations of the modern people and their culture as it exists today.
Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe
While some may be disappointed by the exhibits, none are disappointed by the Mitsitam Cafe. “Mitsitam” means “Let’s Eat!” in the Native language of the Delaware and Piscataway People. The Mitsitam Cafe truly enhances the museum experience by offering visitors the opportunity to enjoy indigenous cuisines found through out the Americas.
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
Each station depicts the life ways and related cooking techniques, ingredients and flavors found in both traditional and contemporary Native dishes.
This cafe is hands down the best place to eat on the National Mall. Chef Hetzler, while not Native himself, has done a fantastic job of taking the ingredients, flavors and cooking styles of the Native People and making the food approachable for the mass audience of Smithsonian patrons. The menu changes seasonally and as much as possible uses Native sources for the ingredients. And when a Native source is not available, they work to create demand to ensure that the cuisine can live on in its purest form. Chef Hetzler is a fount of knowledge about Native cuisine and he told us that at the time of the arrival of Europeans to the Western Hemisphere, the European culinary catalog consisted of 2000 – 3000 ingredients. At that same time, Native People were using over 20,000 ingredient components in the varied cuisines of their diverse culture. The point? This is not bland, boring food.
Visitors and local area residents alike enjoy the food offered by the Mitsitam Cafe. In fact it has become so popular that the gift shop was moved to a new location to allow for expansion of the Cafe and new coffee bar. I have been going there since the museum first opened and always tell friends, family and now you, that should you find yourself in Washington D.C. wandering the National Mall in search of sustenance, you will be happy you stopped to eat at the National Museum of the American Indian.
If you can’t visit Washington but are still curious about Native cuisine, there is a wonderful book containing a sampling of the dishes prepared at Mitsitam Cafe called The Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook: Recipes from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
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