Indian market's cuisine lacks native ingredients


Here’s hoping next year’s Indian fair will have more … fare.

This one’s got a lot of history to it. It’s about Native American cuisine, for heaven’s sake.

My plan was to write about the food at the Eiteljorg Museum’s annual Indian Market and Festival that took place last Saturday and Sunday. In past years, organizers recruited from as far as New York to supply festival-goers with authentic Native American cuisine: The Empire State’s Indian Country Café served up buffalo burgers and roasted corn soup at the 2005 fair, according to the museum’s Web site.

So after Sunday’s mid-day rains, I forked over the $10 entry fee and got ready for all the indigenous ingredients I could get my hands on. I had caught a glimpse of Tad Blood’s concession stand on the way to the ticket booth: The marquee promised authentic Indian tacos and Indian fry bread. Seven tickets (at $1 a pop!) seemed a bit steep for one taco, but how many times would I encounter such a delicacy?

I got closer to the stand and read the Indian taco’s ingredients: lettuce, tomato, cheese and chili on Indian fry bread. Hmm, I thought. More like a chalupa than an Indian taco. Where were the Native American ingredients?

Despite what you may find on, say, Wikipedia, chili is NOT Native American food. It may have been adopted into the diets of natives of late, but its origins are not with any local tribes.

Chili’s exact inception is hard to pinpoint. One popular theory by Southern food historian Robb Walsh is that Canary Islanders brought the native stew — with its North African emphasis on chiles, comino and spices — to Texas. It has since been popularized as American cuisine.

OK, but the Indian fry bread is authentic, right? Yes and no. Though fry bread and even the dubious Indian tacos are modern-day fare, they are no more traditional than the reservations to which Indians have been relegated.

Quick history recap: Navajos were forced from their native lands along the Rio Grade during the Civil War. After their 300-mile “Long Walk,” they were forced to settle in Bosque Redondo, where they had little to eat other than basic government rations like sugar, salt, flour and lard. Fry bread was born. It was not a tradition before 1863.

To be fair, this double-ply pan was thick, doughy and soul-warming, made all the more so by the addition of honey. Perhaps this is the reason health officials inside and outside the Native American community are blaming Indians’ increasing obesity and diabetes incidence on the bread.

“What’s an ‘authentic’ Indian market without some authentic cuisine?” I thought, despondent. Tad Blood’s concession stand, sadly, seemed the closest one could come to it at the event. And it was also serving fried chicken on a stick.

Then I meandered to the Mexican-Oaxacan food stand next door and was heartened: tamales! These pockets of pork (and more) have undergone many changes through the years: Native Americans ate them with whatever protein was available, usually dipping them in sauce made from homegrown chili peppers.

I got a pork and corn tamal. It was fat, flat and encircled with luscious, fluffy corn masa, the lard/dough mixture cradling the meat inside. The pork and its tangy red sauce balanced the sweet exterior. With a drizzling of homemade salsa over the dish … I was placated.

Hubbard & Cravens and Baskin Robbins were the market’s other culinary offerings. I guess you could count the kettle corn stand as more customary.

Next year, I thought, I hope to see a lot more indigenous ingredients. More buffalo, pinto beans, chili peppers and corn — not from the kettle. You know, things Native Americans actually cultivated and ate back in the day.

And then I spotted it as I was walking out the gate. The most authentic Native American offering, right there in the outdoor gift shop: beef jerky.