(As some of you know, I had the opportunity to teach two Native American groups how to cook to save their lives. Here is the second installment of this three-part series on my own education during this experience.)
The week before class actually began I had a conference call that affected me deeply. One of the discussions centered around what types of foods that were accessible to people on reservations and in pueblos. Shamefully, I heard Chef Lois utter the most frightening words I have ever heard in my life:
“These people are eating whatever they can find at the quickie mart. There IS no grocery store. There are no restaurants. Whatever is on sale in the chip aisle and soda cooler is whats for dinner.”
I was truly shocked. This was not like rednecks making a monthly one hour pilgrimage to Wal Mart to circle around the outer ring of the store, devotedly worshipping the goods in the center aisles. This was people with access to nothing, a startling reality for thousands of people.
Listening to further conversations and structuring our class menus, I began to gather the knowledge that a reservation is not unlike a third world country within the US. Native people still live on portions of land assigned by the federal government and they are sovereign, not well supported by the outside and primarily left to themselves. Not all people have indoor plumbing and running water. Electricity is not a given. Tribes still raise their income in small ways by selling crafted items and livestock if there is an abundance. The rare wealthy tribe or pueblo has a casino on it and newer cars in driveways nearby.
Creating a menu that people can physically execute with as little as an open fire was an important consideration. Using healthy foods they are familiar with that they will actually eat was another issue. Food variety and actual utilization is a problem for more than the residents of the reservations, as gathered that a good deal of the people leading this study had no comprehension that Indians are not going to eat tofu. Ever. On a historic level, Natives have a strong bond with foods and equate it with medicine. What was surrounding their feet was the pharmacy. Seitan, TVP and Tofurkey were most definitely not on the table at the first Thanksgiving.
So, what the heck happened?
We heard the term ” Indian Reservation” when we were in school once, maybe twice and it was never mentioned ever again. It was something we chose to believe existed way back when and then magically disappeared, like dinosaurs. We paid no mind to what happened to the people involved, they became extinct in our minds and the country forged ahead, or so we thought.
The Reader’s Digest condensed version of what our government did to the people here before us is this: What the Native Americans saw were Puritans falling ill from a multitude of things, and malnutrition being one of them. When they could no longer bear to watch other human beings die as they failed to thrive far from home, the Natives helped bring much-needed plants into their diet and started to reverse the process of diseases like Pellagra. The Puritans thanked them by trying to convert them and giving them fancy new European diseases. Revolts against this unearthly religius crusade led to our forefathers killing them outright or starving them by slaughtering all their bison.
In America’s haste to snatch up areas of tactical, agricultural or political benefit, the government tidied things up by “relocating” some 57 tribes upon America’s unused badlands, taking away their means of survival as they knew it. Coastal tribes like the Seminole people of Florida, accustomed to sea life and fishing for their protein, were plopped down in Oklahoma on the prairie. Picture your dining table set with a bounty of foods from the land and sea, then imagine the tablecloth getting yanked, sending your entire meal floorward.
To not seem like total bastards, the government offered to supply a small amount of food to the people on these reservations. Neither knowing or caring otherwise, foods that were not in their normal food chain entered the Native diet and things slowly went from bad to worse. Gone were the days of grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, freshly hunted and dried meats and fish. In came hollow caloric foods such as sugar, wheat flour, lard, Crisco, canned beef stew, canned whole chickens, dried or canned milk, shelf-stable cheese and powdered eggs. These very spiritual people were supplied with what one would find in a war-era bomb shelter. Today, food little better than what was customarily found on a musty life raft is all these people get from the government to live on. And some of these items can’t even be eaten by Natives…
Cause And Effect
You do the math. When you take out indigenous cuisine and give entire nations of people foods they can’t digest, things start to go awry. Bring in sugar, which acts on dopamine receptors in the brain that equate sugar with opium and a dangerous addiction is born. Add in lard or shortening to a culture that subsisted on sporadically eaten lean game meats and the body’s plumbing starts to gum up. Remove access to any native grain that the stomach can utilize and substitute it with refined products, and enter diabetes. Add insult to injury and further limit the grocery list if there is no access to a freezer or a can opener breaks.
Here is a list of what foods are commonly available within a hundred mile radius most times: http://www.fns.usda.gov/fdd/foods/fy11-fdpirfoods.pdf As you look at this list, keep in mind that the year is 2011 and a lot of people have the Whole Foods smart phone app to make their laborious shopping experience much more pleasurable and convenient.
My Hypocrisy Ends Here
Okay, so, I have to fess up. Not only did I not wear my “Praise The Lard” tee shirt to class the first night, but I indeed listened to the doctor who wrote the book and did the studies on this diet. As a student and teacher, I soaked in the information in order to better support the patients in the class who had come to heal themselves. As a former clinician who has spent time in the trenches of a hemodialysis unit, in OR’s installing catheters and renal fistulas or grafts and removing dead body parts from diabetic extremities, I found most of the information logical and well supported by the AMA.
As a daughter of a mother who is now facing her own renal failure from diabetes, I swore long ago to break the chain of the disease on my own behalf and not make the same mistakes in self-care that my mother and grandfather made. Partly out of desire to stay healthy for my husband and partly to be respectful to my students, I chose to go on the bandwagon.
My journey was not that painful in the beginning as I had thought. Once I heard “Eat all the carbs you want, just make them whole grains!”, I awoke the beast within that is called, “Riceaholic”. Humming giddily past the meat counter full of elk, bison, turkey, filet mignon and rib eye steaks, I pretty much went gaily cavorting about in the bulk bin section, resisting the urge to run my fingers through vats of grainy goodness on the sly, a la’ Amelie. I felt very, very baaaaaaad and hoped my Endocrinologist was going to be as happy as I was at lab draw time.
I dutifully packed foods for myself when Brian and I would take our weekend road trips. I shared my thoughts and ideas with the students in class, as I was living the life along with them. I learned to saute’ with bean cooking liquid instead of fats. I diverted myself from dairy and craved anything made with coconut milk. I sprouted jars full of fresh beans like Jack in the fairy tale. I went whole-hogless, with the exception being the one week around Thanksgiving at my In-Laws’ house. I took the Bourdain approach, choosing to not insult my in-laws, who do their best to put up with me demolishing their kitchen every visit and grilling meat like pros. Otherwise, I did the deed, even managing to eat out smartly for the class duration, and even afterwards.
The funny thing was, the only question from the managing group that they seemed to be enthusiastically concerned with was this:
“Do you feel any better?”
( Look to the third and final posting on this series for the answer…)