A Cherokee chef works to crack the code of her people's food
Nico Albert began her stuffed squash recipe by digging a hole. On an overcast morning, she grabbed a shovel and pulled back the grass on her front lawn. She lives in a nondescript Tulsa, Oklahoma, neighborhood lined with ranch houses divided by privacy fences. All this land, though, was once Indian Territory and belonged to the ancestors of Native Americans like Albert, a member of the Cherokee Nation.
She kneeled on the ground and picked up a broad knife, slicing off slivers of kindling from a red oak log. She cut with the brutal precision of a chef who has spent countless mornings breaking down meat. She lit a fire and waited for the wood to burn down to coals. She filled an heirloom Cherokee tan pumpkin, grown from the tribe's seed bank, with wild rice, beans, Osage red corn grown by a family friend and wild spring onions she foraged in a local park.
"Once you crack the code on what you're looking for, you will see them everywhere," she said about the wild onions that sprout in early spring.
Once the coals were ready, Albert nestled the stuffed squash, wrapped in tinfoil, among the embers.
"All the stuffing is going to flavor the squash, and the squash is going to flavor the stuffing," she said.
Albert, 37, only learned the traditional Cherokee art of pit-roasting vegetables once she was grown. A self-described "oil brat," Albert bounced around the west as a child due to her father's job. Only when her family moved to Oklahoma did she reconnect with the Cherokee culture of her mother's side.
Albert has an easy smile. She also sings in a metal band and has the rock 'n' roll edge of many young chefs. She can talk about "pre-contact cuisine" and make it sound like something delicious instead of a dissertation.
She explained how Native Americans at one point cooked stews in tightly woven baskets, dropping in hot stones to heat the water. Meats, which were often grilled or smoked, were also cooked directly in the coals like her squash dish.
"It gives you a good sear on the outside, and ash was often used as a seasoning," she said.
Albert recently founded Burning Cedar Indigenous Foods to spread the word about indigenous food and feed it to more people. But she is still learning. And there is much to be discovered, particularly about how tribes across the South ate before most of them were forcibly relocated to what is now Oklahoma.
"A lot of these traditions we might have lost," she said. "Maybe only a certain group or community knew that recipe, and it hasn't made its way over to me yet."
In the 1980s, restaurants in the United States shook off the shadow of France by celebrating regional American cuisine: Cajun, Tex-Mex, the tropical flavors of Florida and the light, fresh approach of California. But Native cooking was overlooked in this celebration of American cooking. Restaurants that serve Native food remain rare.
"With all this talk of 'eat local' and 'farm-to-table,' it's taken this long to realize that the original inhabitants of this land are the ones most closely connected to the land," she said.
After an hour in the coals, she poked the foil-wrapped squash to see if it was ready. The sun had come out, and the yellow dandelions in her yard had opened. She plucked a few and sprinkled the petals across the stuffed squash. The dandelions added color, but also a bit of floral sweetness to the dish.
"We have all these rich traditions that go back 10,000 years that tie us very specifically to this place," she said.
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