Take care of the land and it will take care of you. It’s a belief system Tashia Hart was raised on, one that guides her in her work as an ethnobotanist and Native American indigenous food-system advocate, researching wild foods that are part of traditional diets of tribes in Minnesota.
The job takes her to a variety of environments, from forests to prairies, where she forages to locate and identify food items, and into the kitchen to experiment with preparations.
She dehydrates cooked and raw items — sometimes drying them in the sun on rocks, or smoking them. Some are pulverized into powder. Items are also frozen and some are fermented. Hart looks for shelf stability, how flavors hold up and which preparations offer the best textures and consistencies.
“Along the way, I’m learning the names of the plants I’m gathering and preparing — all in the native language — and about time-keeping of the seasons,” based on the food she finds growing.
The point goes beyond cultural discovery, Hart said. “The reason this work is so important is that Native American identities and narratives have been wiped clean, so it’s important to make connections between our people and our food. When our people faced genocide, food was a really big part of it. We were made to feel that the food we ate was not good enough for dogs. This was done on purpose, to take our culture and identities away from us.
“So when I think of reclaiming our food system, it’s like reclaiming our identity, our communities and where we come from.”
At an October dinner at Mud Hen Water in Kaimuki, chef-owner Ed Kenney joined Hart in the kitchen to present a Native American dinner. The two met when she was profiled on the PBS series “Family Ingredients,” a locally produced food and travel show Kenney hosts.
The dinner featured such items as a Three Sisters Fritter made of corn, beans and squash; a wild-rice cracker; hominy and cattle bean soup; and a maple-roasted squash tart made with seeded wild-rice crust. A number of ingredients were foraged by Hart herself before getting on the plane.
Hart is part of the Anishinaabe tribe, which settled along the Great Lakes. She said that though there is commonality among Native American foods, there is no singular style.
“The food is local and wild, so there was a lot of trading with other tribes. Our food is hyperlocal — what we can forage, farm or hunt,” she said.
A special food of the Anishinaabe is wild rice, cooked in a wide variety of ways. Berries added to cooked wild rice make for a delicious salad, Hart said, while popped rice, heated in a hot pan until it cracks, offers texture as a topping. And because the tribe is in Minnesota, where modern dishes are heavily influenced by Scandinavian culture, wild rice is prepared in casserole form, “with ground meat and sauce, and baked,” she said.
In Hart’s neck of the woods, corn is also abundant, and dried kernels are turned into hominy by boiling them in a pot with ashes to break down the hard corn. This makes the nutrients more accessible. Squash, another common food, traditionally was roasted, or dried for later use and rehydrated when cooked. During winter it was cooked with dried fruit and moose meat.
Much like traditional Native Hawaiian culture, traditional Native American culture personifies the land and the important plants that grow from it. Hart shares the classic tale of the Three Sisters: corn, beans and squash.
“They all grow together. The beans grow around the corn stalks, and the squash is like a cover crop. They take care of each other, we take care of them and they take care of us,” she said.
For the Anishinaabe, “ricing,” harvesting and processing their special wild rice, has deep cultural significance. For Hart’s father it’s a calling. As a youngster, Hart lived half time with her father on the Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, the sole reservation in the state owned by tribes. “No matter where he’s at in the country, if it’s ricing season, he will leave his job and rice,” she said.
Growing up on the reservation, Hart was exposed to traditional practices. She spent time searching for wild edibles, then cleaning, drying and cooking them.
“We never called that anything. It was just what we did. When I was in college and studied plants, my classmates and instructors talked about foraging. It was introduced to us as a new thing people didn’t know about. It was trendy. But my whole life I’ve been doing that.
“Now I think of my dad as a forager.”
Like father, like daughter.
WILD RICE AND VEGETABLES
By Tashia Hart
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup wild rice, well rinsed
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 1/2 medium onion, finely diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 to 1 pound mushrooms, chopped into bite-size pieces
- 1/2 to 1 cup dried cranberries
- 1/4 cup chopped wild leeks or green onions
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup (optional)
- Salt and pepper, to taste
In medium pot, bring water and rice to a boil. Reduce heat and cover, leaving a little gap for steam to escape. Cook until rice swells and begins to curl, about 20 minutes. (Don’t let it get too soft; you want texture.) Add a little extra water if necessary.
In a large pan, heat oil and saute onions over medium, adding garlic when onion is about halfway caramelized. Either saute or dry-roast mushrooms. If sauteing, add to pan along with garlic; otherwise, dry-roast in 350-degree oven.
When rice is done, strain remaining water and place in large serving dish. Stir in onion-garlic mix as well as mushrooms, cranberries, leeks or green onions, and maple syrup, if using. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot. Makes 4 cups.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving (with maple syrup and not including salt to taste): 190 calories, 2.5 g fat, no saturated fat or cholesterol, 10 mg sodium, 40 g carbohydrate, 3 g fiber, 20 g sugar, 5 g protein.