Native American foods showcased at this weekend's ISU Horticulture Center Autumnal Festival
The Illinois State University Horticulture Center is going back to "native roots" for this year's Autumnal Festival — literally.
The center on Raab Road in Normal is honoring the connection to indigenous plants as part of the annual fundraiser for the center taking place on Saturday and Sunday.
Matt Horton is the executive chef for ISU's food service and dining program that will be serving Native American cuisine. It's not just "cuisine" — the word should be plural, Horton said, because there are many Native American groups and lifeways. Native Americans of the plains ate differently that did Woodland tribes, or west or east coast nations.
“It'd be a lot like saying, Mexican food, or Chinese food, or Indian food represents an entire continent. There's a lot more to any kind of cuisine when you're talking about thousands of different cultures over thousands of years,” said Horton.
Horton said they will start from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday with foods common to tribes in the upper Midwest, including a wild rice pilaf.
“Most people think wild rice is the same thing you might find with Ben's original box mix, but they're actually quite quite different. Authentic wild rice is not a rice, it's a grass. The habitat where it's grown is small, parts of northern Minnesota and just a little bit in California. That's about it,” said Horton.
It cooks a lot faster than a lot of other rice, about 15 minutes. Horton said he’s borrowing recipes from the "Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen" by Sean Sherman. Chestnuts and several kinds of mushrooms will be in the pilaf. Those were more available to Woodland tribes, though are hard to find after an invasive species of fungus killed most American Chestnut trees in the early 20th century.
Many Native American groups had diets that capitalized on foraged berries and other seasonal foods. In the Midwest, that can be cherries, currants, blueberries, and chokeberries, also known as Aronia.
Horton said he has tried to make sure ISU educates students about different local products. There is even a 28-acre farm just outside Bloomington that grows nothing but Aronia berries.
There also will be bison to eat at the event, taken from Plains Indians diets.
“We're going to do a seared bison strip steak with a Wojapi sauce. You can use different kinds of berries, but we're going to use the local Aronia berries. It's an intense flavor. When you taste it on its own, it's like eating a big bite of something really tart, like cranberries. When you have the sauce with that bison, they really interact and the savory bison lessens the tartness,” said Horton.
A recurring theme in a lot of Native American cultures is the "three sisters" — corn, beans, and squash planted all together. They reinforce each other and self-fertilize each other. Horton said he is planning a three sisters mash this year as part of other programming in the campus dining service and education programs that emphasizes sustainability.
“Most indigenous cuisine had a relationship where one item proliferated from others. To go back to the wild rice example, the traditional harvesting method would be in a canoe. They would pull those reeds and smack them, and the wild rice would fall off into the boat. Some of that also fell back into the water. That was what naturally re-fertilized for the next growing season,” said Horton
Food has a power to sustain or erode the culture of a people.
“Destruction of habitat or people's land was a very easy way to ‘talk people into relocating,’ so to speak," said Horton. "If you don't have means to feed yourself to survive, then quickly, you're dependent on others. Things that would be classified as colonial ingredients — wheat flour, milk, sugar, domesticated animals, like pork, and beef — all those things were not part of Native American food. Food sources affected things like diabetes and heart disease.”
Food was a weapon in the Euro-American campaign to dislocate Native Americans in the late 1700s to the late 1800s.
“I think we've seen in history, no matter where you go in the world, that was always a tactic. If you want to win in battle, you certainly look at the logistics and if you take away clean drinking water or different ingredients, that shapes things very quickly,” said Horton.
Horton said he wants to go beyond the Autumnal Festival and some classroom-centered presentations to help teach students in interdisciplinary ways.
“How do you take the steps to make it a common part of our menu and the education is ongoing as students eat throughout the year," he said. "We're getting ready to build a brand-new dining center. I think that's scheduled to open in just a couple years. One of the things we want to include in that center would be an international cuisine station. And so that includes Native American cuisine. I look at every recipe we're developing or showcasing right now, as work towards that.”
Horton said he hopes to showcase ingredients such as pecans, maple sugar, pumpkins, honey, and whitefish, all common to the Midwest.
The Horticulture Center festival Saturday and Sunday also will include Native American artifact identification, presentations on range land management, and Native American artists and musicians.
The Horticulture Center is a part of the Agriculture Department at Illinois State University. It encompasses 10 acres and is located on Raab Road, north of the University Golf Course, and across the street from Heartland Community College in Normal. The Horticulture Center is also linked to Constitution Trail.