Native Foods

It struck me first in the wake of the Vietnam War, when hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai, and Cambodian refugees arrived in America—and began opening restaurants. Even then I thought back to small Mexican restaurants in 1950s Southern California, and the ubiquitous pizza places and Italian restaurants that I ate in in the 60s and 70s from Oceanside, California to Washington D.C., and west to Oregon. I thought then and think now that food can bring people together with less rancor and more joy than any other thing or idea I can imagine.

Fifty years ago, In 1971, dining out in Wallowa County was bacon and eggs, hamburgers and fries at the Circle T and pie at the Pie Shop in Enterprise, steaks and Snake River Omelets at the Gold Room in Joseph. A smorgasbord rose and fell at the Wallowa Lake Lodge, with slightly upscale versions of Standard American Foods—potato and green salads, deviled eggs, baked beans, and a variety of meats, mostly roasted. About that time the Vali family, originally from Hungary, opened their Alpine Delicatessen at the Lake with a fixed European menu. The son born to that family and his wife manage the same place with the same fare today.

I can’t remember the order or exact time of arrival, but about twenty years ago a Chinese restaurant and two Mexican restaurants came to Enterprise. They were all family affairs with connections elsewhere. Both Mexican families are still here. The Chinese restaurant changed family hands. The first family had children and a non-English speaking grandmother. It must have been hard. One of the Mexican restaurants has added a bar; the other a Joseph satellite. And in more recent years a Thai restaurant started with a summer food trailer at the Lake, and now has a permanent and popular place in town.


It took time for my Minnesota-rooted California family to adapt to burritos and pizza in the 1950s and 60s, but they did. It’s taken less time for our Eastern Oregon population—millworkers and government workers, aging hippies and redneck farmers and shopkeepers—to adapt to Asian and Mexican here, but they have. A few might still grumble about illegals, but most eat the food and are thankful for it.


Native cuisine is the new entry in national ethnic foods Our early pictures of the Indian Squanto and his beans, corn, and squash—the “three sisters” of North American indigenous foods—have become blurred with “family recipes” from around the world.  It’s odd that it has taken so long, and interesting that we have learned to eat the sisters, and potatoes, tomatoes and chocolate—all native to the Americas—from our German, Italian, and Belgian ancestors. Ask the next person you meet where any of these “American” foods come from, and you are likely to get European answers. Maybe, from the enlightened, you will get “Fertile Crescent in the Middle East.” Wheat yes; corn no.

But Native cuisine, including indigenous uses of those ancient sisters, is now making its mark! I recently came across a list of the 10 best Native restaurants. It includes the best food court I’ve ever visited, Mitsitam, at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. (Mitsitam, means “let’s eat” in the Piscataway and Delaware languages.) Load your plate with NW Salmon, NE maple pudding and SW Indian tacos. But you will have to wait until it reopens—it’s closed with the Pandemic.

The Sioux Chef, Sean Sherman, is on the best 10 list. He’s a Native Lakota with everything but a restaurant going on in his Minneapolis-St. Paul headquarters. He consults with tribes across the country promoting local foods, helping to resurrect old food customs and Native pride. His book, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen , won the James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook in 2018. I just ordered it!

Commodity and convenience foods have been decades-long staples on Indian reservations. If asked to name Native foods, few will get beyond fry bread—and fewer know its story. It goes to the Long March of the Navajo, when government rations included rancid oil and flour. One Indian friend told me that some want fry bread declared the National Native Food, while others think its children, diabetes and obesity, are the white man’s latest attempt at Indian extermination.

But we are well beyond frybread now, with Native restaurants and books and stories from restaurateurs, academics, and even novelists trumpeting the Native Foods revival. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Native Potawatomi and university botanist. Her Braiding Sweetgrass has been a bestseller for years. And a new mystery by Lakota writer David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Winter Counts, includes a subplot with a character not unlike Sean Sherman.

Oh, here’s a list of Native restaurants, in case you are in the territory:

The New Year seems a good time to celebrate foods we learned from our grandparents and meals we can eat from untested, ethnic cookbooks, and, assuming some pandemic pause, eat in our local ethnic restaurants.

And now we can add indigenous foods and cooking! See you for salmon at the Friendship Feast at Nez Perce Wallowa Homeland in July!

# # #


  1. This Thanksgiving we all cooked dishes exclusively from the Sioux Chef cook book. It was fantastic. Granddaughter Woesha just did a restaurant review for Urban Natve Era (a San Jose Company owned by a family friend) of a new Native restaurant in Oakland.

  2. The Sioux Chef! Love that.

    We had a list of restaurants that we wanted to hit on our last back East trip and Mitsitam was high on that list. It was delightful. No disappointment there. Now to just take that food experience out of the food court ambience and into the restaurant.

  3. Great and inspiring stories, Doug and Tom! Makes me want a trip to Minnesota. Maybe go to the White Earth Rez –close-by the town where I was born–and pick up some wild rice.

Leave a Reply