Freddie Bitsoie, 46, is a Navajo (Diné) cook from the Southwest. Born in Monticello, Utah, Bitsoie was raised in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. He thought studying anthropology and art history at the University of New Mexico was his true calling, but during his senior year in 2006, he enrolled at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute. Since then, he has been on a mission to define what Native American cuisine is. He has contributed to America: The Cookbook (Gabrielle Langholtz) and to The Food Network. Bitsoie lectured, taught, and trained in Native American communities for over a decade. He is also the former executive chef at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He currently lives in Gallup, New Mexico.
New Native Kitchen: Celebrating Modern Recipes of the American Indian by Chef Freddie Bitsoie & James O. Fraioli, Abrams, 288 pages, $14.95
From Freddie Bitsoie, the former executive chef at Mitsitam Native Foods Café at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and James Beard Award–winning author James O. Fraioli, New Native Kitchen is a celebration of Indigenous cuisine. Accompanied by original artwork by Gabriella Trujillo and offering delicious dishes like Cherrystone Clam Soup from the Northeastern Wampanoag and Spice-Rubbed Pork Tenderloin from the Pueblo peoples, Bitsoie showcases the variety of flavor and culinary history on offer from coast to coast, providing modern interpretations of 100 recipes that have long fed this country.
I began experimenting in the kitchen when I was a kid. Maybe it was the PBS cooking shows that I loved, or maybe it was boredom that drew me, but I began to cook in secret when my family wasn’t looking. I started out with hamburger patties, working through trial and error — like a culinary detective — to figure out what tasted best. When my mom couldn’t find the chicken that she’d placed in the refrigerator one morning, I didn’t want to tell her that I’d accidentally set it on fire. Eventually I got better at not burning chicken and learned traditional Navajo (Diné) cooking techniques from my grandmother, through my travels, and from people I met on the way.
I like to say that I grew up everywhere west of the Sandia Mountains, where I was lucky to learn about the plants, animals, and people of different microclimates across the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. Whenever my family moved to a new town in Utah, Texas, Arizona, or New Mexico, I learned to adapt; I listened closely to the landscape. From my grandmother, I learned that listening to people and places is just as much a part of storytelling as speaking is, and that storytelling is a revered tradition among Indigenous cultures. So I began to listen for the ways that borders like rivers, mountains, rain shadows, or highways influence popular clothing and hairstyles, language and slang, or the food of a specific region.
As a Navajo of the Tábaahá Edgewater Clan, born for the Nát’oh dine’é Táchii’nii, I loved growing up in the Southwest, where just like my ancestors I breathed in the spicy scent of creosote and petrichor with a sigh of relief each time it rained. To some, the desert might appear barren, dry, and dun-colored. But a closer look reveals that it’s bursting with ecologies that dramatically change with every few feet of elevation reaching closer to the clouds.
In a region where water is scarce, I saw the resiliency, and yet the delicacy, of plant species like the saguaro cactus. Their shallow root systems stretch through parched soil to catch whatever moisture they can; they’ve evolved to thrive in extreme conditions. Blooming brightly, their succulent fruit swells each year despite the summer heat. And so I began to learn that food is the most dynamic way to tell a story. I’m grateful to the desert, and to my grandmother, for teaching me how to listen and how to tell the histories of places and people through my cooking.
Fortunately, I’ve always enjoyed meeting new people, and that skill helped me fit in whenever I needed to enroll at a new school, make new friends, and learn the culture of a new neighborhood. Later, it continued to help me build long-lasting friendships with members of Native American communities across the continent, many of whom have graciously mentored me and shared their ancestors’ culinary wisdom.
As a Navajo, it is imperative that I respect the myriad ingredients cultivated by Indigenous stewards of the land, air, and water in what we now call the United States. And as the executive chef at Mitsitam Native Foods Café in Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, I use that awareness to build varied menus that incorporate sacred Indigenous foodways with reverence.
North America is not, and has never been, a monolith. Just like Europe, it’s an expansive continent that’s incredibly diverse in terms of language, geography, culture, and more. But European countries like France and Spain are praised for their food traditions, which are taught in elite culinary schools; Indigenous cuisines, with similarly sourced ingredients and finessed preparations, unfortunately don’t get the same attention. My aim is to change that.
— Reprinted from New Native Kitchen: Celebrating Modern Recipes of the American Indian by Chef Freddie Bitsoie & James O. Fraioli. Photos by Quentin Bacon. Published by Abrams.
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