On Thanksgiving Day, which falls on Nov. 28 this year, families across the United States will gather for a holiday feast. It’s a tradition that traces back to the 17th century, when English settlers celebrated their first harvest in the New World.
They shared the table with Native Americans, without whom they would not have survived that first year. The restaurant at the National Museum of the American Indian pays tribute to that feast, offering a taste of Native American cuisine that most Americans wouldn't normally sample during their Thanksgiving feast.
The museum's Mitsitam Café is famous in Washington for serving great food with a generous dollop of cultural appreciation.
“We always learn something new," said Marjorie Hass, a Mitsitam Café patron. "So, you get to have a delicious lunch and you learn a lot.”
The museum celebrates Native American history and culture. And Executive Chef Richard Hetzler offers edible culture lessons for visitors to take home for Thanksgiving dinner.
“We want people to eat seasonally," Hetzler said. "We want them to realize what Native Americans probably would have been eating at that time so they really get to see and taste some of those true ingredients.”
At this time of year in the Northeastern United States, that means squash, pumpkins and root vegetables, including some unusual ones like fresh black radishes.
"Something that most people wouldn’t think of as even being edible," Hetzler said. "If you walked by this at your farmer’s market, you’d probably think, ‘What am I going to do with this thing?’”
But roast them with a little oil, he says, and they make a great salad.
Hetzler wants to encourage people to be a little adventurous. Hence, the buttermilk-fried alligator.
“People, because of being in the museum, become very generous eaters, or they like to try different things that might not be in their typical comfort zone,” he said.
OK, so there was no alligator at the first Thanksgiving. That’s a Southern thing. Hetzler admits taking some liberties with the Thanksgiving menu.
Pilgrims and Indians probably did not dine on smoked duck salad with a golden beet vinaigrette.
But duck? Yes, probably.
And a corn, bean and squash dish called succotash.
“Succotash definitely, we think, would have been represented," Hetzler said. "It’s a very traditional Native American food.”
Don’t worry, they still serve the traditional turkey and cranberry sauce.
But for people who want a bit of museum sophistication on their Thanksgiving table, the Mitsitam Café is the place.
“We become a living exhibit within the museum because they get to taste, feel, smell and really immerse themselves in that native culture,” Hetzler said.
And enjoy some great food while doing it.