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Museum Serves Up Native American-Inspired Feast

American Indian Museum puts a modern twist on tradition foods

The sampler plate at the American Indian museum contains grilled bison and salmon,  roasted butternut squash, wild rice salad, and Peruvian lima bean salad.
The sampler plate at the American Indian museum contains grilled bison and salmon, roasted butternut squash, wild rice salad, and Peruvian lima bean salad.

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Susan Logue

This Thursday, most Americans will gather with loved ones to celebrate Thanksgiving, an annual holiday inspired by a harvest feast held in 1621 in Massachusetts when English colonists and members of the Wampanoag tribe reportedly celebrated for three days.

Americans in search of inspiration for their holiday meal might want to visit the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., to see what’s on the menu at its cafeteria.

Turkey with cranberry sauce is a traditional entree on Thanksgiving, and it is one of the more popular offerings at the appropriately named Mitsitam Café. The name comes from the Delaware Piscataway word for “let’s eat.”

Diners can choose from 75 to 100 different items inspired by Native cultures from across the Western Hemisphere. Like salmon from the Pacific Northwest coast, wild rice and watercress salad from the northern woodlands, and cornmeal masa cakes from Mesoamerica.

The ingredients are traditional, but the dishes have a contemporary spin. “We don’t represent it in a way Native Americans would have eaten it pre-contact or even post contact with the settlers or the Europeans,” executive chef Richard Hetzler says.

Visitors to the museum want food that tastes good, Hetzler says, but Native Americans in the past were more concerned with survival. “Their cornbreads were very dry and dense, because they needed something that wouldn’t mold, something that would last.”

Lobster bread pudding probably wasn’t served at the first Thanksgiving, but it’s on the Mitsitam Café's holiday take-home menu.
Lobster bread pudding probably wasn’t served at the first Thanksgiving, but it’s on the Mitsitam Café's holiday take-home menu.

That would be a hard sell to tourists, but masa cakes topped with vegetables and chipotle cheese sauce are not.

As for the traditional Thanksgiving foods, Hetzler says turkey probably would have been served at that historic feast in 1621. “Because it was abundant and plentiful. Venison would have probably been on the menu. Would they have done a lobster bread pudding or a wild rice salad? I don’t know.”

Those foods are on Mitsitam’s holiday take-home menu, along with pumpkin soup and wild mushrooms cooked with corn meal.  Thanksgiving is the one time of year the restaurant offers catering.

Although most of the food preparation is done one level below the cafeteria, bison and salmon get grilled over an open fire where customers can watch.
Although most of the food preparation is done one level below the cafeteria, bison and salmon get grilled over an open fire where customers can watch.

The rest of the year, Mitsitam Café is strictly an eat-in establishment. Prices are more than you’d pay at other cafeterias, but as one customer pointed out, “It is like a good restaurant, which I don’t think people expect when they go to a museum.”

Inside a museum or not, there are foods here, you won’t find at any other Washington restaurant. Even the hamburgers have a unique native flavor. They're made with buffalo, not beef. You can also get a gourmet burger made with fresh-ground buffalo and duck meat.

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