Heid Erdrich - Original Local


American poet Mary Oliver asked, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?”  American poet / cookbook-author Heid Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe), tells of lives devoted to food that is wild, precious, and at-hand.

With personal stories, photographs, research and recipes, Heid offers Original Local.  Her book is homage to indigenous ancestors and living relatives who, for thousands of years, have stewarded, protected, and celebrated local food.  With curiosity and a “tidge” of humor, she entices readers to revere and appreciate the edible lineage of the Americas, and particularly the upper Midwest, as we share food at our own tables, seek common ground in our communities, and as we respond to seismic shifts in both climate and economics.

Food, of course, is more than what finds its way to our fork.  Food is memory; food is rooted in place and culture; food is communal; it is about preservation, and even resistance.  As a poet, Heid says food writing is not separate from poetry.  “Part of being a writer is looking at things in front of you, realizing that other people might not be experiencing something, so it is interesting.  That is my work, to tell what I notice and tell what is interesting,” she says. 

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The Minnesota Historical Society asked Heid to curate the book and chronicle food practices of indigenous people living in Mni Sota (Dakota for “land where the waters reflect the sky”) and surrounding lands.  Before writing Original Local, Heid challenged herself to spend one week eating only foods from this place, assuming that what she already had in her pantry would suffice.  She thought she knew a lot about local foods, having grown up with, as she describes them, “hippie” parents who gathered foods on the Turtle Mountain Reservation (North Dakota) and gardened at their home in the Red River Valley.  Brothers and uncles hunted and fished (as a girl, Heid did, too); sisters, aunties and grandmothers pickled, canned, dried, and “put up” dozens of types of meats, fish, berries, vegetables, roots, and herbs to nourish their families all year round. 

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What Heid learned, however, was that although her home pantry seemed plentiful, she had a lot to learn about the fuller bounty of local, indigenous foods.  “I realized I would never make it a week without reaching beyond my region – the foodshed that straddles the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds.”  She missed salt and seasonings, oil, and spicy-hot foods.  So she dabbled; she borrowed foods from farther afield; she “fudged.”  With that knowledge, she acquiesced.  “I’ve never been a purist,” she writes. “Perhaps because I was born of an Anishinaabe-French mother and a German-American father, I’ve always liked things mixed up.” 

Mix it up, she does.  Heid proudly celebrates manoomin (wild rice – the official state grain of Minnesota), long a staple of Ojibwe people living on and near Minnesota’s waters, and the “three sisters” of North American native food – corn, beans and squash.  She discovers that indigenous cooks in her homeland traditionally ground various nuts to extract oils for cooking and flavoring foods; that duck, quail or turkey eggs (absent cultivated chickens) provided protein and aided baking; and ramps (wild leek), wild garlic, ginger, and dried cranberries provided a sharpness to prepared dishes.  Maple sugar, of course, provided the sweet.  And native peoples in the upper Midwest were skilled hunters – relying on deer, rabbit, wild birds, bison, and numerous fish when game was plenty, and foraging (as her parents and siblings still do) berries, fruits, nuts, and seeds, and harvesting asparagus, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers, edible flowers and greens other times of the year. 

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If Original Local encourages readers not only to “eat wildly,” but also to “eat widely.”  Decidedly not a self-proclaimed “foodie,” Heid determines that, ultimately, all cooking is “fusion” and that experimentation is part of the fun. “Human beings are genetically programmed to try a variety of foods,” she says, “and we want to try a variety of foods.  It never happens that people didn’t have imported foods.  We know from ground-penetrating radar that people walked, and created trade routes [for foods].  People knew the routes, and traded extensively.”

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Quinoa, for example, a grain originally from the Andean Region in South America, has been excavated from archeological sites in Manitoba.  Potatoes, originating in Peru, have been common in northern cooking (and worldwide) for hundreds of years.  Hot peppers (cultivated for some 6000 years) and avocados came to local cuisine from the highlands of Mexico and Guatemala.  Coffee, native to tropical Africa, was so loved by Heid’s Anishinaabe ancestors that they called it Makade-mashkikiwaaboo, or Black Medicine Water.  According to Heid, “They respected coffee as a medicine, a drink with a powerful spirit at its center,” and she adds, “I uphold that tradition with pride,” though she admits she takes her coffee with half-and-half, “which is how a real Minnesotan takes her brew” today.    

The recipes in Original Local – from Manoomin Lasagna with Roasted Squash and Garlic, Walleye Cakes and Red Pepper–Pineapple Relish, Polenta-Stuffed Pattypans, Game Birds in Wild Berry-Black Pepper Sauce, to Wild Plum Claufoutis – could easily come from any top chef’s restaurant offerings.  Others - Northwoods Paella, Three Brothers Hash, Waaboose and Napoodin (Rabbit & Dumplings), Rez Water Pickles, and Flaming Blue Gizzards (specifically calling for duck gizzards with Heid warning, “don’t try this with chicken gizzards:  too tough; you’re on your own with turkey”) - are clearly family, familiar, and the fresh food memories of the cooks Heid profiles in her chapter introductions and sidebars, food lovers from 28 different tribal nations.  And as for her recipe testing and inclusion:  “I wanted to make the recipes work for native people, for people living in cities and towns, and for folks who struggle with food scarcity,” Heid says.  “I wanted the recipes and stories to have some value with some historic information.”

Grace Rogers gathering wild rice near Walker, MN, 1939. Minnesota Historical Society Collections.

Grace Rogers gathering wild rice near Walker, MN, 1939. Minnesota Historical Society Collections.

Mostly, Heid wants people to know and love food like her ancestors did, and as she and her family do today.  “A lot of people don’t know how many of our mainstream foods [corn, potatoes, blueberries, beans, turkey, hazelnuts, walnuts, pineapple, watercress, melons, and peppers, to name a few] come from indigenous people.  We owe them for protecting those foods, for educating us,” Heid says. “They are teaching us that, with food, there is a lot at stake, in terms of climate change, water usage, mining.  Original Local chronicles actual lives and how food impacts them.” 

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If Original Local is a road map to both a storied food past and an unsure food future, it is also a promise that eating mostly local right now is possible.  Heid’s book has become textbook in several colleges around the country where students are learning cooking, seed saving, and indigenous tricks in the kitchen.  Placemakers, too, increasingly recognize the importance of including indigenous food and practice in showing off a place.  Heid - a culinary tour guide with award-winning poetic flair - assures us: “We miss a step if we don’t include local foods when introducing newcomers to the area.” 

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Photo Credits:  Heavytable.com, Heid Erdrich