When you think of Aboriginal food, what comes to mind? Bannock? Pemmican?
Many people might be surprised to discover that many of the foods we consume each and every day have Aboriginal roots, and were being cultivated and consumed by America's Indigenous people long before the first European foot was set on this side of the Atlantic.
Next time you sit down to dinner, take a look at the food on your plate. What's there? Potatoes? They were first cultivated by the Indigenous people of the Andes Mountains region of South America more than 7,000 years ago. They weren't introduced to Europe until the 1500s. Spanish conquistadors encountered them while wreaking havoc in Peru.
Have any corn on your plate? That, too, has been around for 7,000 years or so, cultivated by the Indigenous people of Mexico who domesticated a type of wild grass. The growing of corn spread north and south and was an important part of the Native diet by the time Columbus arrived in 1492 and "discovered" this new food in the name of Spain.
A fan of squash? It's been around for an estimated 10,000 years. Winter squash is thought to have originated with the Indigenous people of South America, while summer squash, including pumpkin, was originally grown in Mexico and Central America.
What about wild rice? Not rice at all, but a type of aquatic grass, wild rice has been harvested by Indigenous people in North America for about 12,000 years.
Fiddleheads, the tightly curled shoots of young ferns, are a popular food in Atlantic Canada and were also a part of the traditional Native American diet. Add to that list buffalo and caribou meat, salmon and any number of other fish-harvested both from fresh and saltwater sources, goose, turkey, rabbit, well, it just goes on and on.
Ready for dessert? How about some fresh wild blueberries? Blueberries were important for Native people in North America for centuries before European contact. The berries were eaten as is, incorporated into recipes and used for medicinal purposes.
Still craving something sweet? There's always maple syrup, which Indigenous people in North America created by draining sap from maple trees and then boiling it down to a syrup by adding hot rocks to the liquid. And let's not forget the perennial favorite among dessert foods-chocolate, thought to have first been cultivated by the Olmec Indians of South America some 4,000 years ago.
Even chewing gum had its origins with Native Americans, who would chew spruce gum, a resin that flowed when you cut the bark of a spruce tree. In Central America, it was the resin of the Sapodilla tree that was the gum of choice.
Today, some enterprising Aboriginal organizations and individuals are banking on these traditional foods by turning the cultivation or harvest of them into business ventures.
In northern Saskatchewan, the Lac La Ronge Indian band through its business arm, Kitsaki Management Limited Partnership, has turned wild rice and mushroom harvesting into a money-making proposition. In Mistassini, Que., Jean-Marie Fortin has created a successful family business by harvesting, processing and marketing wild blueberries. His company, Les Bluets Mistassini Ltee. sells fresh and frozen blueberries, and now cranberries, to customers in Canada and internationally.
In Westbank, B.C., Ellen Melcosky's company, Little Miss Chief Gourmet Products Inc. sells smoked salmon to an international marketplace, while in Saint Laurent, Que., caribou (sausages, burgers and pate) is the product of choice served up by Makivik Corporation's Nunavik Arctic Foods Inc.
A whole range of Aboriginal products are available in today's marketplace, from traditional Inuit teas to packaged bannock mixes.
There is also a growing number of restaurants across the country offering Native dishes to their clientele: The Calm Waters Restaurant in Tofino, B.C., the Liliget Feast House in Vancouver, the Chief Chiniki Restaurant in Canmore, Alta., te Bannock Shack in Regina, the Aboriginal Centre Restaurant in Winnipeg and the Sweetgrass Aboriginal Bistro in Ottawa, to name but a few.
Admittedly, some of the meals served up at these fine establishments are a far cry from what Indigenous people were preparing for themselves a short century ago. Take, for instance, the high country wapiti (elk) with wild blueberry sauce on the menu of the Liliget Feast House, or the pheasant pate with gooseberry compote offered up at the Sweetgrass Aboriginal Bistro. These businesses are taking on the challenge of taking traditional Aboriginal foods and preparing them in a way that appeals to today's customers, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.
There are courses you can attend to learn more about preparing Aboriginal food. You can even make a living doing it.
At the chef school at George Brown College in Toronto, one of the programs offered teaches students how to prepare Aboriginal cuisine. And in the fall of 2005, Negahneewin College at Confederation College in Thunder Bay will begin offering an Aboriginal culinary management program that will focus on preparation of Aboriginal cuisine and working in the Aboriginal tourism and hospitality sector.
So next time you sit down to enjoy a bowl of popcorn, a plate of beans, or even a helping of bannock, take some time to think about how deeply the roots of what you're eating are planted in the history and cultures of the Aboriginal people of the Americas.