Getting taste of education at museum

October 06, 2004|By ROB KASPER

WASHINGTON - While not admitting that I am the kind of museum-goer who rates a cultural institution by its food, I do admit that whenever I find myself in a museum I migrate to the cafeteria.

Take what happened a few weeks ago, for instance, when I was among the media horde that descended on the Smithsonian's latest hallowed institution, the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington.

Critics, such as The Sun's Glenn McNatt and Ed Gunts, critiqued the museum's displays and its architecture. Feature writers like my colleague John Woestendiek toured the exhibits and painted the big picture of the experience. I grabbed a cafeteria tray and got familiar with the campfire buffalo burger.

My impression of the National Museum of the American Indian is that it serves a good lunch and, between bites, you might learn something.

The name of the museum cafe, Mitsitam, means "let's eat" in the language of the Native Piscataway and Delaware people. The fare I sampled made it easy to follow that advice.

In addition to lean buffalo burger, I enjoyed a slice of maple-roasted turkey topped with a pleasing tart crab-apple relish, a smooth Indian pudding, some substantial blue corn bread, a very corny cup of tortilla soup and delightful sweet pumpkin and cinnamon fry bread. The menu changes seasonally. Prices range from $1.95 for trail mix to $11.95 for a lobster-roll sandwich.

Frankly, the quality of the food surprised me because the museum's cafeteria menu is designed with education in mind. The idea, stated in loftier terms by museum authorities, is that by working your way around the cafeteria you can learn about the Indian culture.

This mission statement worried me because in my experience when lunch is dubbed a "learning experience" nobody goes back for seconds. But that wasn't the case. I kept getting back in the cafeteria line, broadening my cultural horizons.

The cafeteria had five stations, each one serving the dishes inspired by the regional cuisine and ingredients of the indigenous people. So as I worked my way around the cafeteria I thought of the Western Hemisphere as being carved into five zones representing Indian cooking.

Stopping at the Northern Woodlands station, representing the native people who live from southern Canada to the Chesapeake Bay and from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean, I got the serving of turkey with cranberry and crab-apple relish. At the South America station, a region plentiful with a variety of corn, I had the blue corn bread.

At the Northwest Coast station, representing the people living from Southern Alaska to Northern California, there was salmon, the most plentiful fish of the region, cooked on cedar planks. The American Southwest, known as Meso America, is the region where the "three sisters" of corn, beans and squash serve as the basis of the diet. Here, I got the tortilla soup. From the Great Plains station, representing the land from Alberta, Canada, to Texas where tribes lived in tepees and followed the roaming bison, I had the burger.

After eating, I felt I should start writing a term paper called what I learned from lunch. This assignment, I bet, will fall on many area schoolchildren who visit the museum.

Instead, I sat down with Richard Hetzler the executive chef for Restaurant Associates, which runs the cafe, and his fellow chef, Louis Piuggi. They told me that the American Indian museum menu had been designed after consulting with many groups. In the old days these meetings might have been known as tribal councils; now they are called focus groups.

Some scholars say that many foods, such as tomatoes and potatoes, commonly assumed as hailing from Europe, have their roots in the Americas.

The theory is that explorers carried these ingredients back to their native countries and several generations later, cooks from these countries immigrated to America carrying recipes for ethnic European dishes that used these native American ingredients.

Lunch at the American Indian museum reminded me that there is a lot of cultural cross-pollination in cooking.

As a matter of fact, that cinnamon fry bread I had for dessert at the museum was very similar to a sweet treat sold at every ethnic festival in Baltimore. Here it is called fried dough.

Buffalo Burger With Relish

Serves 4

BURGER:

salt and pepper to taste

1 pound ground bison meat

TOMATO RELISH:

1/2 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup light-brown sugar

1 jalapeno pepper, cored and diced

1 medium onion, diced

1 red pepper, cored and diced

4 medium tomatoes, diced

To make burger: Season raw meat; form into patties. Lightly oil grill for charcoal or gas-fired outdoor cooker.

Place patties on grill and cook until medium-rare, about 3 minutes per side. Meat is very lean, so be careful not to cook too long and dry out meat.

To make relish: Put vinegar, sugar and jalapeno pepper in a sauce pan and cook over medium heat, until mixture becomes a syrup, about 15 minutes.

Add onion and red pepper and cook over medium heat again until mixture becomes syrupy. Add tomatoes and cook mixture down again until mixture turns syrupy.

Serve with grilled burger.

- Restaurant Associates chefs at National Museum of the American Indian

Per serving: 407 calories; 23 grams protein; 18 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 39 grams carbohydrate; 3 grams fiber; 79 milligrams cholesterol; 94 milligrams sodium

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