More than a meal: Chefs, foodies discuss appropriation of Indigenous crops and foods at Museum of Northern Arizona
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — How does the right to access sacred and traditional foods and food sovereignty affect Indigenous communities? How does colonization’s impact on access to sacred and traditional foods affect harvesting, hunting and spiritual practices? These questions and more were discussed at The Museum of Northern Arizona Appropriation in the Arts Series, “More than a Meal,” Nov. 5.
Panelists included chefs Jaren Bates, Diné, and Brett Vibber who run fine-dining restaurant The Table at Junipine near Sedona, and Andi Murphy, Diné, who runs the award-winning Native American food podcast, “Toasted Sister.” Participants partook in a meal prepared by the chefs at the museum’s Colton House after the panel discussion.
Dr. Kelley Hays-Gilpin, anthropology curator at the museum, questioned Bates, Vibber and Murphy on ethical ways non-native chefs should use Indigenous foods, how to forage respectfully, how colonization and removal has affected food sovereignty, and the effects of global warming and lack of water on Indigenous foods.
Murphy said it was hard to draw the line between which foods should be considered Indigenous-only, as staples like potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate, vanilla, corn, beans, squash and chili are all basics of New Mexico and Arizona cuisine.
“When we come to ingredients like quinoa and Amaranth (ancient grains) that are maybe harder to find and have kind of like this niche market coming from a small community, I think that’s when chefs and people should look at how their money is supporting the Indigenous community that is growing and harvesting these ingredients,” Murphy said. “Sometimes these food trends become a real problem for people that we don’t often see because they are in Mexico and lower parts of Latin America, so I think that’s where people should really stop and take a look at some of the food trends.”
Murphy mentioned gentrification in Oaxaca and how Indigenous food is being priced out. She also touched on colonization and how that changed Indigenous food culture.
“The colonization of food started in warfare — mowing everything down, burning, slaughtering everything so the government could get control of these ‘wild’ Indians and from boarding schools and erasing not only our language and culture but also food knowledge and food culture to right now with issues of resources — water for the future and climate change putting a wedge in between Indigenous people and traditional food,” Murphy said. “Work needs to be done by Indigenous people to turn that around.”
A fine line
Chef Vibber grew up in Tempe but has worked with all different cuisines, including Japanese, Italian and central American, and now native Arizona cuisine at The Table. As a Caucasian chef cooking other cultures’ foods, he is keenly aware of teetering on appropriation, and believes the difference is that he respects the cultures and isn’t in it for the money.
“No matter where I went, I cannot be the American shouting at someone because they don’t speak English,” Vibber said. “It’s something that I always want to be conscious of.”
Vibber became the executive chef of The Table in 2022, joined by Bates, but the two have known each other since they both started out in the restaurant industry decades ago. Since The Table is known as native Arizonan cuisine, there is Native American influence that goes with the territory.
“I’m doing this because I have a passion, respect and research in the basis of knowledge…I want to tell the story of the food — where it came from and why,” Vibber said. “I’ve never done it for money. It was never a gimmicky ploy at the beginning … a concept might take off, then I can cookie cutter and stamp and do it everywhere and make tons of money...it never was that.”
The Table is closed Mondays and Tuesdays so Vibber and Bates can forage for local ingredients, which they have been doing together for nearly two decades.
“We don’t ravage and take everything from one area,” Bates said. “We just pick as much as we can and leave the rest for wildlife…when you take everything from a certain area you aren’t guaranteeing it’s going to come back the following season.”
Bates said this practice is similar in farming, where vegetables are rotated, giving the soil a break. Bates’ family has a farm on the Navajo reservation where many of the ingredients for The Table come from.
Vibber said the two practice the rule of thirds when foraging: “Take a third for yourself, leave a third for nature and leave a third for propagation so that you’re not just going and clean cutting every single spot.”
Love of wild food
In addition, the duo only use ingredients that are in season and abundant.
“Jaren and I design a lot of our menus for chef’s tastings (and smaller menus) that we don’t have printed because we’re not committed to it, and we’re not committed to it for a reason,” Vibber said. “If acorns aren’t abundant one year, we skip the year. If blackberries aren’t abundant…we skip a year so that you’re not forced into kind of an old school chef’s mentality — ‘this is my menu, I have to have it.’”
Vibber said their love of wild food helps them stay creative. Bates has learned more about his Navajo culture in the process.
“Maybe six years into (the restaurant business) I had come to the realization that I didn’t want to work with high end ingredients anymore,” Bates said. “I wanted to support locally… and learn more about my culture because I’ll be completely honest with you, I didn’t grow up very traditional, in my household.”
Bates did learn about farming from his Chei (grandfather), and remembers the difficulty of farm life on the reservation. Because their ancestors were moved away from land with abundant water resources, Bates said families like his had to work extra hard to get nutrients and minerals in the soil, and get their plants to grow.
“We have different methods as far as our ancestors coming up with their own, going back from what they were taught from their parents and grandparents, and that’s being passed down through generations,” Bates said.
Bates said he thinks education is key when it comes to non-Native chefs utilizing Native ingredients and recipes, and non-Natives eating their food.
At the meal after the panel discussion, Bates and Vibber served small bites of winter preservation steamed corn, wild mushroom potstickers, sumac-cured trout, duck with fall squash and steamed corn ice cream.
Bates said some varieties of corn are produced mainly to be sold to the Navajo tribe or given to elders.
“A lot of corn we use at the restaurant is grown by my family,” Bates said. “But we also took the time to tell about where it was coming from, who it was being farmed by, and the traditions of it, especially the steamed corn that I used.”