For Brian Yazzie,
the COVID-19 pandemic evokes a history of smallpox, European colonization,
and indigenous resilience.
Brian Yazzie says your pantry is likely full of indigenous
American ingredients, such as canned corn and dried beans.
COURTESY OF BRIAN YAZZIE AND DANIELLE (HOONMANA) POLK
WHATS IN YOUR KITCHEN PANTRY? If you answered quinoa, green
beans, or potatoes, you have, perhaps unbeknownst to you, been eating
Native American heritage. They might not know they have indigenous
foods in their cupboard: might be canned corn, canned beans, squash,
says Brian Yazzie, a Twin Cities-based chef and food activist from
the Navajo Nation, of his YouTube channels at-home viewers.
But thanks to the ingenuity of indigenous farmers, who domesticated
these crops over millennia, much of the world relies on Native
American staples when times get lean.
Now is one of those times. Since mid-March, when more than a quarter
of the United States population was directed to stay at home due
to the novel coronavirus, food insecurity has
intensified for many American households. Public-health experts
recommend social distancing as one of the best ways to fight the
COVID-19 pandemic. But for those stuck at home, especially the elderly
or vulnerable, for whom a simple trip to the grocery store could
mean a life-threatening brush with the virus, this poses a unique
culinary challenge: How can we stretch pantry stables into nourishing
Brian Yazzie, co-owner of Intertribal Foodways, an indigenous culinary
and wellness organization that offers
catering and cooking classes, is turning to Native American
cuisine for an answer.
smoked Red Lake Nation walleye and Three Sisters salad with
a sweetgrass vinaigrette. COURTESY OF BRIAN YAZZIE
Like most American chefs, Yazzie canceled his in-person engagements
for March and April. So he is bringing Native food directly into
community homes. Yazzie has moved much of his operation online,
offering how-to videos and one-on-one remote classes for home cooks
looking to learn about indigenous American cuisine while turning
their pantry staples into a feast. And hes teamed up with
the staff of the Minneapolis
American Indian Centers Gatherings Cafe to make and deliver
meals to Native elders in the Twin Cities area. Being an indigenous
chef and being able to use my skills and network to help those who
are in need in this time is keeping me sane, Yazzie says.
Community efforts like these are particularly important for Native
Americans, says Yazzie, because of the profoundly traumatic history
of epidemics in indigenous communities. After European colonization,
epidemics of smallpox, plague, and influenza devastated indigenous
Americans. According to a recent estimate, 60 million people inhabited
the Americas in 1492. By the 1600s, pandemic and colonial violence
had killed 56 million people. Thats 90 percent of pre-Columbian
people, or 10
percent of the worlds total populationthe largest
genocide in known history.
the scenes as Brian Yazzie films a cranberry and sage tea
recipe for his YouTube channel. COURTESY OF BRIAN YAZZIE
The effects of colonialism continue to plague Native communities,
putting indigenous Americans, including Yazzies Navajo Nation,
at particular risk from the novel coronavirus. One in three members
the Navajo Nation has diabetes or prediabetes, a condition that
increases the risk of serious complications due to COVID-19, but
only one-fifth of the Nations 23,000 elders have
access to medical care. Native Americans lack plumbing at 19
times the rate of white Americans, making it nearly impossible
to follow public-health advice about sanitation. And widespread
food insecurity makes social distancing at home particularly difficult.
There are only 13 grocery stores for the approximately 200,000
residents on the Navajo Nation, which covers 27,000 square miles
in the American Southwest.
The Navajo Nation is putting out a call to stay home, but
its hard to do that when the nearest gas station or grocery
story is hours away, says Yazzie. As of March 25, there have
identified COVID-19 cases on the Navajo Nation.
Yazzie grew up on the Navajo Nation, and moved to St. Paul in 2013
with his partner and the co-owner of Intertribal Foodways, Danielle
(Hoonmana) Polk. I had to leave my reservation to get a job
or to get an education, he says. He enrolled in culinary school
in St. Paul, and his love of cooking brought him back to his roots.
I was looking through cookbooks, and I realized that not only
have my ancestors survived Manifest Destiny and colonization, but
they still have ingredients of the Americas, he says. Indeed,
while Native people and food are often erased in elite culinary
establishments, their agricultural heritage is fundamental to the
worlds most rarefied cuisines. You cant have Italian
cuisine and French cuisine without squash, beans, corn, or even
potatoes, says Yazzie.
tacosfry bread with ground beef, lettuce, tomato, and
cheeseare popular in the American Southwest, but Yazzie
prefers to focus on pre-colonial ingredients. TOM PAVEL/CC
Most non-indigenous Americans associate Native food with dishes
such as fry bread and Indian tacos. But, Yazzie says, About
50 percent of indigenous tacos are indigenous to North America.
The rest, like the wheat flour, lard, and ground beef, became incorporated
into indigenous American diets during colonization, part of a forced
alienation from traditional food and agriculture that many blame
for the current high rates of diabetes and heart disease in Native
Yazzie acknowledges that many indigenous Americans, including elders
forced to grow up in residential schools, have fond associations
with foods like Indian tacos. But he chooses to focus on pre-colonial
ingredients, combining pan-American foods into contemporary dishes
such as bison
heart tacos and roasted
acorn squash with agave. Last year, he started featuring recipes
like these on his
YouTube channel, in an attempt to make his work more accessible
to Native communities who lacked the resources to host a professional
chef. I started thinking about, how can I reach out to this
community besides sending a recipe?
use local ingredients to prepare packed meals for Native elders
in the Twin Cities. COURTESY OF BRIAN YAZZIE
This digital pivot has helped Yazzie reach community members during
the coronavirus outbreak. Rather than his usual produce and game-heavy
recipes, such as wild
rice and bison liver and squash,
corn, and tomato sauté with seared bison, Yazzie is taking
requests from social media followers looking to cook with pantry
staples. And hes bringing his work directly into the homes
of Native elders in the Twin Cities.
Each day, Yazzie and his fellow chefs meet at the Minneapolis American
Indian Centers Gatherings Cafe, check to make sure none of
the staff have symptoms, don masks, and get to work. In their first
week of operations, the chefs have been utilizing ingredients left
in the Gatherings pantry after the Cafe closed in support of social-distancing
community member donated indigenous cultivars, Bloody Butcher
corn (right) and Oaxacan Green corn (left), to make meals
for indigenous elders. COURTESY OF BRIAN YAZZIE
The meals theyve crafted arent what youd typically
associate with clean-out-the-pantry cooking. Yesterday
we made a bison and kale soup, and we added a sweet potato mash,
as well as organic local melons and in-house bread, says Yazzie.
The next day, the menu included slow-braised turkey and mixed greens
with homemade pickles and maple-candied sunflower seeds.
Community response has been eager, even joyous. I reached
out to the network I had and asked if anyone was available to donate
food, Yazzie says. Within hours, community members brought
an overwhelming amount of food, including a cache of
Bloody Butcher and Oaxacan Green corns, both heritage corn cultivars.
Seeing the resiliency from the Native community here in the
Twin Cities brings me hope.
With bison and beans, squash and sweet potatoes, Yazzie brings
this hope to his viewers. If a pandemic is a reminder of the fundamental
permeability of being humanviruses, after all, know no borders
between nations or bodiesits also a reminder that healing,
too, is collective. Knowing that an elder has been fed, knowing
that tomorrow they will be seeing a hot meal, says Yazzie,
Thats whats keeping me going.
You can follow Chef Yazzie and find his recipes on YouTube at Yazzie
The Chef TV, and request remote cooking lessons at the Intertribal