Seeds of the New Native American Cuisine in Provo

Black Sheep embraces its heritage in contemporary cuisine.

Culture is kept alive through food, customs and ritual. The famous “melting pot” of the United States’ blended cultures is an unusually apt metaphor, because as English, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Chinese and other people from around the globe came to this country, they held onto and passed down their foodways to preserve  a connection to their origins and to each other.

In light of that metaphor, that we know so little about the culinary culture that was here before colonialism seems, to use the parlance of our time, sad.

But face it: Much of the early history of this country is about the government’s attempt to obliterate Native American culture—ritual, religion, family and food. So even though we have chefs who are experts in Korean, Russian, Lebanese and Polynesian cuisines, very few even think about Native American cuisine, or even know if there was one. Which is odd, because products native to America like corn, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes and chocolate have been interwoven into global cuisines for centuries.

Whites uprooted Native Americans from their ancestral lands, forced them to forget their language and replaced harvested foodstuffs with U.S. military rations—all destructive to traditional foodways. Plus, of course, there was never a single Native

American cuisine anymore than there’s a single Italian cuisine.

All this to welcome the chefs, cooks and historians who are now recovering indigenous cuisine. Chef Walter Whitewater (Diné, born in Arizona) and food scholar Lois Frank founded Red Mesa in Santa Fe to showcase Native American foods. Here in Utah, Black Sheep owner Bleu Adams and her brother, Chef Mark Daniel Mason, have started easing more Native American dishes onto their Provo restaurant’s menu and the menu at Black Sheep at Epic Brewing in Sugarhouse. “We have to move slowly,” says Adams, whose mother is an artist and Native American activist. (A team from Black Sheep travelled to North Dakota to support the Standing Rock protest.) “This is a conservative town and we need to teach as we go.”

Black Sheep serves a contemporary mix of cuisines with Southwestern and Native American touches—posole in the ramen, smoked salt on the caprese salad, blue-corn grits and cotija with the shrimp. One or all of the New World’s “three sisters,” corn, beans and squash, are prevalent throughout the menu; burgers are made with bison and nanniskadii, aka Navajo flatbread, is a side option. The hog-jowl tacos in blue corn tortillas are a favorite and, of course, everyone loves Navajo tacos, braised green chile pork or red chile beef on Navajo fry bread—a food that is controversial among Native American chefs. Theirs is a culinary history that includes a lot of dire hunger. “When you have enough to eat, then you can worry about how it tastes,” says Adams. Fry bread was invented by Navajo mothers desperate to feed their families on the Long Walk in the 19th century, when the government forced Native Americans to leave their home in Arizona and relocate to New Mexico. Consequently, fry bread is seen by many Native American chefs as a symbol of oppression. It’s made of white flour, sugar and lard—white man’s food.

Bleu Adams disagrees. She sees fry bread as an example of Native American adaptability. “We’re still adapting,” she says, citing her work on IndigeHub, a business incubator in Window Rock that will supply computers, printers, workspaces and seminars to foster entrepreneurs on the reservation.

Mark Daniel Mason

Chef Mark Daniel Mason grew up passionate about cooking. At Black Sheep, he and his sister Bleu Adams work to highlight their take on Native American cuisine. Mason  recently did a stage at Alinea in Chicago—clearly, he’s interested in fusing the cuisine of his heritage with the spirit of the future.

19 N. University Ave, Provo, 801-607-2485

See more inside the 2017 May/June Issue.

Mary Brown Malouf
Mary Brown Malouf
Mary Brown Malouf is the late Executive Editor of Salt Lake magazine and Utah's expert on local food and dining. She still does not, however, know how to make a decent cup of coffee.

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