It could be argued that food is a cornerstone of every culture, whether indicative of celebration, creating a sense of togetherness, or even an integral source of sustainability. Food — and the thoughtful sourcing and preparation of it — is all these things and more to Indigenous American people, but until recently it’s been a tricky thing for them to share widely, due to the community’s history of exclusively verbally passing down traditions. Thankfully, a new virtual cookbook is teaching Indigenous recipes to a modern audience by connecting new technology with centuries-old narratives and wisdom.
A Gathering Basket, a virtual and interactive publication produced by I-Collective is, quite simply, not your average cookbook — and that’s by design. It follows the Indigenous tradition of storytelling to share not only recipes, but information about ingredients and special techniques which can’t be limited to the written page. Already on its fifth issue since starting in 2021, A Gathering Basket was initially created to connect ancestry with future generations through food.
According to I-Collective, an autonomous group of Indigenous individuals with particular knowledge in food and agriculture (think chefs and herbalists), this effort not only helps to keep these traditions alive, but it aims to heal health issues that can be tied to colonialism and the exploitation of resources. “Most of the narratives that are readily available about Indigenous folks and our foods are either written from non-native viewpoints or from a place of academia,” Kristina Stanley, I-Collective’s Operations and Program Manager, tells TZR. “Or, are kind of whitewashed in a sense. Maybe they go through different levels of editing.” By contrast, A Gathering Basket is a labor of love for Indigenous people, by Indigenous people.
Stanley, who is Anishinaabe — a group concentrated in the Great Lakes region of Canada and the United States — and an enrolled member of the Red Cliff Tribe of Lake Superior Chippewa, represents just one of many tribes involved in the creation of A Gathering Basket. The project staff alone includes members of Choctaw, Frog Lake Cree, Pawnee/Athabaskan, and other nations — and the ever-growing list of non-staff contributors is even more inclusive. For the Wisconsin-based chef (a veteran of such established eateries as L'Etoile and Graze), this kind of diversity and simultaneous sense of connection was a major draw in terms of her involvement.
As Stanley explains, key ingredients range depending on seasonality and geography, so the cookbook has been a significant educational tool, even for those who, like herself, are already well acquainted with some of the Indigenous food narratives. A Gathering Basket shares these stories a number of ways. “The idea from the beginning was to be interactive,” the chef and activist explains. “So we have been committed to hosting webinars, supplemental conversations, or live events around these [editions]. That’s one component. We do plan to go back to the five [editions] we’ve released and add some of those conversations. That’s another component to why we published virtually. We wanted to be able to go back and expand. Add insights, links, existing research, or narratives available on a certain topic.”
Visuals and sound were crucial for the creation of the cookbook, quite literally because seeing and doing has been the primary way Indigenous food preparation has been taught. “From our cultural backgrounds, that verbal storytelling is such an important component,” Stanley says. “None of our languages were written. They were all verbal languages put in written form primarily by Christian missionaries.”
While this visual storytelling is a way of respecting and preserving food traditions and practices, it also presented a challenge to the creators of A Gathering Basket. As Stanley explains, the team carefully tests each recipe to make sure it is easy to follow and yields the desired result. That said, contributors thus far have come from extensive culinary backgrounds — much like Stanley who has “probably worked in every single position that there is” within the restaurant and catering industry. As a result, the included tips and visual clues come from expertise and an elevated skill level, even as the cookbook is accessible to all types of cooks and food enthusiasts.
Though there’s much ground covered in this virtual cookbook, those who purchase an issue can expect one common theme: A tremendous respect for the natural world, which is a pillar of American Indigenous cultures. “First and foremost, I believe all living things — plants and animals — they’re our relatives,” Stanley shares. “They’re our kin. We are all connected. And that is why you see the respect that is given and time and heart and energy that goes into preparing food for our communities.”
With each new issue of the publication, different seasonal and regional recipes can be expected. In the last published version, squash pudding bars (suggested as a breakfast dish) made with ground pepitas, cassava flour, and cornmeal is a delicious highlight. When you purchase a digital copy, not only can you follow the written version of this recipe, adapted by Stanley, but you can also watch it in action as prepared by Quentin Glabus, who is also an I-Collective member and part of the Frog Lake Creek First Nations in Alberta, Canada. The video component is especially useful in showing how ingredients can be replaced if not readily available.
Sourcing can, in fact, be one of the trickier aspects in preparing dishes found in A Gathering Basket, specifically in contrast to most traditional American cookbooks. As Stanley explains, that’s because commonly used Indigenous ingredients including wild game and certain varieties of corn, beans, or chiles aren’t typically mass produced. The time and attention it requires to grow and prepare these ingredients is an example of the energy Stanley mentions being shared through these dishes. Take, for example, acorn flour. “When you know someone had harvested thousands and thousands of acorns and then lovingly opened them by hand and blanched them,” she tells TZR, “That’s just one thing that takes an immense amount of technical skill and time and energy just to create one pound of acorn flour.”
As for other things you can expect to find on a typical plate of food prepared according to Indigenous traditions, Stanley says that all depends on where you live and what’s available. However, this time of year, she mentions that squash, wild rice, preserved meat (including elk and bear), nuts, and seeds wouldn’t be out of place in your meal. And in the next coming weeks, birch, maple, and Sugar Bush trees will be tapped for sap to use in various dishes.
I-Collective’s efforts, including A Gathering Basket, are intended for an Indigenous audience, but that doesn’t mean those of differing cultural backgrounds aren’t invited to educate themselves on the history of Native foods and preparations as well. The caveat, of course, is intention and respect. And according to Stanley, sourcing is significant. “When it comes to obtaining any Indigenous ingredients or art, tools, crafts, things of that nature, it’s of the utmost importance to source them from an Indigenous person,” she says. “I know that can be tricky and some folks feel awkward asking, but I will tell you that Indigenous folks are very proud of their background and I can’t imagine anyone would be offended if you asked to learn more about what community they are a part of. It’s a natural part of any Indigenous person’s introduction, claiming their community and where they’re from. If you’re not sure, just ask. They’ll probably be more than happy to talk your ear off.”
To start your own journey through the history of Indigenous food, you can purchase one of A Gathering Basket’s first five issues, all available for only $7 each. Stanley tells TZR that after a short break to reset this month, operations will restart with 13 issues planned for 2022, all according to the moon cycle. “We will be releasing two to three issues toward the end of this month and folks will be able to assume that all of the subsequent issues will be released the Monday closest to the new moon.” You can subscribe for updates, which includes the announcement of a forthcoming physical printed component sometime this year. And if you’re looking to ethically source some ingredients to begin your culinary exploration, find a few options from Indigenous vendors ahead — all of which come with I-Collective and Stanley’s recommendation. Want to further support the organization’s efforts? Donate here to help A Gathering Basket’s mission to preserve the legacy of Indigenous food alive and well.
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