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  • Bryan Santos

11.24.2020 Dinner in Ann Arbor


Dinner in Ann Arbor

Smoked Whitefish with Wild Green Pesto & Corn Cakes

While culinary traditions vary among North American tribes, there are a handful of shared ingredients. One prominent flavor in indigenous cooking is smoke, used as a preservative as well as a seasoning agent (culinary ash is particularly prevalent in Sioux cooking). Another common thread between indigenous cooking, from Canada to Argentina, is the prevalence of corn. While it is originally from Central America, records indicate that corn made its way up to the Great Lakes region via long-established trade routes and a form of common sign language amongst various tribes. Here, we’ve taken smoked lake whitefish, tossed it with chives and grainy mustard, and served over a wild green pesto made with walnut oil, pumpkin seeds and mustard greens. This all sits on top of cornmeal patties, shaped and lightly fried. The mild sweetness of the corn makes a perfect vessel for smoked fish, all tied together by the nutty herbaceousness of the pesto. Contains fish; gluten free.

Roasted Turkey Leg with Blackberry Juniper Wojape

No more dry turkey breast, please! We all know that the turkey leg is the best part so we’ve brined it overnight with juniper berries and roasted it with smoked salt. (Confession: we actually used a bit of butter here, which isn’t authentic, but in the absence of animal fat from big game, it’is the best substitution to keep the legs juicy.) Prior to Europeans, there were no domesticated animals in the region; instead people consumed wild game such as turkey, duck, rabbit, venison, bear, elk and anything else they could hunt. Turkey is probably one of the few modern Thanksgiving dishes that was actually eaten by Native tribes before Europeans came. We serve the roasted legs with our take on Wojape, a classic Native American berry sauce and the precursor to our cranberry sauce tradition. Blackberries, juniper berries and rosemary form the basis of the sauce and add a rich depth to the turkey. Contains milk; gluten free.

Wild Rice Pilaf

With an abundance of lakes and rivers, it’s not surprising that Michigan historically had a fair amount of wild rice, although most of the rice beds have been destroyed over time. As an homage to this tradition, we’ve cooked the rice in corn stock, fried it in toasted walnut oil and dried cranberries, and then topped it with a touch of maple syrup and candied walnuts. Slightly sweet, slightly savory, these flavors are as Michigan as it gets. Contains walnuts; vegan, gluten free.

Duck Fat Roasted Sweet Potato

Another one of those foods that made its way from Central and South America to the Great Lakes is sweet potato. Additionally, white sage was an incredibly important herb to Native Americans, forming the basis of many medicines and spiritual rituals due to its antimicrobial properties and strong scent. Here we’ve roasted sweet potatoes and sage and tossed them in duck fat, one of the more common fats available prior to vegetable oil or lard. This savory dish pairs exceptionally well with the turkey legs. Gluten free.

Caramelized Corn Salad

One of the components of the Three Sisters trifecta, corn stars in this refreshing side. Fresh kernels are fried in toasted walnut oil just until they start to caramelize. Topped with a handful of fresh mint, this simple salad is deceptively flavorful. Contains walnuts; vegan, gluten free.

Navy Beans with Duck Bacon & Dandelion Greens

Another component of the trifecta are beans, and no Native American meal would be complete without them. Navy beans are one of many varieties native to North America, and have a mild delicate flavor (you probably know them best as the Boston Baked Beans bean). Here we’ve tossed the beans with sauteed duck bacon and dandelion greens for a hearty, savory side. Gluten free.

Juniper Maple Apple Sauce

While the type of domestic apples we’re used to, and the ones we made the apple sauce with, are originally from the Tien Shan mountains of Kazakhstan, Crab Apples are indigenous to North America and were a staple fruit grown in the Great Lakes region. Traditionally, these apple purees were eaten as a sweet or savory accompaniment to a broader meal, often served with sage, sumac, or mint. We’ve added maple syrup and candied pecans to kick it up a notch for dessert. Surprisingly, pecans are one of the few nuts native to North America and are named after the Algonquin word pacane meaning a “nut that needs a stone to crack.” Add to that the slight herbaceous notes of the juniper berry (which gives this a bit of a gin-like kick) and this is definitely not the apple sauce you had as a kid. Contain pecans; vegan, gluten free.

Drink Recommendation

J.K.’s Scrumpy Hard Cider

Available at Arbor Farms Market

Normally, ciders tend to be either cloyingly sweet or then extremely sour. J.K. Farmhouse’s, from right here in Flushing, Michigan is neither of those two. It’s perfectly balanced and refreshing, with enough residual sugar that you know you’re drinking a beverage of fermented apples, but with a strong, bracing backbone of acidity that gives you just the right amount of pucker. 100% organic apples, fermented with natural yeast, create a unique flavor that pairs perfectly with our Michigan focused menu. $7.49

2017 Chateau Grand Traverse Gamay Noir, Michigan

Available at Whole Foods

Michigan wines tend to get a bad rep, with Michiganders ourselves being extra harsh on our wines. But the reality is that there are producers making really, really good stuff out here, finding little pockets of microclimates that are suited to some of the best varieties in the world. Chateau Grand Traverse is none other than the second oldest vinifera producing winery in the state (until then, most used labrusca or hybrid grapes for sweet wines). This gamay is full of fresh fruit flavors of tart cherry, red plums, strawberries, and raspberries, and goes great with duck and turkey, making it an ideal pairing for our Thanksgiving special. $11.99


The History

Let’s talk about Thanksgiving. No, not the warm and fuzzy, kumbaya version that we all learned in elementary school, but the REAL, historically accurate version. Native Americans arrived in North America around 12,000 years ago and had a highly complex society and network of trade routes before the Pilgrims, or “Separatists” as they called themselves, came to Plymouth to establish their theocracy. Long story short, Wampanoag Chief Ousamequin made an alliance of convenience with the settlers and was slowly backstabbed by the new arrivals until the Wampanoag were all but effectively driven out of their land, murdered and sold as slaves as part of King Philip’s War of 1675.

In fact, the concept of Thanksgiving wasn’t unique to New England. Harvests were celebrated down the East Coast and the Puritans most likely celebrated Thanksgiving with fasts as opposed to feasts. Thanksgiving was declared a holiday by Abraham Lincoln to bolster national pride during the Civil War. Funnily enough, it gained in popularity during the late 1800s, as Protestants became anxious about the new waves of Catholic and Jewish immigration seeking ways to ascertain their cultural superiority. We’re not trying to be Thanksgiving buzzkills here, but not teaching the true version of the holiday does a disservice to our society and completely erases the history and perspective of the people who have a much, much longer history on the continent. We HIGHLY recommend reading some of the great articles, research, and books listed in our “Additional Resources” as we cannot do justice to the full scope of Thanksgiving history ourselves.

So that brings us to our Dinner in Ann Arbor Thanksgiving Special. We wanted to put together a menu that celebrates indigenous ingredients and provides our diners with a spread that could have actually been served in the 1600s in Michigan. So that means no dairy, no sugar, no wheat and limited spices. Instead, let’s celebrate and give thanks to the incredible land of Michigan, whose biodiversity ranks second only to California among the entire Union. The peoples of south-east Michigan, primarily the Ojibwe, Odaawaa, and Potawatomi would have had access to smoked fish, wild game, an abundance of fruits and berries, maple syrup, wild herbs, and a variety of nuts. Records indicate that a feast would include deer, fowl, turkey, eels, and of course the famous Three Sisters of corn, beans and squash. Unfortunately, finding indigenous recipes is incredibly hard (a troubling reminder of how thoroughly tribes have been wiped out), so by using local ingredients and some creativity, our hope is to create an homage to Michigan, and indigenous cooking in general, as opposed to the food of any specific tribe.

Both of us grew up eating the classics—bread stuffing, green bean casseroles, pumpkin pies—and we’ve got nothing against that. Today, Thanksgiving is a beloved time of year in which American families get together, argue about politics, play football, and enjoy delicious meals with no pretense or stress of gift giving—it's truly one of the best days of the year. But if 2020 has given us anything, perhaps it is time to reflect, and at its core this menu does just that. Reflecting on our history and acknowledging the good, the bad and the ugly will make us better people. Reflect on our land and all the wonderful food (and wine and cider) it provides us. Reflect on our Ann Arbor community, which has shown strength and resilience in this very tough year. And most importantly, reflect on the friends and family, who we may or may not be with this year, and give thanks for their help in keeping us sane.


Featured Recipe: Smoked Whitefish with Wild Green Pesto and Corn Cakes

Makes 12 cakes

Smoked Whitefish Spread

  • 6 oz skinned, boned whitefish (or you can use any smoked fish such as trout, mackerel, or salmon)

  • 2 tablespoons minced chives

  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

  • 1 tablespoon grainy dijon mustard

  • Dash of pepper

  1. Use a fork to shred the whitefish and combine the remaining ingredients. Mix together until it begins to look like a spread, but keep it a little flaky

Wild Greens Pesto

  • 1 cup of wild greens (some combination of sorrel, dandelion greens, mustard greens, mint, purslane, etc.)

  • 2 tablespoons of chopped shallots

  • 2 tablespoons toasted pumpkin or sunflower seeds

  • ⅓ cup toasted walnut oil (or any other toasted nut oil)

  • Salt

  • Maple Syrup

  1. Using a mortar and pestle or food processor, combine the greens, shallots, and pumpkin seeds and mix together. Slowly work in the oil and season to taste with salt and syrup

Corn Cakes

  • 3 cups water

  • Large pinch of salt

  • 1 cup polenta

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

  1. In a large pot bring the water and salt to a boil and whisk in the cornmeal, stirring until there are no lumps

  2. Reduce the heat and simmer for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally so the mixture doesn’t stick and burn. Let cool

  3. Shape the cooked polenta into patties, about 4 inches wide and ½ inch thick

  4. Heat the oil in a skillet and then sear the corn patties until browned on each side, about 5 - 7 minutes per side

  5. Spread the pesto on the corn cake and add a dollop of the smoked whitefish spread. Enjoy!


Recipes Inspired By:

  1. By far our biggest inspiration, Sean Sherman is a powerhouse in the Native American cooking scene. He even wrote a great Thanksgiving guide for the New York Times

  2. The New York Times cooking section is a great source of inspiration and a huge part of our creative process

Additional Resources:

  1. AIS has a mission that resonates with us, to empower Natives through access to education. You can find out more here

  2. North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS) was founded by Chef Sean Sherman with the mission of addressing the economic and health crises affecting Native communities by re-establishing Native foodways

  3. David Silverman's ode to the Wampanoag Tribe, in which he debunks the various Thanksgiving myths we grew up with. For a quicker read, check out his interview with the Smithsonian

  4. For a broader look at the discrepancies between fact and our history textbooks, check out James Loewen’s book or his featured New York Times article

  5. Read up on King Philip's War (his head was displayed in Plymouth for over 25 years)

  6. Tommy Orange's award-winning novel about the generational trauma of growing up as a Native American

  7. Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Erdrich's novel about life and abuse on an Ojibwe reservation

  8. It would take days to dig through all the information here, but this is one of the best sources we’ve found on the tribes in Michigan

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