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  • Beth Ellis

Dinner on Saginaw Bay


The Menu

Duck Pâté

The Saginaw Bay is one of the most storied duck hunting areas in the Great Lakes region. Fall migrations bring fattened ducks flying low over predictable paths. Native Americans certainly hunted ducks and geese here, with bows and arrows specific to small game hunting. Duck was an important autumn food for many tribes, while duck eggs were harvested (judiciously, so as to maintain healthy populations) in the spring and early summer. While the Anishinaabeg of the Saginaw Bay area were not eating duck liver pâté, they were making use of every part of the bird. In addition to the meat, ducks were hunted for their fat, feathers, and bones. The fat was rendered and used for cooking and dressing other less-flavorful foods. We’ve made a rustic pâté flavored with apple cider, shallots, juniper berries, and sage. (No gluten, no dairy.)

Stewed Cherry Jam

Wild berries were an important food source for Native Americans - not only because of their sweet flavor, but because of their high nutrient content. The berries could be dried, cooked alone or alongside meats or vegetables, or eaten fresh. The Anishinaabeg, who lived generally in temperate woodlands, ate wild grapes, sumac berries, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, chokecherries, and wild plums. The moons of the Ojibwe calendar reflect the important seasons of the year, and July is miin-giizis (the berry moon). Maple syrup is threaded through this entire menu, because it’s delicious, but also because it was a pervasive ingredient in Anishinaabe cooking; prior to the arrival of salt in 1845, food was often seasoned only with maple syrup or maple sugar. These stewed cherries are the perfect sweet foil to the savory pate - spread them on an amaranth cracker together! (No gluten, vegan.)

Amaranth Crackers

Amaranth is native to North and South America; it was domesticated by - and enormously important to - the Aztecs in Mexico circa 5000 BCE. It was harvested in the wild and cultivated by Native Americans across the Americas, and was an important source of nutrition. These simple crackers have only three ingredients: amaranth, salt, and sunflower oil. (No gluten, vegan.)

Duck Broth Corn Chowder

Corn is one of the “three sisters” of Native American cooking and horticulture: the trio of corn, squash, and beans is an early example of companion planting, whereby plants are purposefully planted together to “help each other out.” Corn grows tall, providing a trellis for the beans, while squash or pumpkin grows low to the ground, and has large leaves to shade the soil and decrease weed growth. Corn was ground into meal and used for breads or stews, or dried for winter use. For this dish, we’ve made an earthy duck broth flavored with juniper berries, sage, mint, cedar wood, and morel mushrooms. We then use that broth to simmer onions, potatoes, and (most importantly) corn into a hearty chowder, garnished with dill. (No gluten, no dairy.)

Roasted Duck with Sage and Rose Hip Sauce

Duck was an important ingredient in Anishinaabe cookery, though it was usually boiled rather than roasted. Here, we’ve briefly dry aged and roasted a spatchcocked duck until it’s browned and crispy. Sage was one of the four sacred plants of the Anishinaabeg, along with tobacco, cedar, and sweetgrass. It was used as a ceremonial air purifier to remove negative energy from a space and from the mind. Because of its ceremonial importance, sage was not often used in cooking, but here it brings a sharp and earthy flavor to the sauce, while rose hips lend a subtle herbal sweetness. (No gluten, no dairy.)

Wild Rice with Hazelnuts and Blueberries

The importance of manoomin (wild rice) to the Ojibwe people cannot be overstated. It is one of their most important foods, and it is considered sacred. The August moon is manoominike-giizis (the ricing moon); when summer came to an end, bands would travel to camps along the shallow inland lakes and slow-moving waterways, where they would spend weeks harvesting rice for the coming winter. The harvesting is done by hand, with one person pushing a canoe with a pole, and another knocking the seeds off of the grasses into the canoe. The ripe seeds fall into the bottom of the canoe, and any that fall outside of the canoe serve to plant the next year’s crop of rice. In this way, even in harvesting this annual plant, the Native method ensures the perpetuation of the harvest. Wild rice is, in fact, the only grain indigenous to Michigan. The rice was often cooked plain, or with maple syrup, but here we’ve added blueberries and hazelnuts for sweetness and crunch. Blueberries were foraged by the Anishinaabeg, and hazelnuts were often ground into butter to be eaten on bread. (Contains hazelnuts; no gluten, vegetarian.)

Butternut Squash Mash with Maple Syrup and Sumac

Wild squash originated in Central America and Mexico, but the multitude of squash available to us at the market today bear little resemblance to that original fruit. Squash is one of the most diverse families of fruit that exists, which makes sense when you consider that zucchini is a squash, and the decorative gourds for sale right now are also squash. Right now, winter squash are just starting to arrive on the market shelves - acorn, Hubbard, kabocha, dumpling, spaghetti, and the most popular of all… butternut. Butternut squash is a hybrid that was developed in the 1940s in Massachusetts, so it was not part of the traditional Anishinaabe diet, but many squash and pumpkins were important to their culinary traditions. Not only were squash roasted, boiled, grilled, and eaten raw, they were often dried in strips or rings to preserve them for winter consumption. We’ve mashed butternut (roasted with the duck) and maple syrup, and topped it with lemony sumac. (No gluten, no dairy.)

Black Walnut and Maple Sugar Cookies

The Anishinaabe did not have a tradition of dessert, per se, but they certainly had a tradition of maple sugar sweets. As we’ve highlighted in this menu, maple syrup shows up as an ingredient in many savory dishes, but maple sugar treats were also important! When the crows returned to the Great Lakes region in the spring, the Anishinaabe would begin to gather at their sugar camps, where everyone had a role - gathering wood, collecting sap, cooking, and storing the sugar. It takes about 35 gallons of tree sap to make one gallon of syrup, which can then be dried even further to make maple sugar. Foraged black walnuts were also an important food source, as they have the highest protein content of any tree nut, providing nourishment when meat was scarce. They also have a distinctly sweet, almost anise-like flavor, which you’ll notice in this tasty cookie. (Contains egg, walnut; no dairy, vegetarian.)

Drink Recommendation

Virtue Cider

Available at Arbor Farms

Suffice to say that indigenous Michiganders weren’t drinking hard apple cider, let alone one crafted in the traditions of England and France. Apart from the First Nations in the south western US and Central America, who were distilling all sorts of fruits and plants like agave, cacao, honey etc, alcohol was largely absent from Native culture in Michigan. That said, this Virtue Cider, made with organic heirloom MI apples, is a perfect compliment to the meal. Southwestern MI is one of only 3 proper cider producing regions in the states (the others being the pacific northwest and the Huron valley). Gregory Hall, the award winning brewmaster for Goose Island Beer founded this cider mill in 2011 and uses only MI apples and time. This semi-dry cider is aged in oak, its crispness a start counterpoint to the richness of the duck in this menu. If you’re ever in the area, check out their farm, one of the most sustainable in the state!


Saginaw Bay, Michigan

It stands to reason that Native American food traditions would differ around the country, and indeed, around the continent. There are 574 federally recognized tribal nations in the United States, and they are culturally, linguistically, and ethnically diverse. It is important to note that modern federal recognition does not reflect the great diversity of Native tribes that once existed in the United States. It is equally important to note that the modern settlements of federally recognized tribes do not reflect the historic region or range of those tribes, as government resettlement (“Indian removal”) efforts forced Native tribes off of their ancestral lands. We won’t try to delve into the history and oppression of Indigenous Americans here, but we have included some excellent resources below. Our goal is to highlight some of the food traditions of the Native Americans of the Great Lakes region. There is no perfect agreement, but historically, tribal nations of North America have been grouped into eight regions (“culture areas”) as follows: Arctic/Subarctic, Great Basin, Northeast Woodlands (that’s us!), Southeast Woodlands, Southwest Desert, Northwest Coast, Great Plains, and California. Of course, if you were to explore the tribal nations of any one of these areas, you’d find dramatic differences within and amongst them. Michigan is home to twelve of these federally recognized tribes, and today, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe maintains tribal land along the shores of Saginaw Bay.

“Saginaw” is derived from an Ojibwe (Chippewa) place word (sagenong) meaning “place of the outlet”, in reference to the Saginaw River flowing into the Saginaw Bay. There are countless other modern day place names in the region of the Saginaw Valley and the Thumb (and throughout Michigan) that are derived from Native words, and you can find more of them here. The shorelines of Saginaw Bay were lined with Native Indian villages of the Ojibwe (Chippewa), Ottawa, and Potawatami tribes, all of whom belong to the Anishinaabe cultural group of tribal nations. Prior to contact with Europeans, the people hunted in the heavily forested woodlands, fished in the Saginaw Bay and River, and cultivated the fertile land. Traditionally, each tribe was divided into smaller bands or families who would migrate together. In the fall and winter, they moved to established hunting grounds, where they would hunt and trap beaver, muskrat, raccoons, deer, and black bear. They would forage for nuts and wild berries, and when spring arrived, they would tap the abundant maple trees, and make maple syrup in great quantities. In the summer, they would temporarily settle near fishing areas and catch freshwater fish and fowl, which they would smoke and dry for winter. They were an agricultural people long before European contact, and cultivated corn, beans, and squash in the famous “three sisters” configuration. They also domesticated and cultivated pumpkins, sunflowers (for seeds and sunchokes), and turkeys. Wild rice, harvested from shallow inland lakes and rivers, was an important food source. As the French made greater incursions into the area in the 1700s, the Native Americans established strong trade relationships, whereby they supplied the French with wild rice, pumpkins, smoked meat, and furs, in trade for rum, beads, blankets, metal tools, and firearms.

In the Indigenous American worldview, all living things have a spirit, and balance between all elements of nature is of paramount importance. If a person takes care of the land, then the land will take care of the person. Animals are used from tip to tail, and nothing is wasted. Many staple foods are considered sacred, and feature heavily in mythology. Certain foods were imbued with powers - to make the consumer strong, fertile, fast, etc. There were many festivals, rituals, and celebrations surrounding the procurement (hunting or harvesting), preparation, and consumption of food - frequently around the turn of the seasons and the new food of that season - for fresh meat, new strawberries, maple syrup, and young, green corn. The Anishinaabe people also gathered for ceremonial and festive powwows (ni-mi-win) for singing, dancing, healing, and celebration. Jingle dress dancing is one of the most famous Ojibwe contributions to modern powwows.

In keeping with the tip-to-tail philosophy, and in light of the recent start of duck-hunting season in Michigan, we’ve built this entire menu around the whole duck, butchered and used in several different and delicious ways. We haven’t exclusively used pre-contact ingredients, but the post-contact ingredients we have used are minimal - there are no heavy spices, no wheat, no dairy, no cucumbers or tomatoes. We’ve used many traditional ingredients in more contemporary ways, drawing inspiration from a group of Native chefs who are working to educate people on Native cooking, and resurrect the use of pre-contact ingredients, many of which have fallen out of use.

While the second Monday in October (October 11, 2021) is widely known as Columbus Day, it is also Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Many people object to the celebration of Columbus Day as a celebration of colonization, the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade, and the death of millions of Indigenous Americans from murder and disease. Let’s take this opportunity to consider the history and oppression of Indigenous people, and to appreciate the fact that the land upon which we live was their bountiful home long before Europeans arrived. In honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we will donate $10 of every order to Native American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, an organization founded by Chef Sean Sherman with the mission “ promote indigenous foodways education and facilitate indigenous food access.”


Featured Recipe: Wild Rice with Hazelnuts and Blueberries

Serves 8 people as a side


  • 2 cups (raw) wild rice blend, cooked per packet instructions (see note below)

  • 3 tbsp sunflower oil

  • 2 onions, diced

  • 2 tsp salt

  • 1 cup blanched hazelnuts, coarsely chopped

  • 1 cup dried blueberries

  1. In a heavy bottomed pot, heat the sunflower oil and add the onions. Cook until they are soft and translucent, about 8-10 minutes. Season with the salt.

  2. Add the cooked wild rice to the pot and fry until the rice is warmed through and all excess moisture is released.

  3. Fold in the hazelnuts and blueberries, turn off the heat and cover the pot. Let steam for 10 minutes. Fluff with a fork and enjoy!

Note: You can cook the wild rice as instructed on the packaging or use an Instant Pot. If using an instant pot, cook the wild rice blend with 2 cups of water (1:1 ratio of rice to water) for 28 minutes on high pressure. Allow to release pressure naturally for 10 minutes before releasing the valve.


Recipes Inspired By:

  1. Sean Sherman is a powerhouse in the Native American cooking scene and his cookbook The Sioux Chef is a fantastic starting point to learn more about the indeginous cuisine of the Great Plains and Great Lakes regions.

  2. Barrie Kavasch’s Native Harvests is one of my favorite new cookbooks and one that has made me profoundly more aware of the culinary knowledge and traditions that we have collectively lost. Part cookbook, part foraging guide, part encyclopedia, if you want to learn more about what grows and is edible in Michigan, this is your book.

Additional Resources:

  1. The various cultural groupings of regions, nations, and bands can be confusing, especially as the transliteration is not consistent. Here is more information on the Anishinaabe group of tribal nations that lived in the Great Lakes area. The Inawe Mazina’igan Map Project, by Noongom Wenishinaabemojig (Today’s Speakers of Anishinaabemowin), shows the settlements of all Anishinaabe nations in 2021.

  2. The five-episode PBS miniseries We Shall Remain offers a view into the Native effort to resist expulsion from their lands, and the battle to preserve their culture for hundreds of years. It is available for streaming from the Ann Arbor District Library.

  3. Learn more about the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, and the other eleven federally recognized tribes that call Michigan home.

  4. Read more here about historic government Native removal efforts, and the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led directly to the infamous Trail of Tears..

  5. Here is a video of and more information about Objibwe jingle dress dancing.

  6. This is a deep dive into tribal governance and the sovereign nation status of federally recognized tribes.

  7. An NYT article featuring Chef Sean Sherman highlights indigenous ingredients used in more contemporary ways.

  8. Here is an insightful article on the history and importance of wild rice to the Ojibwe people.

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