This article is being republished.
With the Fourth Of July upon us, backyard grills will be firing up from sea to shining sea. While American Independence from British overlords is the crux of the holiday, it’s the backyard BBQs, smokey meats, and ice cold beers that are the core of everyone’s day off (plus blowing sh*t up, obvi).
What’s always felt odd to us is that the most American of American holidays doesn’t really celebrate actual indigenous American foods. That needs to change. Sure, we all love a great hamburger and our devotion to hot dogs is unparalleled. But let’s face it, those are both German foods. Hell, the second busiest day for ordering pizza in America is the 4th. And as much as we love pizza around here, it’s about as Italian as you can get.
This year, how about celebrating America (the place) with food that’s actually from here. We’ve compiled a short list of some great foods that are as varied and multicultural as America itself. These are the foods that are American in the geographical sense — and were the cornerstones of the indigenous foodways for millennia.
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The American Buffalo, or Bison, is as American as America gets. The buffalo is so iconic it used to be on the nickel (we should totally bring that back, btw). Buffalo meat is also making a huge comeback, after being on the verge of extinction just 100 years ago. As a food protien, it’s not factory farmed and largely free-range/ grass fed while also being humanely raised and butchered.
For the uninitiated, Bison steaks have a much cleaner taste that shines with an earthy mineral quality. It’s kinda like beef turned up to eleven — with a cleaner taste to the fattiness and crisper taste to the lean bits. It’s also cleaner when it comes to hormones and antibiotics, as most herds are all organic across the board these days.
If you’re east of the Mississippi, it may be a little harder to source this meat. If you’re west of the Big Muddy, it’ll be much easier to find it in most regular grocery stores. Still, there are plenty of butchers who will ship you plenty of delicious buffalo anywhere in America.
WILD GAME SAUSAGES
Look, we love chicken, pork, and beef in this country but those are invasive species. Pigs and cows were brought here by the Spanish in the 1500s and chickens showed up via the Polynesians sometime in the 1300s. So, while there is a long history of those forms of animal protein, they aren’t “American” by any stretch.
What is American is all forms of cervine species (moose, elk, deer, antelope, caribou) along with a wide array of foul (duck, goose, pheasant) and, as mentioned, buffalo. Sausages were a food commodity in the Americas for millennia. The Lakota would hang rows and rows of sausages on the Great Plains to dry after a hunt and that tradition is starting to come back today as indigenous foodways are re-embraced across this country.
Honestly, what’s more 4th of July than a great sausage popping on the grill? Nothing, that’s what. Again, finding wild game sausages will be hard to do back east. You can get them shipped to you overnight though. Find a butcher that’s doing some great work with those meats and give it a whirl.
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This one is an easy substitute for any backyard party. You don’t have to build a whole firepit in your backyard — though, how metal would that be? Instead, just score some good cedar or alder planks (go to a Weber store if need be) and throw those planks straight on your grill.
Cooking salmon over fire is as Pacific Coast as you can get (try to make sure you get wild caught only). The fish was a staple from California to Alaska all the way over to Kamchatka. Season it generously with some sea salt and smoked brown sugar and let that wood infuse all its earthiness into the pink meat. Throw in some cedar, birch, or even fir branches to get a nice smoke going and you’ll be in business.
Protip: To really amp up local flavors, make a salmonberry or huckleberry pico de gallo and top the salmon with it as soon as it comes off the fire. The tartness of the berries is the perfect counterpoint to the fatty and umami-forward fish.
One of the best inventions of indigenous Americans in the 20th century was the burrito. The Mexican-American population of California developed this damn near perfect food over the course of the 1950s and 1960s between the Central Valley produce fields and the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District. Though the idea of a burrito goes much further back into the 1800s, Mission Burritos are the biggest and most widely known variation and it’s purely Mexican-American or Cali-Mex.
The behemoth burrito — made famous by Raul and Michaela Duran in San Francisco — combines rice, beans, meat, cheese, gauc, and a bit of salad. It’s the precursor for everything from the most insane burritos at Taco Bell to the backbone of everything Chipotle does. You can eat it dry with a little bowl of sauce to pour on every single bite or you can get it doused in red or green sauce with even more cheese melted on top.
The Mission Burrito is the best example of American exceptionalism making everything bigger, better, and more while celebrating California’s indigenous population of Mexicans.
Another purely indigenous North American food that’s beloved by all literally ALL tacos. As the American indigenous food movement takes off, we’re starting to get tacos from north of the colonial border again and realize that tacos aren’t as much “Mexican” as they are a pan-American indigenous superfood.
Chefs like Brian Yazzie are leading the way from Navajo Country with dishes like his blue corn tacos filled with slowly braised elk with a tomatillo salsa. Basically, get ready for a broad range of tacos you’ve never dreamed of coming back into the ether from near extinction.
For us, there’s no better celebration of America than the taco is all of its varying glory. Grab a platter of fish tacos, elk tacos, lingua, chorizo, whatever and enjoy the day off!
If you live along the coast in this country, then oysters are a crucial part of your ecosystem. The mollusk cleans the water at amazing rates and just so happens to be delicious.
Oysters were a huge part of the American food culture (even into the colonial period). They used to be so popular that oysters carts roamed the streets of New York, Boston, Seattle, and other coastal cities the way food trucks roam those very streets today. Then we overfished the beds and oysters became scarce. Thankfully they’re coming back and better than ever.
Oysters are extremely versatile. Find a local farm and buy them fresh. Then either learn to shuck and eat them raw, douse them in a little cocktail sauce, bake them next to a (totally metal) open fire pit, Rockafeller them, or bread them and fry them. It’s all good.
Ribs feel like the perfect pièce de résistance of any Fourth of July barbecue — the ultimate crowd pleaser where unctuous, fatty smoked meat meets umami and sweet sauce and the preternatural gnashing of bone. They’re great, is what we’re saying.
Again, pork and beef tend to dominate the conversation about ribs in America. Which, stop it. Bison ribs are the only ribs we should be devouring this summer. The ribs are a bit leaner, but still, have plenty of clean fat to make them fall-off-the-bone delicious when cooked low and slow over a flame with plenty of smoke. Plus, they’re frickin’ ginormous. Seriously, you can feed a big crew with a rack of these things.
Protip: Make a huckleberry or chokecherry sauce with plenty of Navajo or Pueblo chili for the dopest bbq sauce.
Chili is one of the only indigenous American meals that has survived the centuries, even if the people who invented the dish keep getting kicked out of the country. The Tejano meal is a simple emulsion of venison, chili, and stock cooked down into a stew. It used to be served with a side of local beans and a flat cornbread at train stations in San Antonio, Texas and quickly spread throughout the country from there.
While a lot of chilis have veered drastically from the original Tejano version, it’s still a wholly indigenous American dish that’s a killer backyard party cornerstone. Just lose the beef and replace it with wild game (ground bison will do too), then whip up some cornbread cakes and cook them right on the grill.
You can even put beans in it if you want. We won’t judge.
WHEN IN DOUBT: VISIT AN INDIGENOUS FOOD TRUCK
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Okay, maybe the idea of cooking all day on the Fourth of July is just a bit too much this year. A great alternative to cooking out in your backyard is to hit up an indigenous owned and operated food truck.
More and more native-owned trucks are popping up all over the country right now like Tocabe’s truck in Denver, Chef Sean Sherman’s Tatanka Truck in Minneapolis, Mark McConnell and Cecilia Rikard’s Off The Rez in Seattle, Steven James’ Nations Creations in Tucson, Ben and Ollie’s Navajo Tacos and Sweet Frybread in Los Angeles, and, then, there’s every taco, burrito, quesadilla, and tamale truck and cart in America (remember who owned this land before the Mexican American war and the Mission-era, fam). The point is to be fully American, maybe it’s time to embrace actual American foods and leave the Europeans ones for Labor Day.