When you first see Dave, a sense of warm humbleness comes over you. His captivating eyes and smile tell stories of their own. His presence is tall yet not intimidating. His passion is educating individuals with Native American roots through culinary creations. Born in Syracuse, New York within the Mohawk tribe, yet a 20 year resident in Augusta, Georgia thanks to his wife, a doctor for the local medical college.
His vision is to embrace neighboring nations, as well as his own, and reclaim their history through food, our most basic understanding of human life. Many dub him The Three Sisters Evangelist and a proud member of The Corn Mafia, an indigenous society composed of chefs cultivating their specialty. For most Northeastern tribes corn is king and has been the main staple within their diets for centuries.
“The Corn Mafia started with myself and one other guy at a summit. It was midday, and everyone was already full, so they would take a spoonful from our table and be done. I made corn soup, and he, tamales; therefore, we had a ton of leftover corn. We asked for help preparing the corn and then there are twenty people; some were James Beard Award-winning chefs. I look up and realize that I had about a dozen executive chefs from Charleston bellied up to my table doing the most menial of tasks. What we discovered was that our tables had become favorite parts of the butcheries because we are so communal. It makes you think about how people did this tedious task way back then. What you realize is that no one back then had to pick kids up from school or run off to work for the day. You processed corn, and you sat around talkingwith everyone. It’s almost an idyllic utopia.
A friend of mine, Phil Wingo, has a business called Pork Mafia where he specializes in spices and bbq sauce. He walks by our table and says 'corn mafia,' and it stuck. And by the way, corn goes well with pork." The Mohawks were one of the six nations to join the Iroquois Confederacy, which is mainly upper New York and southeastern Canada. According to Dave, this is the longest-running democracy in the world and what our Bills of Rights are modeled after. To him, Rome and Magna Carta are in no comparison because they favor the rich."Women have an equal share in our political thought, and they are the ones who picked our leaders."
At least once a year they join together in summits for friends, family, food, and culture. Dave recalls these as “big brother, little brother" type communities and gladly reminisces the activities:
“The first day we butchered bison and an elk and cooked beaver. Their tails are very fatty, so we sear them and cook them over a fire. Other nations like The Great Lakes are more into wild rice. Most native nations that have corn do some leaf bread which is most commonly called tamales. To do perfect masa for tamales, you have to take the tip off of the corn to make it smooth." He takes a fork to show that the corn within the soup is entirely skin free and that the black part stems from the tip. He dubs it hominy which has become a popular name for southern grits. He informs, “those grits aren't hominy because no one nixtamalized the corn; which makes them grits. I'm not stating that the chefs are natural liars with intent, but hominy corn has become white corn. They should call them what they are: white corn grits. When you nixtamalize, it adds even more flavor. It's much healthier for you but, there's no one else out there preaching that."
He digs deeper into the history of how tribes showed Europeans the process of corn, which is vastly different than grinding wheat. In turn, Europeans began grinding corn for convenience. What many people discovered was that without chemicals, ashwood or a weak lye solution (changes the PH levels and brings out the nutrients), is that it was missing niacin. Instead of going through the process, roughly a few good hours, of what they were shown, many people, as a result, were becoming ill.
“Everything has a spirit to us: our beans, our corn, our land. They all have meaning, so forgetting those things is almost sacrilegious. Corn was first cultivated in central Mexico and still has even more meaning to them there. Our ancestors left the pot on the fire all day for anyone who was hungry or welcoming visitors. More importantly, no one was tied to the flame. If you were hungry, you got food and left. As the corn got to the bottom of the pot, they would add different ingredients so it would become a different meal from the morning. We like to layer our bowl and use water instead of stock. It's a rusted way of cooking, but the depth of flavors are everywhere." One of Mohawk's main dishes is corn soup comprised of Tuscarora white corn, green beans, smoked wild bison, wild hog, and Mohawk red kidney beans. Dave prefers to create dishes that are a bit modern “yet also very tied to the past." He explains that meals rooted in traditional foods tend to become bland. These roots are a base to work from, expressing his art.
“It's equally important for us to share our culture as it is to cook it. I'm a firm believer that our traditional recipes are vehicles for other things. Corn, beans, and squash is the basis of our diet, at least for the Mohawks. That is what is known as The Three Sisters. With those three foods, you can make a perfectly nourishing meal. But after eating this for quite, awhile I realized that it could be pretty bland without the seasonal foraged dishes. There's no way we ate these foods several times a week without some other staple like garlic or onions. I've had some backlash from the elders but imagine eating the same white bread every day. You're going to want put something on that." Despite this minor confrontation, Dave embraces the symbolism between The Three Sisters, etched on his left arm. He's quick to note that corn is the primary vehicle for whatever is seasonal and using something as simple as a ginger leaf is a modern twist that guides him to incorporate his origins. His vast knowledge of using food in its entirety gives him the edge when it comes to promoting agriculture straight to the table. Moreover highlighting what is natural and “reclaiming" what is native to tribes.
“We grow The Three Sisters together: corn, squash, and beans. They provide nutrients to the soil, so it's a symbioticrelationship." And it's the very relationship that will be the foundation of his upcoming book. “Corn grows tall, and beans are a vine that grows upward from the corn and nourishes the soil that develops the corn. The squash is low and spreads out and acts as mulch; keeping the water locked in for itself and the beans. If you start to read things historically and point to things outside such as this ginger leaf, which we call little brown jug, you can find this year-round because it's an evergreen. People like to say that the Natives ate that, but when you go back, historically none of that was ever a part of what we did. There's a vast disconnect when folks have moved to the reservations where things have gotten lost. I even have to correct people that we grow corn, potatoes, etc., and it goes through Africa, Europe, and back to us. It's a global journey, but it's still ours too. Kidney beans come from the Canadain tribes and Navy beans from the Northeast. Cranberry beans come with a credit to the Onondagain tribe.
A lot of us laugh at Grade A Amber syrup. It's the lightest of the Maple syrup, so you're not getting all the flavor. We like Grade B because it's much darker. You usually can't find Grade C because it's at the bottom of the boiling tanks, at the end of the sugaring season. It's not as sweet, but it's a great flavoring. So when you see Maple flavoring, not the extract, that's been watered and scrapped. They deglaze the sugaring pan and use that water because of all that flavor in there. I could do that and fool you into thinking that it's Maple syrup. [Corn featured above] here is a misnomer for most Southerners as cornbread but it's a dumpling. I'd say dating back to the 1600s. Corn that we've nominized, treated with wood ash and cooked. When you make tortillas or tamales, it's a chemical reaction with the corn making it far more digestible. What it also does, that a lot of people don't talk about is that it forms a weak gel. That gel allows us to make dumplings, tortillas, etc. That's when the corn comes together enough for us to cook it. That's why I can form into a ball and other shapes."
Wild strawberries became a cultural exchange between the Americas and Europe where it took off into stardom; much like a startup band havingto tour.
“Strawberries are the first fruit in the Spring. They are an essential medicine, particularly for people who live in a lot of snow. It's a big celebration of Spring when these start to pop up. We use dried strawberries for healing ceremonies. They have far more vitamin C than orange juice. Sometimes when I'm working late at night in the kitchen, I'll grab strawberries and mix it with the maple and knock it back, and it gets me through the next hour or two.What's happening now is that people are decolonizing things, even at these celebration events. Much like alcohol, I'm a believer in moderation. It's the same with serving white flour with fry bread which is becoming a big no-no now. At a recent summit, we [The Mohawks] cooked breakfast one morning. We had strawberry drinks and birch tea because we ran out of coffee twice. I made a joke that we decolonized coffee, and people thought I was serious. I find it very important that we explore our history, background, and traditions, yet, getting the younger generation to go back to how we used to eat is not the correct way."He argues that no matter how far back you go in exploring our palates, our diets have adjusted to a more modern era. As we introduced products
into our diet, such as dairy, there's a thought process that kicks in stating that we weren't originally designed to process this. It stems
from not becoming familiar with these exposed backgrounds. Dave also believes that obesity and diabetes is a product of not understanding the origin of the foods we eat. It is a common theme for those residing on the reservations without much access to better jobs and lack of exercise.
“Many point to genocide and ethnic cleansing if you will. Both of those terms fit the definition of what happened to us. One of the first things you take away from the people to affect them is their food. As we moved to reserves, we are no longer allowed to hunt. As we tried to plant corn, they wanted us to be more Agrarian, and if we didn't, we became
nomads. It was just before harvest season too. Then sacks of flour, tubs of lard, and canned things start to show up that aren't apart of our
intake, but you rely upon them. Once you've been forcibly removed several times, what's the point? You might as well eat what they are giving you. People don't like to talk about it, but now we have this modern palate where we like garlic and cheese, and I don't think we can remove that." So what's his solution? Simple: “go back and add some of the things we lost to our modern diets." “When I speak to chefs and cultural folks, it starts to make sense for them. Where did our favor and spices go? Where did our herbs go because you're right, that's too plain. I forage a bit to where I'm outside looking at things and researching. We read that we ate it, but there's no evidence in recipes. With the decolonization, it's almost becoming a Pan-American cuisine. Some [tribes] are very proud, and we're not ready to give up some things that are ours for something that is yours."
Most tribes aren't comfortable adding ingredients from others andincorporating them into their own. But for Dave, it isn't an issue; yet, he won't call the full plate just native. He equally spends time namingwhere the food derives from so people understand the cornucopia of culinary creations that lay before them. Moreover, he feels it's even more critical to understand the land as far as food production is concerned. With the rise of corporations, such as Monsanto who own 90 % of the world's agricultural seeds, we should be more conscientious of where our food is raised. “If you farm directly, you don't need any of pesticide or weed killer.
These companies, working directly with chemicals, are getting rid of all the grass in a landlocked area. Those chemicals end up in our bodies. I'm pointing the finger at capitalism because they bargain aid for neighboring nations with GMO food that these countries don't need. It doesn't make sense to hurt Mother Nature for profit. We can still profit in a better way; fair trade is how we started should continue."
Dave is head culinary curator at Abel Brown where his food is adorned in portrait style mounting the walls. “When I charge $24 for half of a chicken, it's because I can tell you which ones I picked out, the week before, at a local farm. I know they are healthy and fed a non-GMO diet plus I butcher there, so I know it's clean. So the pictures of animals on the walls can be one on your table."
Speaking of tables, Thanksgiving is a day he chooses to celebrate as a native survivalist. If you can take away anything from his lessons, it is that these foods “were here long before us and will continue to belong after us. If I can promote what is ours on our plate, then people can go back to eating what is ours." He feels he must set the record straight on what's natively grown, and not just within his tribe. During the summer, he teaches cooking classes for the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, particularly for the younger generations.
Want to experience a taste of tribal gatherings? Research your state for its local tribe association for future events, history, and cultural interaction. For Charlestonians, Blood on the River is an annual event hosted in Johns Island. Dave is quick to remind that there are plenty of Native creatives out there, merely ask.
Instagram @codchef and @cornmafia
Photography by: Jonathan Stout