Posts Tagged ‘Mitsitam Cafe’

If you can fly to the moon, who cares what you eat. That must be why the only food you can purchase at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC is from McDonald’s. You can go either to the McDonald’s restaurant on the main floor, or for a refreshing change of pace, the McDonald’s cafe on the upper floor.

Of course many of us would be content there, munching a burger and fries, but enjoying a meal for a brief moment in time is not the same as caring about it. Caring is reserved for foods that have deeper meaning to us: traditional meals, recipes perfected by someone we love, or food that is specific to a certain region (think Thanksgiving dinner, grandpa’s pineapple jam, and Maine lobster).

Should you, however, find yourself wandering hungrily around the National Air and Space Museum at lunchtime, as I was last month, you may be shocked to discover that you are just a few hundred yards away from a dazzling celebration of traditional, regional, and meaningful food.

You need only step next door where you will find the Mitsitam Cafe of the Museum of the American Indian. Here, you can start your meal sipping cold cucumber soup topped with bittersweet chocolate cream. Or, you might, as my eight year old did before anyone could stop her, order an enormous slab of fry bread and top it with pickled chilies and pinto beans.

You can wander around sampling side dishes like salsify salad and black eyed peas with horseradish root and spinach. If you’re really famished you can settle in to a venison loaf with Saskatoon berries, a bison steak with wild cherry sauce, or chicken tortillas with huckleberry and pine nut mole.

With your feast you can try cool hibiscus, chipotle and lime juice or hot atole, a thick Mexican beverage made with corn flour, water, cinnamon, vanilla, and chocolate. Dessert choices are equally intriguing: mesquite pinon cookies, golden yucca cake, and guava tapioca pudding.

The cafeteria is divided into five areas, each representing the cuisine of a different region: the Northern Woodlands, the Great Plains, the Northwest Coast, Meso America, and South America. Each region offers a full menu of choices from soups to desserts.

I was fascinated by the way in which the cafe echoed and reinforced the spirit of the museum. As I wandered through the galleries, reading about the different Indian tribes, I was most struck by the powerful connection of each of these groups to the specific places in which they lived. The masks, the symbols, the stories, and the way of life of each tribe, was inextricably interwoven into a very specific region of the Americas.

In the cafeteria it surely would have been simpler to create a single menu with each dish labeled according to place of origin, rather than to create five different areas each with their own complete menu. But, a major message of the museum is to highlight the importance of sense of place, of understanding and respecting where you are, and of connecting to a specific ecosystem and with the particular plants and animals that live there.

We cannot simply pull out a lovely aspect of one or another region–a scallop dish from the northwest coast or chilis from Mexico–rather, it is in the whole, taken together, that the essence of each people is realized.

As fitting as the Mitsitam Cafe is to the American Indian Museum, so is the McDonald’s to the Air and Space Museum. The history of flight, culminating in space travel, is a history of the wildest achievements of industrial society and of our breathtaking capacity for innovation and ingenuity. Yet, these brilliant achievements go hand in hand with the terrible consequences of burning fossil fuel to transport ourselves everywhere willy nilly–even to the moon. We now have to contend with the likes of climate change and off shore oil spills. We have not figured out how to harvest the benefits of our inventions without the negatives.

McDonald’s is similarly a reflection of brilliant success in using the tools of our industrial society: massive farms, cheap transportation, and global markets, to create foods that everyone, everywhere seems primally driven to enjoy. Yet again, the many nasty unintended consequences of this food, such as wreaking havoc with our health, displacing authentic local cuisines, and devastating the environment, are swept out of sight to be dealt with elsewhere.

Traditional societies did not have the luxury of sweeping too much under the rug. If they destroyed their food or water supplies, they had to live with the consequences. In the Mitsitam Cafe you eat as if the harvesting, the processing, and the eating all have consequences. You eat as if you understand how your actions are connected to everything else. You eat as if you cared.

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