Politics & Policy

Dining Out on Dubious Identity

Elizabeth Warren’s recipes are fine, but are they really ethnic?

In recent weeks, much hay has been made of Elizabeth Warren’s claim to an American Indian background, in favor of which proposition the candidate has presented as evidence her mother’s stories, her family’s high cheekbones, and, perhaps most risibly, her contributions to the 1984 Pow Wow Chow cookbook. As yet, nobody seems to have picked up a copy of the volume and prepared any of the “Cherokee” meals that Warren submitted under her name. Intrigued by the prospect, I thought I’d do just that.

As an appetizer, I chose Warren’s recipe for “Mexican Oatmeal Soup.” Despite its name, this dish is somewhat geographically homeless, consisting mostly of chicken broth and a handful of other ingredients not associated with anywhere in particular. Thanks solely to the chopped tomatoes that float at the surface, there are a few dabs of color in the mix, but along with the somewhat egregious oatmeal that never quite becomes part of the whole, these are anomalous curiosities in what is essentially chicken-flavored water. It was a disappointing start.

For the entrée, I prepared another Warren contribution: the crab omelet with tomato mayonnaise dressing. Where exactly the Cherokee would have sourced either cognac or Worcestershire sauce — both key parts of the dressing — and at what point in their 6,000-plus-year history they elected to develop a line in mayonnaise remain unanswered questions. Still, French television chef and immigrant to the United States Pierre Franey, who originally wrote the recipe for the New York Times in the late 1970s, would likely not have run into much trouble on either count. Franey developed the omelet at Le Pavillon, a high-end French restaurant in New York City, and its fans included the likes of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Cole Porter. It appears that Elizabeth Warren simply copied the recipe word for word and substituted in her name.

Whatever its provenance, the dish was rather tasty. The recipe undoubtedly works best with the cold omelet. On its own, the crab dressing is a touch salty, and so the chili sauce is an inspired counterpoint, adding a little kick at the end of each mouthful and keeping the whole thing in balance. Make sure, however, not to overdo the chili, as this may well make your eyes water. (A ratio of 1:32 might be good, to be increased only if you and your guests feel that you can get away with it.)

It turns out that it is not just Elizabeth Warren’s contributions but the entire Pow Wow Chow cookbook that is suspect. Most of its recipes owe at least as much to John Smith as to Pocahontas, and overall it suffers from the publishers’ inability to appreciate that simply writing “Cherokee” on a recipe for lasagna or for oriental beef stir-fry does not make it so. But then that is part of the problem, isn’t it? If one is expected to believe that the very act of appending the word “prairie” to a patently quotidian recipe for “pot roast” somehow makes it exotic, then one is also expected to accept that individual acts of “self-identification” actually change one’s self in any meaningful sense. Thus the existence of a cookbook that earnestly presents Spam casserole, Polynesian spareribs, and lasagna as quintessential Native American cuisine.

I spoke to a Native American lady who is familiar with the cuisine of the many tribes and I read her some of the recipes — including Warren’s five. She laughed kindly. So widespread is the problem of people pretending to be Indians, she told me, that some tribes who showcase their fare have developed a system of regulated food trademarks to ensure authenticity; in order to sell food under the name of a particular tribe, one needs first to gain their endorsement. As all Americans suddenly become Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, many of the people she meets tell her that they are Native Americans, however obscure their connection. “It’s kind of a joke,” she added.

So what did Native Americans actually eat? The specifics depend on the tribe in question, but generally speaking diets were based around fry bread, which provided the bulk for what have come to be known as “Indian tacos.” Into these tacos would be placed whatever the particular tribe could come by: maize, beans, and squash were all staples, supplemented by meats and fish if this comported with the beliefs of the tribe. In addition to the stereotypical buffalo, in various parts of the country, deer, duck, squirrel, raccoon, rabbit, and opossum were hunted and prepared; deer and turtles were particularly important to Cherokee. Salmon was eaten in the northwest.

There is, however, little to indicate that crab was ever an Indian favorite — especially in landlocked Oklahoma or the territories where the Cherokee lived. There is some evidence that tribes in both Delaware and the Puget Sound area caught and ate the creatures, and the Cherokee and other peripatetic tribes may have eaten seafood when they traveled to meet with other groups in other parts of country during conferences, or “powwows.” But, other than that, crab is no more associated with the Cherokee than gumbo is with North Dakotans.

They did, however, eat doves, along with wild turkey, quail, ducks, wild geese, and ruffed grouse. An allegedly Cherokee recipe for “broiled doves,” written by one Coleman Fite, caught my eye. So I made that one, too, for good measure. It features doves being served on toast along with bacon, chopped parsley, and lemon wedges. This recipe is very good indeed, but it’s not exactly an accurate representation of the Cherokee diet. For a start, lemons found their way to the New World only in 1493 with Columbus’s expedition to Hispaniola, and the Spanish — who had a monopoly on the seeds — used the fruit primarily as medicine until the early 19th century, when production was started in earnest in California and Florida and its use shifted to the seasoning of food. Likewise, there were no domesticated pigs in America until Hernando de Soto landed in Florida in 1539 with 13 of the animals. Upon his death three years later, there were only 700 in the entire country, so it seems unlikely that doves would have been wrapped in bacon very often.

And that’s the thing. Like Warren, the Pow Wow Chow cookbook does not deserve its exotic title. It is a general-purpose cookbook that is chock-full of standard dishes from all over the world. How credible is the idea that it was written by genuine members of the “Five Civilized Tribes” is up for debate, but just as a collection of commonplace recipes written by Native Americans cannot by virtue of the authors’ bloodlines miraculously become a collection of Native American recipes, nor by indulging in dubious identity politics can Elizabeth Warren and those of her disposition hide what they really are: ordinary people trying to get ahead. “Hard times,” Coco Chanel believed, “arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity.” Her faith will be tested come November.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate for National Review.


The Latest