Are you game?

Learning to eat like aboriginals with Where People Feast: An Indigenous People's Cookbook


Nutritional revelation reaches the public consciousness these days as a kind of fireworks, erratic alternations of bomb blasts and star bursts, terror and jubilation (eggs are bad; no, they're good!) — but amid the flash and smoke, an understanding does grow stronger. The understanding is that a healthy diet for our kind is some version of the hunter-gatherer diet, which we've evolved to thrive on. So: lots of fruits and vegetables, nuts and berries, some fish and lean meat, along with a wariness about cereal crops, sugar in its many forms, industrial fat, and processing generally.

The archetypal hunter-gatherer diets in North America were those of the Indians, of course, and while theirs is largely a lost world, it's not completely so. A glowing shard of the continent's aboriginal culinary past can be found in Where People Feast: An Indigenous People's Cookbook, by Dollie and Annie Watts (Arsenal Pulp, $21.95 paper), which not only is that rare bird, an Indian cookbook, but also provides considerable guidance on how to deal with such game meats as venison, elk, and buffalo (though bison are cultivated now). The book may be especially appealing to Californians and other West Coasters since many of its recipes are drawn from the lore of British Columbia's Gitk'san First Nation and make liberal use of ingredients (besides game) familiar to us, such as Dungeness crab, king salmon, oysters, and clams.

Many of us already know how to handle that stuff. Game meat is — sorry, can't resist — another kettle of fish. Its leanness is a boon to human health but at the same time makes it harder to handle; it dries out and turns tough more readily than fattier meats like beef. Many of Where People Feast's recipes, interestingly, use elk meat and venison in ground form — for meatballs, shepherd's pie, and pâté. When whole pieces of meat are called for, in grilled elk medallions, say, marination is standard procedure.

Apart from the perils of dryness and toughness, game meat is also ... gamy. Its scent and flavor are intensely meaty. Recently I was given some ground moose meat (moose are the largest members of the deer family) and made a Bolognese sauce out of it. The sauce was wonderfully rich, but the smell of it filled the house and flowed into the garden, a kind of fireworks for the nose.

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