By Found Michigan | May 3, 2012
So you want to be a “locavore?” Think buying stuff at your local farmer’s market or growing a little 4×8 raised-bed garden will get you in the club? Well, a group of 25 volunteer research subjects from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula have just raised the bar for membership. For the next year, their version of “local” will only include foods that were part of the Great Lakes diet prior to the year 1600.
As part of a new study called the Decolonizing Diet Project (DDP)—conducted through the School of Native American Studies at Northern Michigan University in Marquette—these intrepid volunteers have vowed for one full year to swap out a percentage of their normal diet for Great Lakes indigenous foods that the region’s original inhabitants would have eaten prior to European colonization. The purpose of the study is to explore the relationship between humans and regional native foods; components include an ethnobotanist (for native plant identification), a physician (to check up on participants’ physical changes), group outings and potlucks, daily journaling for research subjects, and a master list of “DDP-eligible” foods. So, things like squash, bison, and wild leeks are in; things like tomatoes, cheese, and chocolate are out. What can’t be bought from local suppliers must be grown, hunted, fished, or foraged—meaning your next meal might be waiting in the woods as opposed to the grocery store.
The project is the brainchild of Dr. Martin Reinhardt, an assistant professor of Native American Studies at NMU and an Anishinaabe Ojibway citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. We rang him up at his offices in Marquette to talk about how the new diet’s going, how much bark he’s eaten, where this all fits in with the locavore trend, and what it means for all Michiganders.
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Found Michigan: So, every diet comes with its own set of rules. What exactly are your research subjects getting themselves into?
Marty: Well, they had the choice of committing at any level between 25 and 100 percent. Of course, most of the folks chose the lower end—25 percent. We had a few that chose to do higher percentages, between 75 and 100 percent. We have two—including myself—that have committed 100 percent. We originally had four committed at the 100 percent level, but one dropped out and another dropped back to 99 percent. That probably was due to chocolate or beer. Maybe both.
FM: So you’ve been following this diet 100 percent since March?
Marty: Yeah. I did mess up, I already can’t claim 100 percent. I was out shopping and bought some parsnips; in my memory, parsnips were part of the diet. I did not have my master food list with me and I was going based on what I remembered. So I got home and I cooked up some nice hashbrowns with parsnips, using sweet potatoes and sunchokes, and then I was reading through the master food list afterwards and that’s when it hit me that it wasn’t parsnips on the list—it was actually cow parsnips. That just goes to show you it’s not an easy diet to follow by any means. You have to really know your foods.
FM: Well, in your defense, who’s ever even heard of cow parsnips?
Marty: Yeah, well, no excuse for me not being more diligent.
FM: So other than cow parsnips, what else is on the DDP “menu”?
Marty: Well, we’ve been eating a lot of grass and bark. That’s about it.
FM: Wait, really?
Marty: I’m just kidding! That’s what a lot of people think though, believe it or not. People ask, “So what’dya eat, bark?” and I’m like “Okkaay … well, yes we have eaten bark.” [Laughs] But no, the mainstay is the staple food from this region: wild rice. Other starches include sweet potatoes, pumpkin, squashes. Meats include bison, venison, turkey, fish, a lot of indigenous fish …
FM: Sounds good.
Marty: Yeah, and of course duck eggs are kind of our mainstay for eggs. Trenary Ducks—[a business] just outside Marquette—they provide duck eggs from a duck species that are derived from mallards. They’ve actually marked their eggs to where we can identify which are DDP eligible and which ones are not. So they’re accessible. Not a whole lot of us are competent in identifying wild bird eggs, so it’s probably best we stick with something more domestic.
FM: Sounds like a good plan.
Marty: And as far as vegetables, we’re eating a lot of wild leeks, sunchokes, fiddleheads. There are some dandelions that are native to the area and others that are not; we haven’t been very lucky finding the native species, though. They’re the smaller ones that are closer along the lakeshores. We’re going out to harvest cattails this week, and the trout lilies are ready now. Basically, if it’s not available on the market, we have to count on each other for identifying and foraging for it.
FM: Alright, so, I have to ask: How does one cook with cattails?
Marty: Well, you can eat ‘em raw. The sprouts are really nice and tender and sweet, and you can just peel back the outer leaves and eat the heart.
FM: No kidding.
Marty: You can also use the seed kind of like corn, and you can use the pollen to make flour. You can also use the rhizomes of the cattail to make flour by pounding it down. It’s very versatile. Even in the late summer you can still peel back the outer leaves and eat the heart—right up until the time it starts to turn color. Once a cattail starts to turn tan then it gets hard and woody, and it’s hard to find much you can eat on it.
FM: It’s kind of amazing you can get so much from one plant that we don’t think of as edible. But what about the failures—anything from the diet you’ve tried so far that you wouldn’t eat again?
Marty: Well, for the most part, boiled white pine bark—it wasn’t bad. I could see it mixed with soup and stuff. It’s a bit stringy and woody—as it should be, obviously, it’s a tree. But probably it wouldn’t be the first thing on my menu if I had other choices.
FM: What about favorites?
Marty: Sunflower oil. Pumpkin seed flour—that’s really good. I incorporate that into muffins when I bake now. And beaver—I’d never eaten beaver before, but I enjoyed that. It was very tender.
FM: Beaver … this is a dumb question, but did someone, like, catch it?
Marty: Yes, a trapper. So that was very tasty. And for the first time in my life I’ve created my own smoked venison jerky. Now that is very tasty. One of my favorites from the DDP.
FM: What about the cooking aspect? Your research group meets for regular potlucks; has anyone brought a “DDP dish” that was really creative?
Marty: Yeah! At one of our recent potlucks, one of the research subjects brought fermented leek spread with some fried polenta fingers. It was really good—I never would have thought of fermenting leeks for a spread, that was kinda cool.
FM: Beyond the fun stuff like potlucks and foraging, though, this is a serious research study. I know it’s only been going on for about a month, but have you had any interesting findings so far?
Marty: One of the first things we encountered was the hoops you had to jump through just to go get something like white pine bark. Our ancestors, all they had to do was just go out, find a tree, and get the bark. What do we have to do? We have to contact the USDA, the forestry service, apply for a special permit, identify the tree, go out, locate it, report back, and that’s all before we even taste it.
It’s also been really interesting to see the impact in the surrounding community. The Marquette Food Co-op has probably been the most responsive to our needs: They actually identified foods on their shelves that are DDP eligible and even put a little flier out at the front of their store so we’d have an easier time identifying them.
We’re also impacting some of the smaller farmers and gardeners; for instance, we just went out to Gwinn the other day and purchased 12 pounds of sunchokes from a gardener. She was like, “Yay, I got me some money!” and we were like, “Yay! We got us some DDP-eligible food!” So it’s a win-win for everybody.
FM: Well, and as a farmer I’m sure you’d be excited to sell 12 pounds of something like sunchokes, which many people wouldn’t know what to do with, much less even heard of.
Marty: Yeah. I guess the other way we’re impacting the community is that through the research subjects eating a DDP-eligible menu, their loved ones are also eating this food and they’re discovering new tastes. Also—people are tired of washing dishes. I’m ready to hire a dishwasher for my house. That has been an adjustment, because you can’t simply go to McDonald’s and say, “Hey, I’d like that DDP Special.” No, you go home, you cook, you clean up after you cook, or you let the plates stack up. Either way, it’s causing some stress.
FM: And as part of this project, the research subjects are also getting regular health exams to monitor any physical changes. Any guesses as to what you’ll see at the first check-ups?
Marty: I think we’re going to see an overall weight loss for most of the research subjects, especially for the ones committed at a higher level. After the first two weeks I was already down eight pounds. I think our lipid profile results are going to show some amazing differences, too. I know for myself my cholesterol has gone way down, just within a month—I can tell. That’s because I’m a cheeseaholic. I love me some cheese.
FM: So, can we talk about the so-called locavore movement? Seems like everyone nowadays is jumping on the “eat local” bandwagon. But you guys are taking that idea a big step further.
Marty: Yeah, in fact we have folks who are part of the DDP who consider themselves locavores, but they had only thought about things like, where does my food come from, is it raised on a farm locally, how many resources did it take to get from the farm to my plate? But they hadn’t thought about the cultural or geographic origins of the foods. So they were eating local farm-raised beef and not necessarily thinking, where did this beef come from originally? Or, where did that tomato come from? Of course, tomatoes are indigenous American but they’re indigenous South American; they’re not North American. And they’re certainly not something that was in the Great Lakes Region until very recently in our history. So we’re causing some folks to reexamine how they think of the local-ness of food.
Found Michigan: I have to admit, I’m really into gardening, and reading the things your team is up to made me want to look into the seeds I’ve started this year—maybe add a variety that’s native to this region. It’s a really cool concept, because if you live in the Great Lakes region, it’s part of your heritage, in a way.
Marty: You know, the other day someone asked me why should anyone care about Native American studies. And my response was, first of all, if we’re concerned about American studies—if we’re studying who we are as Americans—how can we not be concerned about Native American studies? It’s part of who we are—and that’s not just the indigenous people. That’s everyone.
FM: That’s especially a good thing to remember in Michigan, too.
Marty: Yes. Sometimes we forget we live in a place that has such a deep history. These fields, these woods and streams and these animals and plants—they’ve seen humans come and go for hundreds of thousands of years. As humans, we forget about those relationships. We have to remember to remember that we’re part of an ecosystem, not just here to take what we can and go. It’s a different philosophy of location.
FM: So … I have one last question. What will you be most excited to eat when this research project is done?
Marty: Well, cheese of course! [Laughs] Yeah, as much as I hate to admit it, I probably will be looking forward to being able to eat lasagna or something like that. You know? That’s one of the things I miss the most right now—cheese and potatoes.
Marty Reinhardt is the lead researcher for the Decolonizing Diet Project, which runs through March 25, 2013. To learn more about the project, see the master food list, and follow along with participants’ journals and photos, visit decolonizingdietproject.blogspot.com.
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