That’s the premise of a Cooking Channel TV show in which a crew of hard-core New York foodies were introduced to traditional native cooking by Arizona’s Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community (SPRMIC).
SRPMIC is made up of desert peoples with two distinct backgrounds and cultures—the Pima (Akimel O’odham or River People) and the Maricopa (Xalychidom Piipaash or People Who Live Toward the Water ). Current tribal members are believed to be related to the Hohokam (Those Who Have Gone), an ancient civilization that farmed the Salt River Valley as early as 300 B.C. These were farmers who could make the desert bloom, providing grain for the military and immigrants in the mid-1800s. And today, despite on-going water rights disputes, their descendants lead a farming economy responsible for a variety of crops from melons and onions to potatoes, broccoli, carrots and cotton.
What tribal farmers grew was what they ate and partly for that reason, Cher Thomas (Pima, Cocopah) was asked by The Cooking Channel to serve as Culinary Cultural Ambassador for an episode of a new show called Eden Eats, where hostess Eden Grinshpan—a Grande Diploma graduate of London’s Le Cordon Bleu—uses her TV time to explore international cuisines found in America’s backyard. The show is based on how communities reclaim their culture and customs through food.
Enter the 28-year-old Thomas who describes herself as “an everyday person who loves restaurants” and “the only Native American Yelp-er [Yelp.com user] in the Phoenix area to provide online restaurant reviews.” Her so-called Yelp-ing garnered her the attention of scouts for the TV show who wanted to film a Native American segment.
A recent visit brought them to the Phoenix Valley where Thomas provided guidance in filming a local family-run food stand as well as kitchen time in her mother’s house in the Gila River community where they made the traditional bread (chumuth) to go with red chile stew.
“I was very young when I started cooking on the reservation and Mom taught me how to make the bread—an Indian version of a large tortilla—where pieces of flour dough are flattened and cooked by hand,” Thomas said.
“We picked bread and stew because of my memories of feast day where the village gathered and with a sense of community made enough to feed the entire village. My people live in the desert where everybody looked after each other and food was the fuel for survival. My best memories are when food is a shared experience involving friends and family.”
The production crew visited (but did not film at) the James Beard award-winning Fry Bread House and the tribe’s 5-star Kai Restaurant located in the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa. Instead, they recorded happenings at a simple family-run ramada called The Food Stand operated by a tribal family serving fry bread, beans and traditional Pima foodstuffs. On-camera discussion involved survival methods during desert droughts and how the Pima/Maricopa peoples have fed themselves by living off the land for centuries.
A second filming location was at Thomas’ mother’s house in the Gila River Indian Community and included a cultural discussion of traditional Pima foods while preparing red chile stew. “We talked about traditions within our culture and shared ideologies as well as cooking tips,” said Thomas. “When Grinshpan tasted the stew and said it reminded her of chile con carne, I had to remind her that chile con carne tasted like our stew because we came first.”
When the players were both cooked-out and fooded-out, they decided to work off the calories with a social dance, one that Thomas has been doing since she was a teenager. “Chef Eden took off her cooking apron and joined in, a bit lost at times, but all of us, locals and out-of-towners, had fun.”
The visit was a learning experience for the Big Apple attendees who were awed and enamored with their introduction to Native American culture. “How do you share a centuries-old experience?” Thomas asked. “All I could do was present some elements of who we are—a hospitable people who have stuck together to persevere and survive, doing it together and always feeding one another.”