This week on The Trip podcast, drinking strawberry medicine with Tiffany Deer, a cook who has made it her mission to revive traditional Mohawk cooking.
This slowride with Tiffany Deer through the Mohawk Mayberry of Kahnawake, Quebec, is a little closer to home for me than it might seem. The longest line of Americans in my family are the Dutch, my grandmother’s people, an agricultural that settled in central Jersey and up into the Hudson River Valley in the 1600s, founding little towns like Staatsburg, New York (Staats was my grandmother’s name). I see them in my mind’s eye building white clapboard Dutch reform churches, tilling the land and occasionally putting on frilly collars and carving up skinny turkeys to give thanks to Providence for their land. The reckoning that has not come, and may never come, is the full understanding that this was not their land. It was not virgin forest, it was not unclaimed dale, much of it was Mohawk country, the seat of the great Iroquois people ruled by clan-mother matriarchs and who traded and hunted from there to Canada, and actually allied themselves with the Dutch for a while, until disease and war and settler rapaciousness pushed them further and further north, into Canada, into these small pockets of land just across the St Lawrence River from Montreal.
And yet, the Mohawk persisted and have thrived in modern times. Whether through culture or genetics, they are said to have no fear of heights, so many of them became iron workers, builders of skyscrapers, called the Skywalkers long before George Lucas was born. They had, even, an outpost in New York City, a home away from home in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn called Little Caughnawaga. The money flowed from these high steel workers back to the original Caughnawaga, now called Kahnawake, has made this small reserve prim and prosperous, a place that offers both old and new ways of living. Tiffany Deer, the guest on this very special Thanksgiving episode, has a partner and father and grandfather who are or were all Skywalkers, is a cook. Her job, her joy, is to find the old recipes and ingredients, mix when needed with the new, and try to keep the memories from those earlier days alive on the plate.
We drank strawberry medicine and talked about hunting muskrat, cooking in the time before salt, and about the tense standoffs with white Montreal in her childhood. A warning on this episode: I probably pronounced Kahnawake five different ways in this episode, which is to say, I may still be too much Dutch to get Mohawk Thanksgiving right, but I so appreciate Tiffany’s generosity of spirit to let me try.
Here is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Tiffany.
Nathan Thornburgh: Let’s start, and talk about this amazing looking drink that you’ve made.
Tiffany Deer: Cheers! This is strawberry drink. You’ll notice you do have to chew, which is a fun part of the strawberry drink. Strawberries are one of our medicines, and this drink is mashed up strawberries, and you can sweeten it with any sweetener, I use maple syrup. This is the drink that you would share with any celebration or traditional festival, and is one of our favorites at pow-wows.
Thornburgh: It’s amazing, it’s incredibly delicious, could not think of a simpler drink, but it’s so good. What would you do to it otherwise? Yeah, even from the name on down, it’s like it’s strawberry drink, there’s no pretensions about it. It’s just really, really delicious strawberries.
Deer: I’m going to give you a tip. When you’re making your strawberry drink, freeze your berries. When it’s defrosted, it’ll smash better and it has a better consistency.
Thornburgh: When you say “medicine”, and I guess we can get into that a little bit in talking about Mohawk food in particular or Indigenous food more broadly, but how should a settler like myself understand the connection between food and medicine? Because when you buy this in a supermarket, you are not going down the medicine section, it’s the fruit or vegetable, right?
Deer: Well, it’s what Mother Earth has given us here that’ll help and nourish our bodies and our minds. Strawberries or any one of the berries grown here and around. We’re definitely focusing on local food, so for myself as well, I’m trying to better educate myself and what I know inside, like reaching back to that ancestral knowledge, trying to use what’s here, what we’ve grown, what we used to have, and our medicine.
Thornburgh: So it’s almost not a different relationship to food than non-Indigenous people have, but it’s the way of thinking about what it’s doing—because whether or not we are aware of it, the food that we eat outside of Indigenous culture is our medicine, it does affect our health and our bodies. Maybe we just have this very dim beginning of an understanding that that’s true, but for you it’s in the language about how you talk about food.
Deer: Yes. It’s the connection to our Mother Earth. We’ve grown it, and then what it gives us is like a gift from the Creator, and if you keep that in mind, you have that bond with the food that is more than just flavor.
Thornburgh: Our mad dash to maximize the sweet and salt and crisp and crunch. I was doing as much as I could to try to get some insight into what Mohawk cuisine and food was like, and one of the things that really stuck out to me was that salt was not a part of traditional Mohawk cooking. It’s stunning to me because salt is, of course, one of the great joys of life and also one of the great killers of man these days, but I guess the palate would’ve been quite different if you’re talking about food that isn’t salted, or even really spiced heavily in that way.
Deer: Yeah, when you haven’t grown up with something, then you know you’re not missing it, but once it is in your life, the lack thereof is quite noticeable. A lot of times with my catering company, people would want traditional food, and I had to take it with a grain of salt—pun, ha ha—because the food would be quite bland and boring if I did date it back 300 years ago to what we had, and what we were working with.
Thornburgh: How much authenticity are you ready to stomach?
Deer: Right, so really it’s fusion, what I’m producing now, what a lot of us are making and calling traditional food.
Thornburgh: Here we are right in the heart of Kahnawake, and we’re just a stone’s throw from a Mexican restaurant, and you said everybody’s crazy about Mexican food because once you discover salt and spice and flavor, then of course you gravitate toward it. Maybe even the Mohawks wouldn’t be ready for the full cuisine of yesteryear.
How would you define Mohawk cooking in that context, and how did it work with the catering that you’ve done and the cooking that you do?
Deer: In my mind, there are two separate baskets of Native food, or Mohawk food. One basket would be filled with our traditional food, which to me is what I grew up with—it’s meat pie, chicken and dumplings, the mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, turkey. When somebody says they’re having a wedding or an anniversary or a baby shower, “Oh, what are you serving?” “Oh, traditional,” you know automatically that that’s your lineup, that’s what you have to look forward to. That’s incredible, it’s delicious, but the other basket would be traditional food of our people, not what we’re consuming today but what we used to consume yesteryear, and that would be the Hubbard squash, the three sisters—corn, beans and squash—a lot of game.
Thornburgh: Which around here, what’s that comprised of?
Deer: It would be a lot of fish, because we’re right on the water, and then deer, and rabbit.
Thornburgh: The three sisters is interesting, because that’s a concept that comes up a lot in Mexico. I guess all of the Americas have this—it’s a way of planting where you plant your squash, and then the beans over it. For me, it’s a through line between the foods, and we’re joking about Mexican being super popular here, but—
Deer: That’s why—there’s a connection.
For the catering jobs that they specifically hired me to do Native flavors, smoked sturgeon would be my first call
Thornburgh: When you would do catering, what for you were some of these dishes where that mentality of mixing new flavor demands with old styles? Give me an example of a dish where that worked really well for you.
Deer: In my catering, a lot of it is geared for Indigenous events, so they’re calling me because they want to provide an Indigenous flavor, but then I also have the other side where I’m catering big movie productions. When you cater a movie production, there’s a layout of what you have to provide. Now, the fun that I get to do is throwing in my flavor, and a lot of it is butternut squash. It’s not the squash that would’ve been local and native to here, it would be that big Hubbard, but sometimes it’s hard to get your hands on a Hubbard, and a butternut squash, with that big, long neck, there’s a lot of good squash meat in there. Number one, if I threw squash in it, boom, I would call it Native.
Thornburgh: It’s like shorthand, a little something just to let you know that next to the cheese cubes and the sliced melon that you need to have for your movie catering, here’s a squash dish. How important is it to you that the key grip knows that he’s eating something that’s got a little Native touch to it?
Deer: It’s pretty important to me. I like to put it out there.
Thornburgh: You put it on a sign?
Deer: Yeah, or I’m standing in front of it, “By the way, this is so-and-so.”
Thornburgh: You are now entering unseated catering territory.
Deer: Then, for the catering jobs that they specifically hired me to do Native flavors, smoked sturgeon would be my first call, to try to get my hands on smoked sturgeon. Luckily, it’s [my husband] Paul’s brother, Danny, Danny Boy—and he’ll take a huge order—he’s got the best smoked sturgeon, and has the best name.
Thornburgh: His name is Danny Boy? That’s amazing.
Deer: I don’t think it’s on his birth certificate, but everybody knows him as Danny Boy.
Thornburgh: He’s got the hookup with the sturgeon?
Deer: Yeah, they go night-lining, and Paul grew up helping him his whole life. Then, from pulling in these gigantic sturgeons from the water, gutting them, heads off, the brining overnight, and then to smoke it, it’s an all-day process.
Thornburgh: How do you use it—where does it end up in the plate?
Deer: I’d say it’s like smoked salmon, where I would slice it nice and thin. It’s dry, but red on the outside and white on the inside, and it’s got this incredible smoky flavor, and it’s very oily, so it’s very rich. It’s delicious. Serve that with a nice aged cheddar and some crackers or beautiful bread.
Our car was pelted with rocks, and one came through the back window.
Thornburgh: Your sister’s a director, and we were just saying before we started to talk about her new movie, and that you and your kids were extras in it. I think it’s fascinating, and it’s also a big part of the story of this community—the Oka crisis in 1990. Can you give me the very brief rundown of what that was, because you lived through it as a child, and then what it was like re-enacting that?
Deer: The Oka crisis happened when I was 10 years old, and it was about a sacred pines area in Kanesatake, which is another Mohawk reserve about an hour and 15 minutes from here. There’s a golf course bordering these very old pines, and the golf course wanted to extend and make a nine-hole into an 18-hole, which they would have to cut down a big piece of this sacred pineland. The people there put their foot down.
Thornburgh: I’m already mad. From nine to 18 holes is really a holy mission, but Jesus Christ, okay.
Deer: The contractors weren’t stopping, so nothing was happening. So our people took a hard stance, and put up blockades, turned over cars, and made a barrier saying, “You’re not going to cut these trees, and you’re not going to encroach on this traditional land.” To brother up with them—Kahnawake is an hour and a half away, but they’re our other Mohawk reserve, we’re brother and sisters—we blocked the Mercier Bridge, which is a major highway connecting South Shore to the island of Montreal.
That made major headlines, and we blocked it completely for—I don’t remember exactly how many days—but it was two or three months. Really, the world kind of stopped at that point. The highways weren’t running the same, there were helicopters all over the sky, the military and the army was there. It was really intense. You’re not worried about going to work every day anymore. Really, life stopped, and it was all about this crisis and taking a stand and being strong.
Thornburgh: One of the unique things about this town is that you’re the place where the pain can be put onto Montreal, because you’re right across the river, you control the bridge, it’s in your area. Even though it’s happening up in Oka, you were the ones who could be, and had to be, the pointy end of the spear here.
Deer: We brought it, yeah, brought the story big time, for sure. Living in it was exciting for me as a kid, it was like being in an action movie. I don’t remember being that scared, except if I saw my mom scared or nervous or stressed out, then I felt it a little bit. But otherwise, the highways were bare, we were biking anywhere you wanted to bike. There were food bank halls set up around town, so me and my sister would go and pick out supplies, because at regular groceries stores food wasn’t coming in the same way as before. People were more neighborly, or borrowing stuff, and then the typical rat-race lifestyle stopped. It was like summer vacation.
This is my memory, but beyond a 10-year-old, and I was very positive and optimistic, still am, but beyond that, it was a very real situation and very traumatic. The bridge crossing, when a lot of women, children, elders decided to leave town because there were rumors that the army would come in, and then it might get violent. Everybody had a gun, our warriors were standing strong and ready, and so many, many people decided to leave, and we formed a convoy to cross the bridge.
Our side opened it up, and it ended up taking many hours for the other side, which was controlled by the army and the Sûreté du Québec, probably, it took them a long time. We waited on the bridge all day, and then when they finally opened it up, there was a huge angry mob on the other side.
Thornburgh: Of Quebecois.
Deer: Yeah, yelling awful things and hatred and throwing rocks, so that became very real, very quickly for me. It definitely was a formative time of my sister’s life; she was 12. Our car was pelted with rocks, and one came through the back window. It was me and two cousins crouching down, and I remember my mom screaming, “Get down, get down, get down!” She was crying and screaming, and then the window breaks and we’re covered in glass, and you could hear the anger outside the windows. By that time we had a bunch of cars lined up, I don’t remember how many, but at least 40, 50 cars, a convoy.
Thornburgh: To evacuate from town.
Deer: Each car had as many people as you can fit in them, in the big town cars in 1990. We were leaving because of the threat of invasion from the army—it was rumored that they would come in, and we didn’t know how violent it would become. A lot of us were holding very serious weapons and guns.
Thornburgh: Already the warrior society was the kind of self defense group, and they were here to defend.
Deer: Yeah, absolutely.
Thornburgh: There had already been a death or two, I think, right?
Thornburgh: That’s the moment for you when it wasn’t summer vacation, it got scary and serious.
Deer: Right, yeah.
Thornburgh: This caravan of cars got onto the bridge, and then what happened?
Deer: We waited on top of the bridge, which is a surreal experience when you’re crossing it your whole life and now you’re playing on it, throwing rocks down and seeing the different perspective-
Thornburgh: Because it was still blockaded, and you couldn’t just go across to the other side.
Deer: Right, it was still blockaded, yeah, both sides had a block.
Deer: I think about four hours on the bridge. Then when it was time, it was a slow process, and now we have a bunch of cars and we’re driving slowly, so it wasn’t like we could speed past this gathering mob that had gathered on the other side, we kind of crawled through them.
Thornburgh: You got met by an angry mob of Quebecois people on the other side, who now, after a couple months of having the bridge down.
Deer: A lot of hate, a lot of, yeah, inconvenience.
Thornburgh: For all of the reasons that the whole thing started, that had not been solved. What do you remember about going through the mob there?
Deer: It was really scary, my mother was screaming for us to get down. I did peek over the window, because I’m a kid, so I had to see what was going on, and you just saw a ton of people, men, women, standing on big piles, like the road being turned up, like the gravel.
Thornburgh: Like asphalt.
Tiffany Deer: Asphalt, yeah, mounds of asphalt, and they were just throwing all different sizes and pieces at our cars.
Thornburgh: Wow. Knowing that, having it very obvious that these were elderly, children, women basically, going through. This affected you, obviously and your sister was a little bit older, and she was 12 then?
Deer: Yeah, she was 12.
Thornburgh: Now, how many years down, we’re almost 30 years past?
Thornburgh: She is making a movie that you have taken part in. What’s the scope of the movie, what’s it about?
Deer: It’s basically a coming-of-age story of a 12-year-old girl, and how this changed her life. My sister, the main character is basically loosely based on her, and Beans has a younger sister.
Thornburgh: Okay, Beans is her main character, that’s a name in the movie too, Beans?
Deer: Yes. And the younger sister, her name is Ruby in it, kind of based on me.
Thornburgh: How are you liking Ruby?
Deer: I met her once—she’s actually my friend’s daughter—and I almost cried because it was like looking through a time machine. I saw myself so much in this little actress, but I met her being herself, not on set, not acting. She’s bubbly and so enthusiastic. When I said, “You’re kind of playing me when I was a kid,” she was like, “Wow!” and bouncing off the walls. I just related to her so much immediately.
Thornburgh: That’s awesome, but then not just your on-screen you, but the actual you now with your kids, you played a part in it.
Deer: Yeah, we were extras on the day where we had the bridge. Tracy did not block the bridge for this scene, it was already being, construction was happening. One lane, one whole side of the bridge was already closed, so they utilized that, but regardless, we had all the old cars on the bridge, and we had it completely set up with the old barricade. There was army, all our cars, all the women, so a lot of the cars passing on the other side, they were waiting in tons of traffic, which always happens when the Mercier has construction on it, but now they’re yelling.
Thornburgh: Oh no.
Deer: Either seeing the cameras and knowing it’s a production, and being like, “Whoa, cool!” or the opposite, “F you!”
Thornburgh: Yelling the same shit that they yelled at you in 1990.
Deer: The same, right. There were moments being an extra, and now I’m a mother and I had my four kids with me, when it was a completely different experience, being a mother trying to protect her kids, and living through that. Tracy had the actors, there was the army, they had their guns, and one of them searched our car, so we had to keep repeating it, because you do takes over and over again. There were moments where my heart was racing, and I know now when you’re in this industry where you recreate traumatic events, it is important to have people to talk to afterward, and have that in place just in case.
Thornburgh: In case you’re re-traumatized.
Thornburgh: I’m sure it lends credibility and authenticity to the portrayal that you and your kids did, but that’s tough stuff, having gone through it. I’m sure for your sister, to spend this year of her life or however long it’s taken to make the movie, of just diving into those tough moments…
Deer: Yeah, she’s so strong, such an amazing storyteller.