For Nico Albert, moving to Oklahoma as a teenager was a kind of homecoming. Her family’s frequent moves had finally brought her to live in the Cherokee Nation of which she is a member. “It was an opportunity and a calling that highlighted my responsibility to reconnect to my heritage and community,” she said.
As a chef, she does this through food.
Albert vividly remembers the experience of her first Cherokee community gathering. It was tied to the seasons and food, as many are. People foraged bountiful batches of spring wild onions and gathered together at a community center. They cooked the delicate alliums with eggs, alongside other traditional dishes like bean bread, grape dumplings, and salt pork. “I saw this food and realized this is what I have to do,” said Albert. “It started my journey.”
That journey focuses on reviving North American indigenous foodways through cooking and education and re-establishing food sovereignty for Native people. While Albert’s own Cherokee heritage began her journey, her cuisine encompasses a range of Indigenous Nations across the country, most of which she learned to make through oral and hands-on traditions with elders and traditionally-raised friends.
Every time Albert makes fry bread, for example, she remembers the Cherokee holiday spent with her friend Danita’s family. The cultural celebration takes place in Tahlequah, Oklahoma and is full of dancing, a craft market, a blow gun competition, and a farmers market. She was invited to her friend’s home for “Indian tacos,” which are served with fry bread instead of tortillas. “I was already making fry bread on my own at restaurants, but her mom taught me her little tips and tricks,” she said. “It was definitely the best I have ever had. I make next level fry bread now.”
Over the years as an executive chef, Albert incorporated Native dishes into restaurant menus and offered catering on the side. The pandemic forced her to take time for reflection. She decided to follow her passion for indigenous food revitalization and opened Burning Cedar Indigenous Foods, a catering, educational, and consulting service specializing in Native cuisine. Dishes range from pre-contact ancestral foods to modern meals reimagining indigenous ingredients.
Indigenous cuisine has a range and flexibility like any other world food way; it includes home-cooked comfort food and high-end gourmet preparations. Burning Cedar’s menu suggestions include simple fare like southeast style succotash with butter beans, sweet corn, peppers, tomato; a red cedar grazing board with fresh and dried fruits, nuts, cheeses, local honey, and preserves; and kanvchi, a maple sweetened pecan and black walnut porridge with fresh berries.
More complex dishes include fried yuca croquettes with a queso oaxaca center and red chile dipping sauce; wild rice fritters of smoked trout with cranberry black walnut relish; sage & rose hip brined roasted turkey with a juniper-infused pan gravy; and Pawnee blue corn cupcakes with sunflower frosting.
Albert intentionally sources ingredients from Native businesses. That ensures the food is grown ethically, sustainably, and locally, with restorative practices that fight climate change. She explained, “Reciprocity is such a part of indigenous culture. When we see the plants, water, air, and bison not as commodities but as gifts, it reminds us of our relationship and our responsibility to give back. With Native suppliers, my gift of money invests in people investing in the land.”
For Albert, it is also a crucial way to support Native food sovereignty, defined on Burning Cedar’s website as, “a movement to reclaim the traditional foodways of our ancestors in an effort to restore the physical and spiritual health of our people. “Colonization disrupted the traditional healthful North American diet composed of indigenous ingredients. Forgoing processed foods and returning to this kind of cooking nourishes body and soul. The website continues, “Our ways, our memories, our cultural identity, live on inside us with every bite.”
Albert purchases bison meat from Butcher House Meats in Hominy, Oklahoma. Here, the Osage Nation invested some of their Covid relief money into a state-of-the-art meat processing facility. Supply chain issues affected butchering facilities during the pandemic, causing backlogs and spoiled meat. At Butcher House, the Osage has guaranteed processing capabilities for the beef, pork, and bison from their ranch.
As a tribal business, Butcher House prioritizes feeding elders and the needy in their community, then sells surplus meat. Albert knows her purchases support their tribal programs for addiction recovery and after school care, as well as access to healthy, traditional foods. It is food sovereignty at work.
Albert’s mission to revitalize indigenous foodways carries through her work as a menu consultant for restaurants seeking to incorporate Native foods. She worked this fall with Kawi Café, a coffee shop owned by the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah. Her reinvented menu will support a Native business, introduce people to the goodness of indigenous foods, and provide a destination experience for people visiting the Cherokee Nation.
Education weaves throughout Burning Cedar’s work. Albert jokes that people can’t eat her food without getting a lecture. Her pre-meal talks introduce the origin of some of the ingredients, like heirloom Cherokee Tan Pumpkins. To-date, Burning Cedar has reached a Cherokee family reunion, an intertribal law group, wellness conferences, school groups, and non-Native corporate functions with this mission.
Additionally, Albert offers teaching demonstrations where skills are interwoven with stories. After telling about the origin of corn, she makes hominy, which includes the time-intensive dehulling of corn with water and wood ash. This process unlocks the grain’s nutrients, and hominy is a key ingredient in bean bread and venison soup.
While Albert often speaks about Native foodways and culture, she makes no claims to be an expert. Her path is rediscovering, learning, sharing, and preserving these Native foodways, while relying on and deferring to the elders and traditionally raised people who keep the knowledge.
Ultimately, Albert wants to create positive narratives about Native people through outreach, education, and delicious food. “We are discovering the depth of efforts to suppress or downplay indigenous contributions,” she said. “So many foods that people take for granted are Native to America: beans, corn, tomatoes, chiles, potatoes. Our ancestors discovered complex and technologically-advanced methods to process them and get the nutrients into their bodies. Our contribution to the food world is huge.”
Nico Albert’s Fry Bread Recipe
(makes about 15 pieces)
- 3 cups self-rising flour, plus excess for forming bread
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1½ cups hot water
Place flour in a medium sized bowl and make a well in the center. Add buttermilk and hot water all at once, and use hands to stir until all flour is evenly incorporated and a very loose dough/batter comes together. Let dough rest at least 30 minutes.
Fill a large heavy cast iron skillet or dutch oven about 3/4 full with vegetable oil, place over medium high heat. Heat the oil until it reaches about 350°F. Have a clean platter or bowl ready with 2-3 cups of flour, for portioning the breads. Portion the dough into about 1/3 cup portions, one by one, and place into the pile of loose flour. Dust all sides of each dough ball with flour, and use hands to pat the dough out into a 1″ thick patty, being careful not to overwork the dough. Carefully place the dough into the hot oil and allow to cook until golden brown on the underside. Use tongs to flip the bread over and cook until golden brown on the reverse side. Transfer the cooked bread onto a tray lined with paper towels or a clean linen to absorb any excess grease. Repeat with the remaining dough.