Chef Brit Reed Brings Political Activism, Indigenous Traditions to the Table | Civil Eats

Chef Brit Reed Brings Political Activism, Indigenous Traditions to the Table

The chef of Choctaw heritage has undertaken a long journey of reconnecting with her roots while also helping Native Americans protect and reclaim their foods.

Photo © Katherine Kehrli.

For a supper club dinner celebrating her graduation from the Seattle Culinary Academy earlier this year, Brit Reed, a chef of Choctaw heritage came up with a recipe that blended Indigenous and non-Indigenous American ingredients with new techniques. Whipping together a brine of apple cider vinegar, cinnamon, and American allspice, she pickled a native species of persimmon, Diospyros virginiana—a richer, more flavorful cousin of the more common Asian persimmon—then chilled it into a gelée. Then, she ground black walnuts into a purée, plated the pickled persimmons and some watercress, and topped the dish with toasted walnuts and popped wild rice.

The dish was a harbinger of her bright career as a chef and an advocate for Native health and foodways, in which she highlights foraged, local ingredients, precolonial, nutrient-packed foods, and creative culinary technique. For Reed, using Native American ingredients is part of a larger philosophy of reclaiming indigenous diets and honoring diverse Native American traditions.

Her food traditions are rooted in a deep, conscious political activism, which led her to author a 2015 essay entitled “Food Sovereignty is Tribal Sovereignty.” Also in 2015, she launched an Indigenous food social media campaign with a private Facebook group of the same name now over 7,000 strong, inviting Indigenous people involved in food practices including hunting, fishing, nonprofit work, and gastrodiplomacy to network, share information, empowering themselves and one another.

Born in Dallas and adopted at five months old by a white family in Dallas, Reed grew up only an hour and a half away from the Choctaw Nation capitol of Durant, Oklahoma. Even so, she did not learn about her Native heritage until she was in fifth grade studying the Trail of Tears, and her adoptive mother mentioned she was Choctaw. This sparked a deep hunger to learn about her ancestry.

“Since there was a real lack of access to realistic, truthful representations of Native people in the media, when I had the chance to reconnect with Native communities, and later Choctaw communities, it drove me to try to find the root of things—to make sure what I was learning and taking in was correct,” Reed says. “This is still very much a part of my personality—to not be satisfied with a given narrative, to dig deeper.”

Brit Reed (left) cooks during I-Collective's 2017 NYC Thankstaking pop-up series. (Photo © <a href="">Elizabeth Hoover</a>)

Brit Reed (left) cooks during I-Collective’s 2017 NYC Thankstaking pop-up series. (Photo © Elizabeth Hoover)

Reed says her adoptive parents’ love for the kitchen and regular family meals instilled a sense of importance around food. At Evergreen State College in Washington State she concentrated on food policy, tribal governance, and tribal food sovereignty while pursuing a Masters in Public Administration.

In 2016, invited by Karina Walters, a Choctaw member and the founder of the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute, Reed cooked on the Choctaw Trail of Tears, walking the direct route and preparing plant-based foods for Native Americans facing diabetes and chronic disease.

Reed now lives on a Coast Salish reservation in Washington, where she works for a diabetes program at the local clinic in Tulalip, creating meal plans that she describes as empowering, due to their ability to connect tribal members to their culinary history. With her culinary collective, I-Collective, Reed frequently hosts pop-ups that seek to revive ancient customs, featuring Indigenous, often foraged, ingredients.

Civil Eats recently spoke with Reed about how she came to rediscover the Native foods of her tribe and her work to help other people regain and revive their Indigenous foods and cultures.

How do you and I-Collective educate people about the impact of Native American foods on the world?

Unfortunately, people don’t realize the history of Indigenous food. Seventy percent of the food in markets originally came from the Americas, including a lot of things considered base ingredients, like tomatoes in Italian cuisine. Where would Asian cuisines be without chilies? Potatoes—people think they’re from Ireland, but they’re from the Americas.

The colonization of our native foods happened without our consent, for better or for worse—that process occurred with native foods, with our medicines and plants, things integral and sacred to us. Much like rice is integral to Asian cuisines, corn is that way to us and quinoa to the Quechua [of South America]. [Quinoa’s rapid rise in popularity] had a dramatic effect on the health of communities.

What are some of your most beloved ancestral dishes?

Smoked salmon is always a favorite of mine. Tanchi lobona, which means corn. And poshofa, which is historically made with corn and hominy, and whatever kind of game is available—venison or rabbit or squirrel. Now, it’s made with pork. That happened because fur trading killed all the deer in our territory, so we used the pigs left by the Spanish. It’s a simple dish, but the more it’s stewed, the better.

Nvni Homma Sholobachi Tuk (smoked salmon, mussels, foraged mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, and potato crisps) from Reed's capstone meal. Photo © Katherine Kehrli.

Nvni Homma Sholobachi Tuk (smoked salmon, mussels, foraged mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, and potato crisps) from Reed’s capstone meal at Seattle Culinary Academy. (Photo © Katherine Kehrli)

What role does corn play in Choctaw culinary culture?

Corn is not a traditional food for certain tribes. But corn is very important for my tribe historically, especially prior to being Christianized—we’re a very heavily Christian tribe right now. Much like how Indigenous peoples across the world have used Catholicism to bury their traditional spiritual ways, cultures, and philosophies inside, Choctaws did this as well.

I remember reading that corn had been considered pretty sacred; we had harvest ceremonies recognizing the sacredness. There are different stories about how it came to us: like with a bird flying from what is now Mexico, dropping seeds along the way. It was a staple food, and it was the responsibility of [Choctaw] women to grow corn.

If you look at older recipes, the cuisine heavily [uses] corn. There are so many types of cornbread: it’s in our soups, in our traveling foods. At one time, there were 8,000 varieties of corn here in America, though we didn’t know it. When you go to the grocery store, you get two or three, maybe four varieties of corn. If you go to seed banks, you can see a wider variety. Even there, it’s not what it used to be. I’m always blown away by the vast differences of what’s available, whether it’s deep purple—so much it’s almost black—or glass corn.

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How do you learn more about traditional Choctaw cuisine?

I’m fairly fortunate to have Ian Thompson [as a mentor]. He has a Ph.D. and he did a lot of research because his wife got Type 2 diabetes, so they went on a strict traditional Choctaw diet. I’m thankful to him and Devon [Abbott Mihesuah], who wrote Recovering Our Ancestors’ Gardens, which focuses on the history of what happened. I have stood on their shoulders since they did this work.

How do today’s Choctaw recipes compare to their pre-Colombian versions?

Many recipes are full of postcolonial ingredients, and I’m trying to go beyond say, the five well-known Choctaw recipes. I try to get my hands on all the written material I can regarding eyewitness accounts of Choctaws. Honestly, some of these things might even be false. I’ve been told several times that when the University of Washington was doing research between 1910 and 1930, elders would see them coming up the road and would deliberately tell [tribe members] to give false information to not give [researchers] access to those foods. So, some of those things I read with a grain of salt. People actively tried to protect it by giving out false information at the time.

So, knowing that the Choctaw protected their recipes, how do you find authentic recipes to decolonize Native diets?

I have definitely talked with elders about what their traditional foods are. Through the work I do with the Yappalli, through being able to create more ties with community and hoping to go down [to Choctaw reservations] to create more ties. By foraging. It’s a work in progress.

What role does foraging play?

There are traditional foods that both the Coast Salish and Choctaw people ate. One is nettles—they’re kind of painful [to gather], but good for arthritis and inflammation. I also like gathering salmonberries that come up in the spring. I like to gather the blueberries and wild strawberries that grow here in the Pacific Northwest. They’re much smaller and a lot more flavorful, but not as prolific as blackberry. There’s an invasive species called Himalayan blackberry and another, indigenous one that’s smaller and more flavorful.

How would you feel if Native American foods were suddenly appropriated in many non-Native restaurants?

Indigenous people are finally taking back our cuisine and creating access to those foods we haven’t had since we were taken from our reservations, and I think people now see that and they think it’s a trend, when it’s not. It’s us embracing us and our foods and our culture and our spirituality.

When The Herbfarm Restaurant [in Seattle], a place that has a pricey rotating tasting menu, did a tasting menu called “Land of the Totem,” it was problematic for several different reasons. First of all, this is not the land of the totem. Certainly in British Columbia there was totem making, but not here. They also perpetuated this idea of the vanishing Indian, as if we’re not here, as if we don’t have a very strong culture which we do have in the Northwest, even more so than some other tribes.

They also perpetuated this idea that they were bringing back all of these dishes, salmon head soups or whatever. The recipes were from a woman who was married to someone Native and she had been granted access, but not everyone is supposed to have access. With Native families, not everyone had knowledge—sometimes you had to earn knowledge. She had a special place to gain knowledge, sold it off to The Herbfarm, and they created a whole meal out of it.

The menu for Reed's capstone meal at Seattle Culinary College. Photo © Katherine Kehrli.

The menu for Reed’s capstone meal at Seattle Culinary College. (Click for a large version) Photo © Katherine Kehrli.

How can tribal communities ensure future generations honor their culinary traditions?

Often, tribal nations open up restaurants to represent them as a tribal people and instead of hiring someone Native, they go and hire a non-Native chef. While that wouldn’t seem odd in general industry, it is for us. I wish tribal governments would hire their own people so they can mentor other tribal members interested in carrying on those ways and making a living.

There’s an opportunity to make sure all the knowledge and spiritual teachings go with it if a Native person is working with their community. We’re more likely to represent food in a culturally appropriate way and we control our story. Our own representation of ourselves is often taken from us. It’s time for us to control our own stories.

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You went to culinary school at Seattle Culinary Academy. How was that experience?

I was in a program that was fairly diverse, though there was still emphasis on French technique. I wish there was more time dedicated to other cuisines outside of Europe.

In school, they would talk about the ancestral people who used to grow and cook wild rice. I said, “There are people I know who are out there ricing right now.” I’m rather mouthy. There’s this pressure that builds up inside me when I hear incorrect information. On day one, they told us Europeans brought potatoes up to North America. We definitely had other potatoes  we were eating; Choctaw had words and language around these potatoes. They’d say ‘Show me proof’ and I’d say ‘I can’t because it’s oral history.’

What would you say to students who are being othered like this in culinary school?

The only thing you can do, if you have it within you, is step up. It isn’t the easiest journey but you can make it easier for other people. [Seattle chef and I-Collective member Hillel] Echo Hawk graduated from Seattle Culinary Academy before I did; she’s not a person who likes to speak up at all, but she did. She did a four-course meal for 12–15 people for her capstone and it was all traditional foods. If she hadn’t chosen to challenge things where she did, it would’ve been even worse for me. [Seattle chef and I-Collective member] Jayson Running Bear has plans to be the next native to go through Seattle Culinary Academy.

What’s next for you?

I would like to create programming for the community in addition to cooking. I would really like to do the Food Sovereignty Assessment Tool at Tulalip, a training program that assists Native communities in reclaiming their local food systems. It helps demystify the process of data collection about local food systems and provides tools and a framework for communities to measure and assess food access, land use, and food policies. When I walked around, there was one banana available here on the reservation, in all of the markets. That was it as far as fresh fruit, so I’d like to be able to increase our food security on the reservation.

I want to work toward learning more of our precolonial cuisine, as well as being able to go back to Oklahoma more often. I would love to get better at [speaking] Choctaw and have more insight into traditional thought processes and language. I just found out there’s another Choctaw chef, which makes me so excited.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Top photo © Katherine Kehrli.

Update: This article was updated to more accurately reflect Reed’s birthplace.

Dakota Kim is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, NPR, and elsewhere. Read more >

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