It takes a collective: National network brings indigenous food project to downtown

  • Lissa Castillo places cookies on a baking sheet while Cam Stott, a member of the I-Collective and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, makes bison and pork meatloaf with beet ketchup as part of the I-Collective project at Belly of the Beast. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chef Cam Stott gets herbs ready to add to his bison and pork meatloaf with beet ketchup. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Cam Stott, a member of the I-Collective and Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, makes bison and pork meatloaf with beet ketchup as part of the I-Collective project at Belly of the Beast. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Cam Stott, a member of the I-Collective and Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, makes bison and pork meatloaf with beet ketchup as part of the I-Collective project at Belly of the Beast. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Members of the I-Collective who are working with Belly of the Beast, from top clockwise: Hillel Echo-Hawk, Cam Stott, Kirsten Kirby-Shoote, Frank Peralto, Neftalí Durán, Quentin Glabus, and Kristina Stanley. SUBMITTED PHOTO/I-COLLECTIVE AND BELLY OF THE BEAST

Staff Writer
Published: 10/9/2020 5:20:06 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Some people don’t know the foods they regularly eat are indigenous, said Quentin Glabus, a chef and member of the Frog Lake Cree First Nations. Turkey, for example, is indigenous to this area, he said.

Indigenous food is the focus of a project Glabus is part of at Belly of the Beast, a restaurant in downtown Northampton.

After temporarily closing in early August, Belly of the Beast reopened last Sunday. The restaurant is partnering with the I-Collective — a group of Indigenous chefs, activists, herbalists, seed and knowledge keepers from all around North America — to serve indigenous food.

“I-Collective stands for four principals: Indigenous, inspired, innovation and independent,” Glabus said. The goal is to have the collective at the restaurant for at least two months, but they may stay through the end of the year, said Aimee Francaes, who co-owns Belly of the Beast with her husband, Jesse Hassinger.

The chefs in the collective come from tribes all across North America. In their dishes at Belly of the Beast, they are trying to use ingredients that are indigenous to the area.

“What better way to educate people about the area that they live in than through food?” Glabus asked. Ingredients that are not indigenous include beef, chicken, processed sugars and processed flour, he said. “These are all ingredients that are introduced species to North America,” Glabus explained. “They were brought over with the Europeans when they came to North America.”

Current items on the menu include a slow-cooked turkey leg sandwich, an escabeche fish sandwich, and a salad that includes roasted squash, braised greens, sweet and spiced walnuts and maple vinaigrette. On Sundays, the restaurant will serve tacos.

They plan to expand the menu — by adding a bison meatloaf family meal, for instance — said Cam Stott, a member of the I-Collective who is from Grand Rapids, Michigan. “When we talk about indigenous ingredients, what we do is we take familiar dishes that people are comfortable with, and we elevate them with indigenous ingredients such as squash, maple syrup and proteins like wild game,” said Stott, who is a member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.

The project is multifaceted, Glabus said. “One of the things is, yes, we want to educate the community about indigenous foods and bring awareness to general food insecurity that people have,” he said. “But it’s also to help with ensuring that over the next couple months, if possible, the staff of the Belly of the Beast and the people in the I-Collective — which due to COVID and the pandemic, we have fallen on some hard times — that we can support them.” He added, “It’s a very indigenous way of thinking, I guess you could say, in the sense that there’s a saying that it takes a village to raise a child, and in a sense it takes a community to help its members be better and grow.”

Like many Main Street businesses, the pandemic brought stress and a dip in business to Belly of the Beast. When their Paycheck Protection Program loan and grant from the city ran out, the owners reassessed and eventually decided to temporarily close in August. With that funding gone, “we were wholly reliant on food sales to pay all of our bills. That just wasn’t sufficient,” Hassinger said.

He added, “Every single day was not just running a restaurant — which is already an incredibly time consuming and mentally-gymnastics-filled way of life — it’s also [about] how we run the restaurant in the new times of the COVID regulations,” Hassinger said. “It just became a very large mental strain on everyone, our staff included. At a certain point, it wasn’t just financial … We could no longer do this for our mental health.”

So, he and Francaes thought about changing their model. They considered partnering with chefs who “didn’t have a space in town,” she said, and who “even in the middle of all this craziness would [offer] a wonderful collaboration and way for the community to hopefully have food that isn’t here yet and give everyone something new and exciting to rally around.”

Also, she noted, if the arrangement worked out, the restaurant could “continue to have our staff employed and working and continue to have food coming out of the space.”

With these ideas in mind, Hassinger and Francaes got in touch with Neftalí Durán, a local chef and activist who helped start the I-Collective, and he suggested the project.

The project has a fundraiser on GoFundMe that raised more than $4,600 as of Friday. “Essentially we’re starting a new business,” Francaes said. “Restaurants run by volume, and they run by constant movement. You need to be continuously open to make the cash flow work.”

She added, “Lucky be us that we’re hoping the volume will be sustainable. If it’s not, we absolutely need the resources to have everyone paid and be employed and have this project bring good to the people who are coming and wanting to eat with us and be part of this really special project.”

The I-Collective used to host events, said Stott, but that’s not possible with COVID-19. “This is our response in the state of COVID — to use this brick-and-mortar location to push out takeout,” he said.

Another I-Collective goal is education, Glabus said, noting that chefs learn from each other so that they can “educate both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people about indigenous food sovereignty,” which he defined as “the right for people to have access to healthy and culture-appropriate foods produced through sound ecological methods that are sustainable.”

He added, “It’s a conversation we could sit down and discuss for hours.”

“It definitely varies from tribe to tribe,” Stott said of indigenous food sovereignty. “Honestly, just rebuilding that interdependence with the land and the animals — that goes a lot with foraging, sustainable harvesting and farming, using traditional ways to harvest and prepare ingredients. Indigenous food sovereignty is a lot of things, but that’s something we all have in common — we’re really trying to restore our interdependence with the land.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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