A Lawrence Butcher Wants You To Connect Differently With Indigenous Culture This Thanksgiving
Lee Meisel is a descendent of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. He says we're "halfway to the handshake" on indigenous foods at Thanksgiving. Here's his advice on making a COVID-era feast more meaningful, including a recipe for turkey leg tacos.
Before becoming a butcher at the Leeway Franks sausage shop in West Lawrence, Lee Meisel stored up some good Thanksgiving memories. His grandpa making wild rice stuffing. And the ceremonial bison kills at Haskell Indian Nations University, where he got his undergraduate degree, followed by big feasts in the cafeteria.
He also remembers some less pleasant holidays.
"I’ve had Thanksgivings that I have eaten at gas station truck stops," he says. "I've been in the service industry since I was 14, and you have to work."
Which is just to say, even someone whose work revolves around food can relate to holidays without fanfare.
But for many, this year marks a break from making the annual trip to a relative's house, or getting ready to welcome visitors with day-long cooking extravaganzas. And although a quiet holiday at home might have sounded nice this time last year, months into a pandemic it might be a struggle to make another meal at home feel special.
Meisel sees it differently. He says this is a perfect chance to make the holiday more meaningful by incorporating indigenous foods, cooking techniques and values into our celebrations. Values like not taking more than you need.
"It’s not just about an 18-pound Butterball turkey and football and eating too much," Meisel says. "I want people to think about, no, you don’t need a giant turkey. Don't just put a huge spread together for a few people because it’s tradition. Get the right amount of food for the number of people."
The standard Thanksgiving table features many ingredients native to this continent, what Meisel calls New World foods: turkey, cranberries, corn, pumpkin. But he says we're only "halfway to the handshake" because we prepare these foods using European culinary techniques. This year, he suggests, why not go all the way?
One of the most important aspects of Native cuisine, according to Meisel, is "live fire." That is, cooking over a fire or using smoke, whether preparing meat or vegetables, tending the flame and the food at the same time. According to Meisel, who has been known to dig fire pits in the ground for special meals, a smoker or an old-school charcoal grill absolutely honors that tradition.
To that end, Meisel recommends putting smaller cuts of meat over coals, rather than sticking a whole bird in the oven. He says you can cook potatoes and corn and other ingredients the same way.
"Have fun with it this year," he says. "You’re not feeding 20 people. You could make turkey leg tacos," he suggests, by cooking just the legs low and slow on the grill then pulling the meat off the bone, and eating them in corn tortillas fresh from a local Mexican restaurant that makes them in-house.
Meat is a fascination that started early for Meisel, who grew up bouncing around North Dakota with his single dad and two brothers. He guesses he was just 3 when he had his first memorable meat encounter on a trip to the grocery store.
"I remember looking at the meat cases and seeing the guys in white coats and I remember being fascinated with the way the liver looked," he told me the first time we spoke, back in 2015. "It looked like this shiny, blobby, kind of deep red purply thing. And when you're a kid, you instinctively want to play with something like that."
Meisel remembers himself as a flaky teen. He credits two experiences with setting him on a clearer path: his after-school job at Butcher Block Meats, and later, an education at Haskell Indian Nations University.
Working at the butcher shop was hard. Being the kid in the shop, he did a lot of the dirty work. He'd go home covered in meat, and smelling of the thick smoky tar he'd just cleaned out of a smoker. But the old-timers he worked for changed his life by expecting a lot out of him, and teaching him a trade. And the owner became a role model.
Then at Haskell, his entrepreneurial spirit was awakened.
"People there were always pushing you to go out and do your own thing. It made me realize there are people who are pulling for you," he says. "They want you to go out and succeed, and you realize how much that could mean to your tribe, to have that success story."
That's where he first started working out business plans for Leeway Franks, a totally unpretentious 20-seat eatery with a walk-up counter, specializing in hot dogs, sausages and frito pies. He carves up the meat himself, finding ways to use whole animals. He's since added a full-service butcher shop to the operation.
Maybe it's no surprise, given his own history, that one of the first things Meisel did after getting his shop up and running was to create an annual Thanksgiving tradition: Franksgiving is a holiday meal open to the public, but designed specifically for people in the service industry, who can never go home for Thanksgiving because they can't make it back before their next shift.
Which brings us back to what for many of us will be an unusual Thanksgiving. Meisel wants us to connect with a sense of humility this year, of going without and finding gratitude in less, and to remember that when the pandemic is over.
"Embrace your smaller family unit," he says. "Give yourself a little grace and make your own traditions. If you want to tie that into indigenous values, there are things we should be thankful for, like nature. Go outside. Make yourself happy with food. Don’t be afraid to make something comforting, whatever that is for you. Your family gave you those memories. It’s OK to honor them. Be resourceful, don’t overeat, get out and exercise, read about the Indian tribes in your area."
And if you still aren't sure what to make, here's that recipe...
TURKEY TINGA TACOS
By Lee Meisel
The key to this recipe is using dark meat for tender, juicy tacos, using a dry rub to help season and tenderize the meat, and smoking the turkey legs first for added depth of flavor. You can alternatively skip the smoking step and go straight to poaching if you want to save yourself some time or don't have a smoker.
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- 2 turkey legs or thighs
- 1 large onion, sliced
- 2-3 cloves of garlic, sliced
- 2-3 chipotle peppers roughly chopped
- 1 can stewed tomatoes or 1 cup fresh chopped roma tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 3 tablespoons canola oils
- Salt and pepper to taste.
The day before the meal, rub turkey legs generously with spice mixture and refrigerate overnight. The next day, fire up your smoker for indirect cooking and smoke the meat for one or two hours at around 200-225F.
After smoking, transfer legs to a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed stock pot and cover with water. Add two bay leaves and gently simmer until meat is tender and pulls easily from the bone.
Remove legs from the poaching liquid and transfer to a large bowl. Pick and shred the meat, discarding any bone, cartilage or connective tissue. Strain the liquid from the pot and set aside.
In the same Dutch oven, sweat the onion and garlic in canola oil over medium-high heat until translucent. Add the chopped chipotles, stewed tomatoes, oregano and one cup of the poaching liquid. Bring to a low simmer.
Using an immersion blender, quickly pulse the liquid until it is relatively smooth (some chunks here and there are fine). Alternatively, you can transfer to a standard blender and pulse, but be careful to cover the lid with a towel to allow venting.
Add the shredded meat and allow to simmer in the liquid for an additional 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve as tacos, tostadas, burritos or nachos with your favorite salsas, quesos and condiments. Be creative! I like to buy my tortillas from Carniceria y Tortilleria San Antonio in Kansas City, Kansas, but there are many options in the metro area.