Saturday, September 24, 2016

Update on Traditional and Cultural Native American Food

From Mother Jones: Chef Sean Sherman 
Last week, I wrote about a presentation titled "The People of the Three Fires" about American Indian traditional foods (those consumed before contact with Europeans) and cultural foods (those now in the repertoire because they are familiar from Reservation days).

A new article and podcast, published yesterday in Mother Jones, adds quite a bit to the discussion of traditional food at that presentation. "You Can Get Any Food You Want in America—Except This: Meet the chef trying to revive his ancestors' delicious and healthy vittles," by Maddie Oatman contains details of the efforts of Chef Sean Sherman.

Sherman, according to the article, is attempting "to construct this 'un-modernist cuisine,' as he calls it." His sources for the foods and recipes are "historical documents, cookbooks, foraging manuals, first-person accounts, and even archeological texts."

The article also includes a brief, informative summary of native food history:
"In 1864, the US government forced the Navajos and Mescolero Apaches off their land in Arizona and onto a reservation in remote New Mexico, dragging them on what was soon known as 'the Long Walk.' Stranded on inhospitable desert, the tribes couldn't farm, and were sent canned goods and rations of white flour, sugar, and lard to eat. Frybread emerged as a survival food. As Native American writer and activist Suzan Shown Harjo once put it, 'Frybread was a gift of Western Civilization from the days when Native people were removed from buffalo, elk, deer, salmon, turkey, corn, beans, squash, acorns, wild rice, and other real food.'"
The podcast included an interview with Sherman. To begin, he talked about his rather idyllic childhood on a South Dakota Lakota Reservation, his great-grandparents' homestead on the Badlands, and other memories. His food memories include big family gatherings at his grandparents' ranch (8-10,000 acres) where women cooked familiar festive foods. Kids participated in lots of activities like harvesting "prairie turnips," choke cherries (which his grandmother cooked into sauce), and more.

Choke cherries are among the most delicious food in his experience, he related later in the podcast. They are small and dark black-purple, a bit tannic when just off the tree, but with a unique flavor when cooked down. In old days they were dried into patties for later use. Now in his new traditional cuisine, he slow-cooks them, strains out the pits, and makes an "awesome" syrup. This can make tea or sorbet or be used in other preparations.

Traditional soups and other foods that were cooked at these events echoed traditional foods, but putting things together from these memories is challenging. "Food systems" have been wiped away, and a lot of government canned goods like canned salmon, government cheese, and more became the common foodstuffs. Because his grandparents had a ranch, his own family also had wild game not available to many of the families.

Sherman grew up with frybread, and later bannock (a similar thing) which were thought to be Native American but really were the result of having to eat government food beginning more than a century ago. Since it was the only thing to eat many winters, in a couple of generations that was the food people associated with their grandmothers' kitchens.

The menu development Sherman is doing now includes trying to build "plates" that represent native foods of single regions, researching what he can, consulting every cookbook he can find, and trying to escape from fusion cooking with some traditional ingredients. He's trying to find the food and medicinal values from foraging books, historical and archaeological texts -- trying to piece back together "a shattered pot" that is how he sees native cuisine.

He's already been working on this effort in his food truck, using corn and sumac, turkey, soy-free foods, and more. He makes a cedar and maple tea (not soft drinks), wild-rice salads -- unpretentious indigenous foods. There are efforts to restore old food processing techniques like sun-drying or smoking. He emphasizes trying to keep it simple, like using maple syrup, fruit and berries as sweeteners and other recipes with indigenous foods.

A broad vision encompasses a new restaurant under development, funded by Kickstarter. And beyond that: he hopes there will be more restaurants in other areas, showcasing the local native cuisines. Longer term, he hopes to participate in revitalizing the culture, offering new foods and new meanings to foods, and working with various activist groups who are trying to preserve resources.

For more, I also looked up a recent story in Saveur by David Treuer which describes the food to come from the developing restaurant:
"Sherman’s more straightforward notion of indigenous comfort food includes dishes like smoked turkey soup with burnt sage, bison slow-cooked in spruce boughs, and a sunflower and hazelnut crisp. Using modern combinations and ancient ingredients and methods, he’s after something simultaneously old, and yet new."
From Saveur: the Native American Food Truck discussed in the two articles.
The New York Times also published an article and slide-show about Sherman last month, and many other articles also appear in a google search.

1 comment:

Trish said...

Politics of food. Interesting how that all works. But love that Sherman is trying to go back further to discover true traditional roots and bring it to many. Definitely think we could all do a bit more with natural sweeteners! Thanks for sharing this.