When you ask people to name typical “American” food, burgers and fries are more likely to jump to mind than braised sunflowers or bison tartare. Yet those delicacies are proudly featured in a new, unique cookbook of American cuisine from Chef Sean Sherman.
Head Shot of Sean: Photo by Heidi Ehalt.
The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen showcases the original American cuisine—that is, the food of the indigenous people who lived here for generations before Europeans arrived with their flour-and-sugar laden “colonial diet” in tow. Sherman, from the Oglala Lakota Nation on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, has dedicated his career to conserving and championing America’s native foodways. The book focuses on the cuisine of the Dakota and Minnesota territories of his childhood.
University of Minnesota Press
The “Sioux Chef” of the book’s title is the indigenous enterprise Sherman founded in Minneapolis in 2014 as a catering and education company. Sherman and the Sioux Chef team are now in the midst of opening a restaurant and running a new nonprofit organization, co-founded by Dana Thompson, called North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NāTIFs). Previously, they developed an award-winning food truck, Tatanka Truck, in partnership with Little Earth of United Tribes.
The Sioux Chef team—representing Anishinaabe, Mdewakanton Dakota, Navajo, Northern Cheyenne, Oglala Lakota, and Wahpeton-Sisseton Dakota peoples—do education, research, and capacity-building to learn about and champion indigenous food. They explore its complex and enduring traditions, then work to spread that knowledge and bring these foods back into native communities. Accordingly, the book is much more than a cookbook, just as Sherman is much more than a chef. It is part of a bigger effort to address a painful history of oppression and marginalization.
Cattails: Photo by Philip Breker
“Food is such a big part of cultural identity... no matter what descendancy you come from, people think back to the foods of their grandparents and great-grandparents and what they were eating and how they were preparing it,” Sherman told us. "For many native communities, traditional foods were intentionally and forcibly removed as part of assimilation efforts and to be able to help bring back traditional foods and knowledge is incredibly important to our mission."
The food is indeed healthy—and appealing. As Sherman puts it: “It’s all-natural, local, seasonal, gluten- and dairy-free, and it is delicious.” The pages of Indigenous Kitchen are filled with ingredients such as venison, blueberries, amaranth, and wildflowers, and dishes like Smoked Whitefish and White Bean Spread, and Sage and Rose-Hip Roasted Duck.
Photo by Mette Nielsen
While the food is certainly mouth-watering, Sherman and his many allies have ambitions that go far beyond showing a few diners how tasty bison meat can be. Their vision is about reinventing the very idea of American food by bringing it back to its roots.
By Katherine Gustafson