Taking Back Your Roots

I first read about Chef Sean Sherman, know as the “Sioux Chef” on ” The Splendid Table” Facebook page. I was intrigued. Chef Sherman was taking indigenous Native American foods and creating contemporary dishes.  Chef Sherman, an Oglala Dakota, grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He began working in restaurants at a young age, and has worked his way up over 27 years to the owner of “The Sioux Chef“, a catering company in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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Chef Sean Sherman (photo credit Heidi Ehalt Photography)

My first impression was that Chef Sherman was  taking the old to make the new, and that was  cool and interesting.  But as I did my research, I discovered that  he was doing something much more important.

He was taking back something that his culture had been robbed of.

When Native Americans were forced onto reservations, they were robbed of their land, their homes, their language and their traditions. And they were also robbed of their traditional foods.  Chef Sherman refers to the foods that are available on the reservations as “oppression foods”. These are your sugar laden, fat laden, processed foods that are predominant in impoverished communities. In another effort to oppress and control, the Native Americans lost their access to the foods of their culture. Generations have now grown up on the reservation with these oppression foods. And access to healthy ingredients is next to impossible. The closest store may be a convenience store or gas station.  A true grocery store may be 60+ miles away. This scenario is referred to as a “food desert“. There is literally  no way to  have access to fresh and healthy food on a regular basis. As a result, Native Americans are among the highest in cases of diabetes. ( Fry bread is NOT a Native American food. This was one of the oppression foods that was created and inserted into the culture.)

Protect What Is Yours

In this country, no other ethnic group  has had their native  foods robbed from them.  All of the immigrants who came to the United States brought all of their native dishes with them. Very often, that was their only link to their home country.  We take for granted the foods of our immigrant heritage.

We all need to take a lesson from Chef Sherman. Keep your family and cultural traditions alive, because it is so much more than your story.  It is your history. And every generation needs to hold that history sacred. You need to guard it and defend it. And fight to keep it if someone tries to take it from you.

 

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Amaranth Bite Maple Squash Seed Mix (photo credit Sean Sherman)

Interview

Chef Sherman was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions via email.  The questions and responses are below:

1. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is in such a remote location with little access to contemporary dining experiences. What inspired you from that area to begin your career as a chef?

The short answer is necessity. I started working as soon as I could, I was 13 when I took my first restaurant job in the Black Hills and worked kitchens all through high school and college. After college I moved to Minneapolis and worked my up to an executive chef in just a few years and there began my career. I had a good eye for plates and I knew how to teach my self so spent a ton of time researching other cuisines through books and travel and eventually I saw the lack of any Native restaurants anywhere and that’s where I started my path to understand Native food systems and how to use them as a modern chef.

2. To me, all cooking is part science, part art, and part history. You have done so much extensive research into the ethnobotany and in documenting recipes, it is just fascinating. What was the biggest surprise to you that you discovered in your research? Did you find anything that was totally unexpected, something that made you say,”Wow, who knew?’

My biggest realization was after starting to get an understanding at how much wild food and flavor is around no matter where you are… Being able to go for a hike in the forest, or desert, or ocean side and being able to identify more and more foods and really see the abundance out there… I know it’ll be a lifelong learning process, but that has given me so much joy being able to harvest different foods from different regions and really appreciate the immense diversity out there…

3. I see that you have been working with Native American youths to bring your cuisine to them. This is such important work, as many of the entire country’s youths have very unhealthy diets, and only eat processed food. As you work with these young people, what has been most impactful to them?

Helping kids to really get an understanding of what foods are truly traditional to their heritage and culture and show them that these foods are still around and how healthy they can be… Trying to get them to understand how harmful processed foods can be is important, but more importantly its just getting them to know the old foods that have been around for so long…

4. Do they see the benefit of eating your cuisine?

They do, but it’s hard for them to visualize it being a part of their daily life when the only grocery store in town is a gas station full of processed foods packed with sodium and sugar. One of our big missions with starting native food businesses is to tackle the food accessibility dilemma and how we can get healthy indigenous foods to the areas that need them the most…

5. Are they interested in the history and how it is a part of their culture?

Definitely… 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. 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 unquantifiable.

6. What is your biggest hope for people trying your cuisine? What do you want them to take away from their experience?

There has been a lot of education needed with helping to reintroduce native cuisines to both native and non native communities, and I really hope people can walk away from one our events and meals with sense of how important the efforts are to bring a stronger sense of true indigenous cuisine back and the positive health impact that it brings.

6. I am sure you are constantly experimenting with and creating new dishes. How do you master being creative while remaining authentic? How do you balance the two?

Its been a lot of fun to keep myself in a box and learn how to cook with using only native ingredients and implementing as many native cooking techniques as possible to keep the food as authentic feeling as possible. We have designed a basic model of understanding indigenous foods systems that can be used anywhere and it helps us with understanding other regions as we travel around the country and explore other cultures and flavors…

6. Last question, and this is the one that I ask everyone that I interview–At the end of a long day, you have worked either cooking, doing marketing, for your business, done interviews, etc. What is your one favorite food ritual at the end of a busy day?

Its obviously nice and necessary to unwind after the long days… I love just having some popcorn with my family and watching whatever random Netflix feels right .

Contact Information

You can contact Chef Sean Sherman at his website, The Sioux Chef, and follow them on Facebook and Twitter. And on their home page, check out the video from the show”The Movement” by Mic.com

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Feed Your Roots

I am a big fan of genealogy, because I love peoples’ stories. I was recently watching an episode of “Finding Your Roots” on PBS. Lidia Bastianich, Emmy award winning TV show host, author of numerous cookbooks and accomplished restaurateur ,was one of the people featured on the show. This episode “The Long Way Home” was focused on how families kept their traditions despite challenges and adversities.

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Lidia Bastianich (photo courtesy of Diana DeLucia)

Lidia’s story stood out to me because of her early life experiences. Lidia lived in a region of Italy called “Istria,” in the town of Pula .It is a peninsula on the Adriatic Sea, and is now shared by three countries: Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia. During WWII,  the Istrian Peninsula  was taken from Italy by Communist Yugoslavia.  Lidia’s family went from being Italian, to being forbidden to speak Italian.  They were not permitted to go to church and were forced to change their name from Matticchio to Motika. So in terms of identity, I was especially intrigued with which culture she would identify with, and how  did food and ritual shape her through such a tumultuous time.

So I sent her an email. Her very helpful PR team set up a phone interview for the two of us.

We first talked about her identity, about how she defines herself.  She said that there was such a murkiness with the country’s borders. There were so many influences. Her grandparents were considered Austrian/Hungarian, her parents Italian, and Lidia considered Yugoslavian. But she defines her identity as to how she speaks with her family, which is in Italian. She says that you define yourself by “what you feel in your heart.”

During the Yugoslavian occupation (Lidia was 4 or 5 years old) she spent much of her time at her grandmother’s home. Food was very hard to come by at that time, and her grandmother was very self-sufficient.  They had extensive vegetable gardens, pressed their own olive oil, had fig trees and raised their own meat and eggs. Lidia recalled digging potatoes with her grandmother. Her grandmother would pull up the large potatoes, and Lidia would dig through the earth and find the smaller potatoes.

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Grandmother Rosa (photo courtesy of Lidia Bastianich)

What she  distinctly remembers is that all of the food was warm. The potatoes were warm from the sun warmed earth, fresh eggs were warm from just being laid by the hens, the olive oil was warm and you dipped fresh warm bread into it.  At an early age, Lidia experienced the crucial connection of the earth to our food. These memories were pivotal  in her experience of food and connections.

As the war progressed, Lidia’s family made the decision to leave their town of Pula. Her mother, brother and she made their way to the town of Trieste, in Italy. Ten days later, her father managed to escape and joined the family. But the family then had to migrate to a political refugee camp, the Risera di San Sabba. They were in that camp for two years before being permitted to leave. During those two years, food was scarce, and there certainly was nothing available to them that was anything like the food they had at her grandmother’s home.  How difficult it must have been, to go from a place of  love and family and warm, sun-kissed food, to scraps in a refugee camp.

In 1958 Lidia’s family immigrated to the United States. They settled in Queens, NY and Lidia began working in a pizzeria. She met her husband at her sweet sixteen party. The couple’s  food empire began in 1971,when they opened their first restaurant in Forest Hills, Queens. Lidia felt that coming to the United States had given her a huge opportunity. She states “And I am the perfect example that if you give somebody a chance, especially here in the United States, one can find the way.”

For Lidia, her roots are through food. She says that cooking with her grandmother was  a connection to her.  She calls it “food nostalgia.” She believes that “food becomes a messenger, it connects you to the dirt, and this is something we all need to cherish and protect.”

I asked her  why  she thought people are so interested in shows like “Finding Your Roots,” and did she think that people are more isolated today and have lost  much of their own food rituals?

She believes that people understand that their OWN foods are an imprint of themselves; the aromas, textures, the flavors.  She feels that people are longing for this connection. “We need to connect to and have our own roots. Food gives you strength, and is a magnet.  We are social animals, and food is what brings us together.”

Lidia values the importance of sharing meals at the table.”Because we all need to eat to survive, we give ourselves up to food-food takes precedence, and at the table, we become vulnerable. True connections are made face to face. Look at the business lunch, the family dinner, the anniversary celebration, the date with your sweetheart.  All of the connections are based around food. This is the way we nourish both our bodies and our spirits.”

I asked her what her favorite ritual with her family is.  That was easy for her.  She makes the foods that her relatives who have passed away loved to eat.  She says by having those dishes at her Christmas Dinner, it honors her family members who are no longer there. When she makes her father’s favorite bacala dish, it is like he is right there with her.  She can feel her grandmother’s presence when she makes Capon Soup. She shared a hilarious memory of seeing her grandmother running all over chasing the cockerel around the courtyard, trying to catch him for the soup pot.

My question that I ask everyone is:  at the end of a busy day, what ritual do you have that brings your day to a close?  Lidia loves a good prosciutto (her Dad used to make it, and would hold it like a violin and used a small sickle-like knife to cut it), a good crusty bread and some Grana Padano cheese, some figs and  a good glass of wine.  She likes all of her food at room temperature, a hearkening back to those beautiful warm foods at her grandmother’s table.

What I took from my time with Lidia is how  very precious our connections are. Through adversity, maybe all we have left are our connections. In these times, it is so, so important to remember that we are not just individuals, but part of a network of connections, reaching to our past, and guiding us to our future. Lidia lost the home she loved at a young age, but  she never lost her foundation. She kept it alive, and shares all she knows and loves today through her business. Her kindness of spirit and her generosity is a testimony  of how we all need to live.  We all need and want, I believe, to be kind, welcoming and to break bread with each other.

I worry, in this current  environment of divisiveness and  bigotry, that we are losing our connections to each other as human beings. We have forgotten our roots. So, work hard at keeping your connections. Have dinner with your family. Throw a party for your friends, for no other reason than to celebrate each other. Honor your deceased loved ones with a dish that they loved at your next holiday. Give to a food bank.

It’s not enough to find your roots. You have to feed your roots as well.