Indigenous Native American cuisine is hard to come by in mainstream dining. Sure, bison burgers and fry bread tacos pop up on menus and roadside stands here and there, but those dishes barely begin to tell the story of traditional Native American cooking.
Chef Sean Sherman wants to bring Native American cuisine back to its roots. Sherman, 41, is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He’s spent much of his culinary career piecing together how his ancestors ate before they were colonized. After college, Sherman moved to Minneapolis and started working in the restaurant industry. Now his catering company, The Sioux Chef, and forthcoming food truck, mimics meals indigenous to the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes native to the Minnesota area. Think cedar-stewed rabbit with fiddlehead ferns, roasted duck with blueberry and rosehip sauce, and corn and honey sorbet.
Cooking healthier dishes is important to Sherman. Almost 1-in-3 American Indians and Alaskan Natives are obese and diabetes rates among native people are nearly two times higher than the general U.S population. Part of the problem is that many Indian reservations are located in food deserts. Sherman’s cuisine emphasizes fresh, native ingredients — like maple, wild onion, and chokecherry — and avoids processed sugar, dairy, and white flour. (Even fry bread, the flattened, deep-fried dough seen as a staple Native American food, has a complicated history. During The Long Walk, a period of forced Navajo relocations from Arizona to New Mexico in the mid-1800s, government-issued flour, sugar, and lard rations made fry bread a safeguard against starvation along the 300-mile walk.)
I spoke with Sherman about his research process, his culinary secrets, and “oppression food.” Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
On his deep dive into food history.
I started buying every cookbook I could find on Native American food and nothing was offering what I was looking for. I was looking for that knowledge of the usage of wild foods and the usage of preserving things, what people were picking, and what people were growing. It’s not like there was a Joy of Native American Cooking cookbook out there for me to use as a guideline.
I really delved into wild plant identification and usage, ethnobotany [the science of the relationships between people and plants], the regional cultural differences of the different tribes, [and] the history of migration of tribes. I’m looking at what it was like to eat in the mid-1800s, basically....more
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