Food & Drink

The movement to define native American cuisine

Foraged wild sunflower and bergamot petals, which will be used in salads, in Havana, N.D., July 19, 2016. Chef Sean Sherman's work is part of a slowly gathering movement that he and other cooks are calling Ònew Native American cuisine,Ó or Òindigenous cuisineÓ-- an effort to revitalize native food cultures in contemporary kitchens. (Dan Koeck/The New York Times)
Foraged wild sunflower and bergamot petals, which will be used in salads, in Havana, N.D., July 19, 2016. Chef Sean Sherman's work is part of a slowly gathering movement that he and other cooks are calling Ònew Native American cuisine,Ó or Òindigenous cuisineÓ-- an effort to revitalize native food cultures in contemporary kitchens. (Dan Koeck/The New York Times) NYT

The moon was full and the chokecherries were ripe in the southeastern corner of North Dakota.

“It’s the one smell that shoots me back to being young,” said Sean Sherman, as the berries boiled under a red-veined froth.

Sherman has simmered corn silk with purple bergamot blossoms to make tea, and has braised rabbit with spruce tips. He has revived chaga, the fungus that blooms on birch trees, in warm hazelnut milk, and burned juniper branches and corn cobs all the way down to a soft black ash.

These techniques aren’t borrowed from the cutting-edge kitchens of New York or Copenhagen. Sherman, a 42-year-old chef who is Oglala Lakota, draws from the knowledge of the Lakota and Ojibwe tribes who farmed and foraged on the plains of the Midwest.

His work is part of a slowly gathering movement that he and other cooks are calling “new Native American cuisine,” or “indigenous cuisine” – an effort to revitalize native food cultures in contemporary kitchens. Sherman, who has been cooking in restaurants for nearly 30 years and plans to open his own in Minneapolis next year, jokingly refers to his style as “un-modernist-cuisine.”

Because so many of the native food ways passed down through generations orally, they have been forgotten or obscured, and his quest has required a mix of trial-and-error, scholarly research and painstaking detective work. In some cases, Sherman has had to rely on his imagination to fill culinary gaps.

“He’s the second generation to do this work,” said Lois Ellen Frank, a food historian with a catering company in Santa Fe, N.M. “And he’s following in our footsteps.”

When Frank began asking questions about Native American cuisine in the 1980s, she was told there was no such thing. “But of course they had a cuisine,” said Frank, who now has a doctoral degree in culinary anthropology, “and it was intricate, diverse and delicious.”

At his three-day cooking retreat in July, hosted by the Coteau des Prairies Lodge, on the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation, Sherman instructed more than a dozen people who had traveled from nearby towns and as far away as Atlanta. The group included a doctor, a college professor and a dentist who kept a small folding knife tucked in the elastic of her bra, ready for an afternoon of cutting lamb’s quarters and wild mint.

Sherman explained how the precolonial food cultures that inspired his work were sophisticated, supported by complex trade routes and traditions. To piece together their techniques, he interviewed community elders and academics, and studied books such as “Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden,” the farming practices of a woman who lived on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota at the beginning of the 20th century.

He placed a stack of resources, about 20 books on ethnobotany and indigenous foods, at the front of the room, but the real work took place outdoors, where participants were asked to forage ingredients for dinner.

Alex Jimerson, 27, a graduate student in the food-studies program at New York University, dug up burdock in the wild thickets between corn fields. “This holds so much more meaning for us than what people call Paleo,” he said, “because we can see the real diets of our ancestors, and we see how people lived in this region.”

Jimerson, a member of the Seneca Nation, was excited to help prepare the five-course dinner that would end the retreat. He went foraging for tannic buffalo berries and wild greens early in the morning, before the sun rose high over the prairie and it became too hot to trek. He had never seen clumps of white sage growing wild, and he picked some.

Later that night, he helped as the chef de cuisine, Brian Yazzie, used the sage leaves to quick-smoke duck.

The duck would be served with dried cherries and a delicate cracker of puffed wild rice and amaranth, with the flavor of just-popped corn. Sherman also put walleye, the big glassy-eyed perch, on the dinner menu, with a maple and corn broth, and wrinkled dry apple slices that came to life with dabs of lemony sorrel purée.

The dishes were typical of Sherman’s style: colorful and elegant, with roots in fine dining and ancestral cooking, pulled together from a mix of cultivated and wild regional ingredients.

They were also composed without wheat flour, sugar or dairy – the government-issued commodities that replaced many native foods on reservations more than a century ago. Sherman avoids them.

This means he does not cook fry bread, the simple deep-fried dough familiar to every tribe in the country. Fry bread was born as a food of survival, developed by ingenious cooks who needed to make the most of flour and lard, and it later became the base of the Indian taco: fry bread under ground beef and toppings like shredded cheese and sour cream.

In 2015, when Sherman was hired by Little Earth of United Tribes, a Minneapolis housing complex, to develop a menu for its food truck, he saw a chance to put everything he had learned into practice. He wanted to reach back into the history of indigenous cuisine, further back than the invention of fry bread, and surprise diners.

He tried to imagine what the Indian taco might look like if wheat flour and dairy had not become a part of the native diet. Sure, the answer would vary all over the country, but in this part of the Midwest what made the most sense to Sherman was a kind of corn cake base, maybe seasoned with juniper ash, fried in a shallow depth of sunflower oil until the edges became brown and crisp.

Instead of the usual toppings, Sherman piled on heirloom beans and lean bison meat braised with cedar fronds. He smoked turkey and tossed it with fried sage. For vegetarians, he worked with whatever was in season – beans and hominy one month, a variety of summer squash the next.

He called this simple dish an indigenous taco. On the top, he sprinkled toasted sunflower, pumpkin and squash seeds, and a berry sauce called wojapi, made from fruits like chokecherries, which Sherman had been picking every summer since he was a boy.

Sherman used to spread a sheet on the ground and pull as many loose as he could, bundling the cloth up to carry it home to his mother, who would put on a pot to make wojapi.

Wearing a black T-shirt, his long brown hair tied back in a ponytail, Sherman boiled chokecherries until the pits sank to the bottom of the pot and could be easily removed. Over the course of the retreat, he would use the versatile fruit to make a big batch of wojapi, dilute the juice, sweeten it with a little maple syrup, and infuse it with wild hyssop leaves for a predinner tea. He would even use it to dress salad leaves, sharpening it with sour wild sumac instead of lemon juice.

Stocking the ‘New Native’ pantry

Minneapolis chef Sean Sherman finds culinary inspiration in the indigenous foods of the Upper Midwest. As a proponent of what he and other native cooks call new Native American cuisine, Sherman buys many of his ingredients from the region’s native producers.

Wild rice: The best wild rice in the country really does grow wild, around the lakes of northern Minnesota, in grassy clusters up to 8 feet high. The ripe grain kernels are picked by hand, by workers who navigate by canoe. For a less-chewy bite, boil it just until the kernels pop, as in this recipe for wild rice with mushrooms.

Walleye: Sherman works with this lean freshwater perch regularly, crusting the fillets with spices, or mashing the sweet, flaky white meat to make tender croquettes. The fish comes from Red Lake, a commercial fishery in Minnesota run by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, who carefully track the seasonal fish populations to harvest the fish sustainably. Try it pan-fried with herbs and butter or simply roasted in the oven.

Chokecherry syrup: The small tart fruits of the chokecherry tree, which ripen in summer, were a vital part of Native American food cultures throughout the Midwest. (The Lakota mashed and dried the fruit in season so they could reach for it throughout the long winters.) Red Lake Nation Foods, also owned by Red Lake members, produces this versatile deep red syrup, which can be used to flavor sparkling water or brighten a bowl of vanilla ice cream.

Wild plum jelly: Wild plums may be small, but they’re packed with flavor, and when ripe they can range in color from pale yellow to a deep purple. The fruit makes an especially lush, tart-sweet jelly that improves on everything from soft cheese to buttered toast.

Maple syrup: Inspired by the native cooks who tapped trees to boil sap and produce maple sugar, Sherman, who does not cook with white sugar, uses locally made maple syrup as a sweetener in savory foods, desserts and drinks. You can do the same, tweaking a marinade or tart salad dressing, or mellowing out herbal tea.

Buffalo jerky: On Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where Sherman lived until he was 12, Lakota entrepreneurs run Tanka, a Native American natural foods company that produces a number of ready-to-eat jerkies using prairie-raised buffalo.

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