Cedar tea sweetened with maple sugar. Popcorn seasoned with sumac and smoked salt. Wild rice and braised bison studded with dried squash and toasted seeds. Chef Sean Sherman’s indigenous enterprise served up these Native American treats on the street corners of Minneapolis from his Tatanka Truck. But the truck’s whiteboard menu had some noticeable omissions: no fry bread or other wheat products. No beef, pork, or chicken, which were introduced to North America by European settlers. No soda, either, or any other processed foods that have contributed to high rates of dietary illnesses among Native Americans. Just regional, indigenous food.
“You don’t have to be from indigenous heritage to appreciate native food,” says Sherman. And judging by its popularity—the Tatanka Truck won several local culinary awards after opening in 2015—Minneapolis’s lunch crowds seem to agree. But the “Sioux Chef,” as he’s also known (along with eight fellow chefs who are now part of a company that goes by the same name) hope their customers will walk away with more than just full bellies. “I always have to tell people that there’s a long history before Laura Ingalls Wilder here in Minnesota.”
Sherman's company sold the Tatanka Truck in September to focus on new endeavors, all with the goal of making native, healthy, local food accessible to the average eater. His first cookbook on native foods, The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen, comes out next month. Last summer he launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to open a restaurant, and he’s begun scouting for the perfect location. The dining establishment will also serve as an education center and hub from which Sherman will help other native people open satellite restaurants around the country that promote locally sourced, seasonal food.
From the Lakota Tribe, Sherman grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Though he’s been cooking for nearly three decades, it wasn’t until 10 years ago, when he was working at a restaurant in Mexico that used local ingredients, that he realized he didn’t know much about the indigenous foods of his own homeland. For him, “the epiphany was really just observing and then talking to the [native] Huichol vendors on the beach, then reading about their histories,” says Sherman. In learning about the preservation and preparation techniques the Huichol people used, and even the key ingredients in their cooking (like squash and beans), he recognized a shared heritage.
When Sherman returned to the States, he started doing some gastronomic research. While he had a good handle on indigenous proteins—“lots of fresh lake fish and deer and bison and rabbit, ducks and geese”―he says “it’s the plants that are the key.”
Luckily, he had a foundation. In high school he had worked as a forest surveyor, so he knew the Latin names of local plants and could pinpoint where they grew. So Sherman set out to educate himself on how tribes farmed and cooked with these native plants, researched botanical and historical texts, worked with ethnobotanists, then experimented with wild foods like ginger, ramps, bergamot, wormwood, and yarrow. Today he collects seeds and sits on the board of the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit that focuses on promoting and preserving heirloom plant varieties. He also advises Dream of Wild Health, a 10-acre Minnesota farm and nonprofit that grows indigenous foods from rare seeds and sells its bounty through community-supported agriculture plans and farmers’ markets.
“Food and flavor are all around us,” he says, and we can cultivate our local flavors sustainably by becoming more aware of what lives and grows nearby. Take wild rice, native to the upper Midwest, for example. The variety that a shopper will typically find in the grocery store is a black, thin grain. But that crop was cultivated only so that mass producers could use existing combines to process it, says Sherman; it isn’t authentic to the area. Meanwhile, indigenous people who harvest the rice in the region say they can taste the difference between rice grown in one lake or another. Having a better understanding of North America’s true foods and flavors, their diversity and value, benefits everyone, says Sherman.
Much of the food we eat today in North America lacks any regional character: burgers and Coca-Cola at every rest stop, the same chain restaurants in every mall. This industrial food system has resulted in widespread diet-related health problems like diabetes. Native Americans are particularly susceptible to this disease, more than twice as likely as white Americans to have the diagnosis, according to a Health and Human Services analysis of the 2010 U.S. Census.
“A lot of that stems from not having any healthy foods,” says Sherman. “We are anxious to try to help.”
As part of his work to promote less-processed and healthier local foods, Sherman highlights the importance of preserving what’s in season (whether apples or mushrooms, plums or purslane) to use throughout the year. He also explains preservation techniques, such as dehydration and powderization, in his new cookbook. (Additionally, he includes recommendations for where to buy some of the ingredients listed.)
Ultimately Sherman would like to create a food map showing the locations of indigenous foods, to encourage people to incorporate the wild edibles that grow around them into their diets. The project, one he’s working on through a newly formed nonprofit, North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS for short), will likely take a number of years to complete, but Sherman’s okay with making it his life’s work.
The indigenous food map may just give a whole new meaning to the locavore movement that prizes local, seasonal foods. And for the bulk of us, who never got to lunch at Sherman’s Tatanka Truck, it offers an opportunity to get a taste of something like it at home.
The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen
Cook up some Native American dishes yourself. Here are a couple to try out from Sherman’s new cookbook.
Simple Corn Cakes with Assorted Toppings
Serves 4 to 6
When we were designing the menu for the Tatanka Truck, we wanted something lighthearted, unpretentious, healthy, and fun. So, we re-created the Indian taco with authentic ingredients—the indigenous taco. The base is a griddled corn cake, like a griddled polenta cake, topped with local foods such as walleye, smoked turkey, cedar-braised bison, and roasted squash. This Simple Corn Cake is made of cornmeal, cooled, formed into a patty, cooked on a hot flat surface—flat rocks, a home griddle—just as many Native communities have been doing for centuries.
The variations on these easy, simple cakes are endless. Stir in fresh corn, herbs, dried meat, berries, maple, seeds, nuts, and mushrooms. The base of cooked cornmeal may be stored in the refrigerator for at least a week, ready to shape into cakes for breakfast, lunch, appetizers, and snacks.
- 3 cups water
- Generous pinch salt
- 1 cup polenta or coarse cornmeal
- 1 to 2 tablespoons sunflower or nut oil
In a large pot set over high heat, bring the water to a boil and whisk in the cornmeal in a slow, steady stream. Continue stirring to be sure there are no lumps. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is thick and the flavor is rich and corny, about 30 to 40 minutes. Set aside until cool enough to handle.
Shape the cooked cornmeal into patties, about 4 inches round by an inch thick. Film a skillet with the oil and set over medium-high heat. Sear the patties until nicely browned on one side, about 5 to 10 minutes, then flip and sear the other side, making sure they are cooked through. Place on a baking sheet and keep in a warm oven until ready to serve.
Makes about 4 to 6 cups
The scent of this traditional sauce simmering on the stove takes me back to my freewheeling six-year-old self. Our family relied on the local chokecherries I gathered as a kid. We’d spread a blanket under the trees and gather buckets full. There’s no need to pit them because the pits drop to the bottom of the pot as the sauce becomes thick and lush. We’d sweeten it for a dessert or serve it as a tangy sauce for meat and game and vegetables, and as a dressing.
- 6 cups fresh local berries—chokecherries or a mix of blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, elderberries, cranberries, blackberries
- 1 to 1½ cups water
- Honey or maple syrup to taste
Put the berries and water into a saucepan and set over low heat. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is thick. Taste and season with honey or maple syrup as desired.
Recipes from The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman with Beth Dooley (University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming October 2017). Copyright 2017 Ghost Dancer, LLC. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the University of Minnesota Press. www.upress.umn.edu