The ‘Sioux Chef’ Brings Pre-Colonization Food to the Table

Posted By Toyacoyah Brown October 13th, 2014 Last Updated on: October 13th, 2014

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

I keep seeing this trend and I like it! A lot of chefs are harkening back to traditional foods that their ancestors would have eaten. They are opting for locally sourced foods and going for a pre-colonization diet.

Recently Midwest food blog Heavy Table caught up with Sean Sherman, a chef from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota who is bringing pre-colonization food to the Twin Cities area. Here's a little piece of their interview with Sherman.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

HEAVY TABLE: Tell us about the concept for The Sioux Chef.

SEAN SHERMAN: I came across the idea quite a few years back. I had been a chef in Minneapolis for a while, had worked at some fun jobs in Uptown, downtown. But it got to the point where I needed a break, so I went down to Mexico for five months, and came up with the idea of doing a cookbook on Native American foods. I realized this subject hadn’t been worked on much. So I started looking into it — I grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation as a kid, and my grandfather and family knew quite a bit about the traditional foods, but I also realized that a lot of the foods I grew up with that I thought were traditional obviously had been heavily influenced, you know … so when I started looking for resources on the subject, I realized there wasn’t a lot of information out there. And I also realized I had a lot more work to do, personally, to get to the point … so I just started working on, you know, foraged foods, and training myself on all the wild-food flavors, what was indigenous to which region … I originally just started off with the area that my family came from — Pine Ridge is in south-central South Dakota, the Black Hills.

Tell us more about your background as a professional chef. Are you classically trained?

SHERMAN: Not really, I didn’t go to school for it … I was working at Broder’s Pasta Bar in the late ’90s, and got the chance to be a sous chef. I really thought about going to cooking school then. But you know, everyone I talked to told me to read, travel — I was young. You know, you’re already working hard, you’ve got all the tools in front of you to do it yourself. So I decided to spend my summers traveling, going to Europe, constantly reading, digging into books, and learning about cultures and their food backgrounds. The history of everything. Food history has always been important to me. So when I started getting into the Native American food systems — I already grew up on the reservation; I already had a background in it; a lot of my path just kind of led me to it.

When I was out of high school I went to work for the Forest Service, so I had to learn about everything that was going on — I had to know the American and Latin names for everything, what was edible and what wasn’t. And here, much later in life, that education comes back as a useful piece. I worked with the local organic food systems in the early 2000s, working with the farmers and ranchers back then, when they were first starting out … figuring out how to bridge the gap between what they were doing and what the restaurant scene was doing. I’ve been part of that from the beginning. So when I realized I was headed toward Native American foods, it made sense — my path was always headed in that direction.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

HEAVY TABLE: The buzzword today in food is local — my perspective and context don’t go to the extreme of what that might really mean, beyond some new-age farmers growing heirloom tomatoes around the state. That’s a different deal from the true historical context of the indigenous people who were here before anyone that looked like me ever showed up. There are chefs around this region working with indigenous foods — but your idea is to open a restaurant that features this food exclusively, in a modern context, in a way diners can become familiar with. I’m surprised — and also not — that someone hasn’t gone that route before. Are you surprised by that?

SHERMAN: It’s been a rough history for indigenous people. Even all the way up through today. … The reservation I grew up on [has been] the poorest region in the entire U.S. for the past 4 years running. Median lifespan for a male is about 48. Unemployment is around 80 percent. There are few opportunities there. But some of the things that have been able to be preserved in the culture — I think we’ve done a really good job preserving language, arts … unfortunately our food way of living was really wiped off the map because of the reservation system and the oppression, and the trauma people went through. Forced onto reservations, forced into subsidies … prevented from growing the old stuff, forbidden to bring seeds with them or to preserve any of this stuff.

Luckily, some of their seeds were hidden away and saved, so today there are farms that are bringing back these heirloom varieties that used be common throughout this region. I think we don’t see a lot of — or any — Native restaurants because the food culture was wiped completely off the board. They tried so hard to acclimate native people into European lifestyles. Forcing them to take all the government surplus — you know, where frybread came from — introducing this stuff to an indigenous culture that had never used flour. The only thing we could do was make a simple dough out of it, and make frybread.

It became oppression food, so families lived with it, they learned how to do it … I mean, I love frybread, but I always tell people it’s not really indigenous food. It just became one of those pieces that has become traditional. I think that’s the biggest reason you don’t see Native restaurants. It’s really coming back now — pre-colonialism, what did we know before all of this happened, you know?

The concept touches on so many complicated issues. Political, cultural, historical — it’s all wrapped up in the food. And that’s often the case anywhere, right? Food isn’t frozen in time, it changes based on outside forces. How much of your concept — when it’s actually happening and thriving — what percentage of it will be making a statement versus providing a new dining experience? How much of it will be education?

SHERMAN: I think it’s such a unique concept in general — a culture without food is a lost culture. I think it’s extremely important to bring back some of this knowledge, this food, and to be able to serve it in a modern context that everyone can appreciate. These flavors speak of the land. They speak of a particular region. If I’m doing a dish that’s influenced by Lakota flavors, I’m taking some of the timpsula [wild turnips], using chokecherry, buffalo, duck … stuff that speaks of that region. Next week I’m doing a big Ojibwe-inspired dinner up north — I’m using cedar, some of the perch that’s wild up there, some of the berries, the wild rice of course, and different ways to prepare it — more old-school ways.

Again, these flavors — if you’re up in that region, you can walk around and find all of that food right there in, like, a one mile radius. All that’s coming onto a plate, and just speaks of these people; it’s what has been here all along. Those flavors to me are the echo of that entire history. I want people with a Eurocentric background to understand what Native American food is, and also understand the importance of why it needs to be here, and yeah, to question why there aren’t any Native American restaurants! Hopefully in 10 years there will be offshoots, many versions of this kind of concept — I’m not trying to be ultra-traditional, I’m just trying to showcase the flavors we had here for centuries, and to be able to put them in a modern context, onto plates, and utilize that knowledge. I’m not using any European ingredients at all.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Hungry yet? For more mouth-watering photos and a description of some of the foods Sherman will be serving, please visit Heavy Table. For more information on the restaurant please visit http://www.sioux-chef.com/.

Home » Native American Articles » Food » The ‘Sioux Chef' Brings Pre-Colonization Food to the Table

About Toyacoyah Brown

Toyacoyah Brown is an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation, currently living in Chicago. She received her B.A. in Journalism from the University of Oklahoma and an M.A. in Media Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. When she's not scouring the Internet for fun things to share with PowWows.com readers you can find her digging for vinyl in her local record store or curling up with a good book.

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