When I heard The Sioux Chef, Sean Sherman, describing his new book about “indigenous people food” on BBC World radio, I was fascinated. Somehow I missed the Native American indigenous food movement crisscrossing the U.S. Even Native American restaurants are popping up. But the Native Café on Pensacola Beach is not a Native American restaurant, no matter what Google says.
The radio interview resonated with me since my latest food interest deals with genetics and food preferences. Native Americans contributed the sassafras to make filé for gumbo, so maybe the smidgen of Choctaw in my DNA predetermines my preference for gumbo. Plus, I love Indian frybread and just about anything made with corn.
Sherman, an Ocala Lakota Sioux who grew up on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, now lives in Minnesota where his business The Sioux Chef is preparing indigenous foods freshly foraged from the region. The foods he cooks are pre-colonization, before the European influence – no beef, pork, chicken, wheat flour, refined sugar or dairy products. Instead, it’s bison (buffalo), venison (deer), elk, fish, berries, herbs, ginger, flowers, pine, heirloom seeds, squash, wild grain, corn and foods native to a particular region.
But no frybread. Sherman says it’s not genuine Native American food. Frybread evolved when Native Americans moved to reservations and the government dispensed rations of lard and wheat flour. It was starve or figure out what to make with those ingredients. Such ration foods may have increased the rates of obesity and diabetes among Native Americans. Sherman’s philosophy, along with others in the movement, uses regional native foods to produce a healthier, lower glycemic diet.
Sherman hopes to one day see indigenous food education and training centers, food trucks and restaurants designed for specific areas and cultures. He’s already up and running in Minnesota. I think if he wants an indigenous food revolution, however, he ought to include Pow Wows and Indian Casinos. That’s where most of us get our impressions of Native American food.
Take the 47th Annual Poarch Creek Indian Pow Wow in Atmore, Alabama during Thanksgiving. According to Festival.net, 20,000 people are expected to be there, and they’ll be chowing down as they watch the colorful parades and dancers. Plus visitors will be forming opinions about Alabama’s only federally recognized tribe. The Poarch Creek are truly indigenous. Despite the Indian Removal Act of 1830, they remained on their tribal lands and have lived together for almost 200 years in and around the Alabama reservation. But when it comes to the Pow Wow, vendors will be serving foods like BBQ sandwiches, hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken tenders, roasted corn, turkey dinners, ribeye steak sandwiches, loaded baked potatoes, pork skins, Indian Tacos and Kona Ice. Indian Tacos are about as native to Alabama as Kona Ice is to Hawaii.
Casino restaurants could be another moving force for an indigenous food revolution. The National Indian Gaming Commission reported a Gross Gaming Revenue totaling $31.2 billion in 2016. According to 500nations.com, 474 Indian gaming centers operate in the U.S. Thanks to the Florida Seminoles who established the first Native American casino in 1979, casinos now operate in 28 of the 50 states.
But when I close my eyes and remember food choices at a casino in Oklahoma, I remember an all-you-can-eat buffet – followed by a bad stomach ache.
Despite my experience, casinos have a reputation for fabulous holiday buffets. And while they’ve got the nomenclature down, like Talking Stick Resort or Wandering Horse Buffet, the horse wandered pretty far off the Arizona reservation to cook cheesy enchiladas and fresh sushi. Casino diners could have a much more authentic experience savoring recipes like The Sioux Chef’s Maple Glazed Roasted Acorn Squash with Pepitas served with a glass of Cedar-Maple iced tea.
At least the menu at the posh Poarch Creek Wind Creek Casino in Alabama hints at indigenous food. They offer fried oyster salad, seafood gumbo (with filé) and sweet corn chowder. I just refuse to count the Buffalo Wings.
Eater.com posted this Facebook video of Sean Sherman cooking with native ingredients.