Sean Sherman calls himself the Sioux Chef. That’s in the title of his book, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen. S-i-o-u-x Sioux, as in Lakota, not sous chef, as in the hands-on guy who runs a kitchen operation and reports to the executive chef. So if you have a distaste for puns, you can stop listening now, while I talk about The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, published by University of Minnesota Press.
Sherman is an Oglala, born at Pine Ridge, who writes lovingly of his family and his country. He also is a culinary artist, the founder of a catering service with a spin-off food truck called the Tatanka Truck. He won the 2018 James Beard Award for the Best American Cookbook.
There are two ways to read this book. Sherman says his aim is “the revitalization and awareness of indigenous food systems in a modern culinary context.” So his declared aim is restorationist, bringing back the foodways of indigenous peoples and sharing them. Sweetness and light.
On the other hand, there is a postcolonial slant to all this. Sherman doesn’t want to talk about fry bread. Fry bread is a food of colonization, eaten by people who have to live on what the colonizers thrust upon them--and pay the cost in long-term health consequences.
Postcolonial partisans, too, engage in appropriation and have fun at the expense of their one-time oppressors. Just as an indigenous author might write a novel and crash the party of the literary establishment, an indigenous chef might maneuver native foodsays into the culinary scene. Such a partisan might even engage in irreverent wordplay.
I commenced reading with some skepticism, expecting the author to have me on, and now and then he does. It may be just inadvertent that the photo accompanying a discussion of walleye is an image of less-desired fish, or it may be saying, let’s see if these chumps can tell the difference.
Well, I can, and I also suspect that when the author prefaces his discussion of cooking duck with memories of shooting wild ducks on the res, then goes on to describe preparations appropriate only for domestic duck, he figures most readers won’t know cooking and eating wild duck is a completely different proposition than handling the domestic product.
Then, sort of grudgingly, I began to note features and techniques I would want to integrate into my household foodways--corn broth, for instance. And maybe I’ll try putting some cedar into the pan when I braise bison or venison. Such notes accumulated.
Late in the book I got savvy to what was going on. There was one layer of the book for show--clever prose, pretty photographs--but underneath there was something more genuine, it not indigenous, and wise. Let me read you the passage that got me on side. Sherman writes,
"When I first started researching Native foods, I was fascinated with the idea of the food cache. . . . It was clear to me that all the dry foods, oils, salts, and seasonings kept buried or stored away for the long winters were the true base of the flavors of indigenous foods. . . . Once the pantry is well stocked, improvising dishes and creating your own variations comes easily. Creating an indigenous kitchen for the modern world requires attention to the cycles of food and our responsibility to nurture ourselves, each other, and our mother earth.”
This observation, my friends, is both rare and well done.