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'What did my ancestors eat': Sean Sherman’s cookbook ‘The Sioux Chef’ is a return to from-the-land, pre-colonization foods

Sean Sherman, whose cookbook "The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen" was published in October, is working to create traditional Native American cuisine -- and to make the foods accessible. Photo by Nancy Bundt1 / 5
Sean Sherman (left) and Beth Dooley worked together on "The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen," published by the University of Minnesota Press in October. Both will be in Duluth for a reading-signing-maple tea sipping on Sunday at Beaner's Central. Photo by Nancy Bundt.2 / 5
Three sisters mash -- a mix of wild onion, summer squash, cedar-braised beans, sweet corn and hominy -- is billed as being a dish that makes good use of leftovers in "The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen." Photo by Mette Nielsen. 3 / 5
Sean Sherman and Beth Dooley will be serving maple cedar tea at Sunday's event. Photo by Mette Nielsen. 4 / 5
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If you're foraging in Duluth this time of year, think chaga, highbush cranberries — not to mention cedar, which Sean Sherman would use for tea, cedar-braised beans, soup stock. In fact, whenever someone is coming up this way, he said he asks them to bring some cedar back to Minneapolis.

"It's nice, it's tangible, it's everywhere," said Sherman, the chef-educator-historian-food activist behind the Sioux Chef, a movement to bring back Native American cuisine — the from-the-land pre-colonization traditions.

Sherman's book, "The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen," written with Minneapolis chef Beth Dooley, is part textbook, part cookbook for what to find in the wild and what to do with it. Sherman, a member of Oglala Lakota tribe, tells the story of growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and his route to researching the simple and healthy food and drinks made from local animals and seasonal plants. It includes recipes divided by regions, pantry staples and plant guides, and a dismissal of fry bread — unhealthy, originating with government-issued foods, and not nearly as tasty as alternatives like corn cakes with braised bison or smoked duck.

Sherman and Dooley will read from the book and sign copies at 6-8 p.m. Sunday at Beaner's Central, 324 N. Central Ave. — an event co-hosted by Zenith Bookstore. There will be samples of cedar-maple tea.

The epiphany

In the introduction to the book, Sherman writes about an epiphany he had while living in Mexico and observing the way the people — so similar, culturally, to him — maintained their pre-European identity.

"I recognized that I wanted to know my own food heritage," he wrote. "What did my ancestors eat before the Europeans arrived on our lands?"

His research led him to a glaring omission food world. He found few restaurants with Native American dishes.

"The biggest part is the lack of indigenous education we're taught in schools," he said. "When we're looking at history books, we're not learning about diverse people in regions. We learn about clashes and the Thanksgiving mythology. There's not strong education around the indigenous people of North America. The other part is trauma. So many people's lives were displaced, cultures were displaced — indian boarding schools, forced assimilation."

There hasn't been time to recover, he said.

In an effort to change this, Sherman has researched and interviewed elders to create a catering business, pop-up diners, and a food truck. It has grown into an ideology that includes the nonprofit North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, which is focused on education, research and food access.

Sherman is in the process of creating a food lab for research and food hubs for training.

He has gotten a positive response to the work. A Kickstarter campaign to create an indigenous restaurant secured $148,728 from more than 2,300 backers. The Sioux Chef movement has gotten coverage in publications like the New York Times, the Atlantic, Saveur and Native Peoples magazine, in addition to National Public Radio and Splendid Table. Then there is the book.

'The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen'

Beth Dooley, a Minneapolis-based chef known for using local, seasonal ingredients, considering traditions and food history, met Sherman through a mutual friend who saw a need for a Sioux Chef cookbook. She first experienced Sherman as a chef at a pop-up dinner at the Astor Cafe, where he served smoked fish soup, dried rabbit, wild rice cakes, corn cookies — and in between there was music, chanting, spoken word, and drumming.

"Our values align," Dooley said. "And he had such an incredibly interesting backstory."

The book is divided by geography. In fields and gardens, there are recipes for griddled maple squash, black bean and yucca soup with warming spices, old-fashioned cornmeal mush with poached eggs. The Prairies and lakes section includes sunflower-crusted trout, bison tartare, hunter's stew.

For a sweeter touch: sunflower milk sorbet, popped amaranth cakes, caramelized seed mix. In between is Sherman's story and plans and recipes from fellow chefs.

The timing, Sherman said, has been right for this collection.

"I think that right now, people are starting to think about what they're putting in their bodies, over-produced food and health issues," Sherman said. "The steady rise in obesity and diabetes. It's causing people to become more award. The local food movement has opened people's minds."

There is also cultural curiosity

"Understanding another culture's food is a way to understand them," he said.

Dooley said the book has wide appeal. It's for people with an interest in local food, history, indigenous people's rights, the environment, foraging, wildlife, water, prayers.

"It's part of an organic movement people are gathering around," she said.

Dooley and Sherman recently returned from touring with the book out east — a trip that included meeting with Native American vendors, culinary events, and more.

Wherever they go, they focus on the available seasonal ingredients.

Dooley said she's learned a lot from Sherman since meeting him, including history she was not exposed to when she was growing up. It also was a confirmation to pay attention to what is in front of us — there is so much nourishment out there.

It also offered a shift to how she approaches cooking, she said.

"It's understanding things I might not have put together," Dooley said. "Putting a cedar branch in with wild rice really makes a lot of sense. You extend that: The water the rice is cooked in can be a broth for soup or reduced to a sauce or tea or, with maple syrup, frozen to a sorbet.

"You begin to take what is right in front of you and see opportunities for enjoying it."


What: "The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen" reading and singing with Sean Sherman and Beth Dooley

When: 6-8 p.m. Sunday

Where: Beaner's Central, 324 N. Central Ave.

Book: "The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen"

Authors: Sean Sherman and Beth Dooley

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

Pages: 240

Price: $34.95