Sean Sherman grew up on his grandfather’s ranch on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, surrounded by antelope, grouse and the scent of juniper trees. Today as a Twin Cities chef, he’s tapping into those familiar flavors as he cooks up his version of indigenous food.
He and other local purveyors will be featured Feb. 19 at the North Coast Nosh, an homage to American Indian food at the Minnesota History Center, sponsored by Heavy Table online magazine. In addition, the event will include a collection of culinary artifacts from the History Center and an exhibit of the work of George Morrison, an Ojibwe artist.
Sherman, 40, who is Oglala Lakota, worked for a time as a surveyor for the U.S. Forest Service.
“I had to go around to different spots in the Black Hills and label and age all the different plants in the area I was given. I realized that Native American people knew what all these plants were called and what they were good for. Later in life, as a chef, I got to thinking, ‘Why isn’t there more information on all that?’ ”
Today he focuses on native fare as he caters, teaches classes and makes plans for a family-style restaurant that will feature indigenous foods.
Q: What are our local native foods?
A: You can’t really get more Minnesotan than what is here, so you have the wild rice, the maple syrups, the blueberries, all the berries that grow throughout the season, all the fish that’s in the lakes, the walleyes, the northerns and white fish, the wild turkeys, duck, venison, rabbit. All this food was here forever. Corn, squash, beans. I might use a little more wild flavors, but those flavors have been around us all the time, too, the tree foods, the cedar, sumac, balsam fir, pine spruce.
Q: Is this the time for native food?
A: Some people are interested in the foraging knowledge that I’m utilizing. Some people are interested in the seed savers and heirloom variety side of what I’m doing. Of course, there are other people interested in hunting and fishing. Some people are interested in history. Some people are on special diets where this diet fits in perfectly. There are lots of wild organic kinds of ingredients, and everything is so locally and regionally based. Some people are interested in the economic development side of it, of being able to utilize a lot of these Native-produced pieces on a larger scale.
So the interest is hitting quite a few different points. The biggest one is really just showing people there is a Native American food culture out there and it’s always been there. It just hasn’t been utilized for a long time. It’s kind of silly because you can find any cuisine in the world in the city, but not the one that came from under your feet.
Q: Many people think of native foods as all the same, from California to the East Coast. How varied is it?
A: I chose to focus only on Dakota and Ojibwe because I wanted people to understand how regional food systems are. It’s so different across the country, not only in food, but in culture, religion and style and the food that’s around you. Even for me growing up on Pine Ridge as Lakota, those traditional food systems were different even from the Dakota out here [in Minnesota]. When you get out to the West Coast by the shore, by the ocean, they weren’t even farming because they were feeding off the ocean, and the forest was giving them everything they needed. And then you go in the Southwest and the Southeast, it’s a completely different style again.
There’s no way to lump‑sum Native American food into one group. It would be like saying one plate represents all of European food. There are so many little pockets of culture and differences all over the place.
Q: How important is authenticity?
A: I’ve been promoting both traditional and modern Native American foods because some of that I have to bring into the modern world. But all the components are really simple. I have a real minimalist style of cooking. It could be a matter of cooking wild rice with blueberries and that’s the seasoning. And maybe just a tiny bit of salt or maple sugar, or something like that. But it’s just keeping within those guidelines. I’m not putting in a lot of butter or bacon or cream. It’s just real clean food.
In some ways it seems to follow the diets today: gluten-free diets, paleo diets and stuff like that. This has a lot more basis than some of those diets, because it already was a lifestyle as it kept people really healthy for centuries. And it’s super low on glycemic point levels and there’s not a ton of carbohydrates to break down and sugars and stuff like that. And it’s high in fiber.
Q: Are Minnesotans ready for a taste of the past?
A: Even for a lot of Native American people, this past isn’t that long ago. These are foods our grandparents were eating. Europeans are still eating foods that their great-grandparents were eating and holding onto that cultural identification. So it’s really no different for Native American people here.
History unfortunately tries to make it sound like Native American culture was centuries ago. But it wasn’t. It was just a couple generations ago, really. And there is still Native American culture here today. It’s not like it’s wiped off the map completely. It’s totally viable.