These chefs honor and sustain indigenous cooking practices
Food is a powerful connector within tribes
Elena Terry, a local chef who is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, pours prayers and feelings into her cooking like water and sugar. From a young age, she has used indigenous foods and Native practices not just for traditional dishes but also everyday meals.
Food is a powerful connector within tribes, and indigenous cooking stems from natural ingredients and their relationship to the earth. While this view is ingrained in the Native American way of life, three area chefs have incorporated that philosophy into their culinary practices and are sharing indigenous cuisine with the larger Dane County community.
Terry works with a few other Madison-area Native chefs to build awareness of indigenous foods and cooking practices through organizations like the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance.
Indigenous food includes locally produced crops harvested in traditional ways – like maneuvering a two-person canoe through a rice bed to harvest wild rice – that sustain the land, Terry explains. Growing indigenous crops contributes to food sovereignty, which means people and communities sustain themselves with the food they grow on their own land, taking “the man out of the equation,” says social justice advocate Yusuf Bin-Rella, who is lead caterer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Four Lakes Market inside Dejope Residence Hall. The natural foods also provide physical and spiritual health to tribal members.
Many indigenous crops are unique and require Native production practices to ensure their survival. Dan Cornelius – a technical assistance specialist for the Intertribal Agricultural Council and general manager of IAC’S Native Food Network – plants indigenous heritage squash using seeds that are hundreds of years old. He also harvests wild rice that wasn’t available at the Dane County Farmer’s Market until he wheeled NFN’s Mobile Farmers Market onto Capitol Square.
Terry works to sustain crops like these through community outreach and education. She visits classrooms in Madison and other Wisconsin cities to teach history of foods, food preservation and crop varieties. For example, she shows people how to use indigenous products such as walnuts and oatmeal as natural substitutes for industrialized pie crust ingredients.
“I’m a firm believer in [the idea] that the more we use the ingredients, the more that we talk about them, the more life they have and the better chance of sustaining and continuity with them we have,” Terry says.
Cornelius and Bin-Rella also work to popularize indigenous foods by selling their harvests around Madison. They’ve made items available to order online, such as fish, maple syrup and corn (which are typically sold out of NFN’s Mobile Farmers Markets truck).
Indigenous food practices run full circle – and the goal is to sustain all parts of that circle. Cornelius says there were roughly 72,000 Native agriculture producers in 2012, but almost all of them were working in commodity production that didn’t have any value for the producers themselves.
“On a big-picture perspective, what we’re trying to promote is bringing more income, bringing more value to producers, which in turn really helps to feed our communities,” Cornelius says.
Sammy Gibbons is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was an editorial intern at Madison Magazine.
RECIPE: Sasquash from Elena Terry
2 cups roasted and pureed squash (I find acorns and butternuts are the best)
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup raw sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup whole milk
1 tsp. vanilla
Cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg to taste
3 cups of walnuts (finely crushed)
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
1/2 cup oatmeal (finely ground)
1/4 cup melted butter
Handful of dried cranberries
To make the crust, mix together all crust ingredients except cranberries. Then sprinkle dried cranberries on walnut mix and press mix into a 9×13 pan. Set aside. In another bowl, mix all main ingredients together except egg and milk. Mix egg and milk separately and temper them to the squash mix. Pour mixture into prepared crust and bake for 45 minutes at 350 degrees or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
RECIPE: Vegan Cornbread
— 1 cup cornmeal
— 1 cup masa Harrina
— 1/4 cup light brown sugar
— 1 Tbsp. baking powder
— 1 cup almond milk
— 2 tsp maple vinegar
— 1/4 cup fresh apple puree or applesauce
— 2 Tbsp. maple syrup
— 1 1/2 cups fresh sweet corn puree
— 1 tsp. salt
1. Whisk the milk and vinegar together and set aside. Then mix dry ingredients. Gently stir in the applesauce, maple syrup and corn. Then add the almond milk and stir. Pour batter into a cast iron skillet. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Serve warm.
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