Cooking Up Memories of Indigenous Foods

The resurrection of nearly forgotten tribal recipes has created a culinary renaissance in Canada, with the U.S. not far behind.

A meat dish made by an Odawan indian chef

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It was a cold winter day when the wind blew the snow off the tall trees on the Manitoulin Island, stretched in the middle of Lake Huron in Ontario. The air was chilly, so Joseph Shawana and a few other kids from the Odawa tribe were playing underneath the low sprawling branches of a spruce tree, sheltering from the wind. They snuggled up together, breathing in the scent of the frozen forest, and ate the crust off the snow. It melted in their mouths like crunchy sugarless ice cream, spiced by the chewy green needles fallen off the tree. That flavor was yet another childhood memory Shawana would forget … until he resurrected it years later, in his mid-30s while designing a menu for his restaurant in Toronto.

There are many things 38-year-old Shawana still does not remember about growing up in the Manitoulin Island’s Wiikwemkoong Unceded Reserve. But what he does remember are the smells, tastes, and textures of foods his family cooked. He remembers watching his mom and grandmother making food — mixing dough with flour made from ground roots of sunchokes or stirring soup cooked from cabbage and corn over an open fire set behind the house. He remembers smoking meat carved from a moose that his grandfather had hunted and brought home only hours before. As a child, he foraged, fished, and picked baskets of blueberries for his grandmother to make into pies. On a few occasions he went hunting with his grandfather too, but generally he preferred to stay in the kitchen helping the women. “I don’t know how my mother managed to raise all six of us. My father left when I was quite young and we didn’t have much money,” he recalls. “So we would eat off the land, picking apples and berries and chewing on the outside of the cedars. There’s a membrane on the cedar tree that tastes really sweet, almost like candy. We liked to chew on it when we were kids.”

We would eat off the land, picking apples and berries and chewing on the outside of the cedars. There’s a membrane on the cedar tree that tastes really sweet, almost like candy.”

Back in the day, foraging and open fire cooking wasn’t something Shawana would talk about much. That meant admitting that he was an indigenous person who grew up “in the bush,” hunting game, and essentially leading a subsistence lifestyle. For generations, being indigenous in Canada came with a stigma. Like many indigenous tribes in the United States, Canadian First Nations have endured generational mistreatment, says Lenore Newman, who directs the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley. The hard times started when the country’s first prime minister, John ­Alexander Macdonald, effectively eliminated the history of indigenous people in the late 1800s by eliminating what they ate. “He used food as a weapon and killed the bison, essentially starving them,” says Newman, author of Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food.

Things went downhill from there. “There was a program run by the Catholic church in which young people were taken from families and shipped off to residential schools, where they were abused, starved, and died of disease,” Newman says. “They were discouraged from speaking their language and eating their food. This generational violence continued all the way into the 1990s. It did a number on the culture, and a lot of traditions and foods were lost.”

To correct these historic wrongs, in 2008, Canada’s prime minister Stephen Harper apologized to the indigenous population for the residential school program that aimed to forcibly assimilate them into the European way of living. In 2017, current prime minster Justin Trudeau further apologized for the profound cultural loss. And the tide began to turn. Being Odawa, Cree, Innu, or Haida Gwaii was no longer such a stigma. So people became more vocal about their cultures and where they came from. Suddenly indigenous chefs were opening restaurants across the country, winning awards and making headlines.

Lina Zeldovich fished for piranhas in Brazil, cooked a zebu stew in Madagascar, sipped a drink made from a Peruvian viper — and always lived to write the story. She has written for Reader’s Digest, Sierra Club, Audubon, and Scientific American, among others. Her book The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth and Health will be published by Chicago University Press in 2021.

This is an abridged version of of an article from the November/December 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Joseph Shawana

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