Washington University explores American Indian cuisine

american indian dish

Earlier this fall, chef Sean Sherman’s Native American restaurant concept  The Sioux Chef  became the most-backed restaurant in Kickstarter history, with 2,358 people pledging a total of $148,728 in 33 days to fund the Oglala Lakota tribe member’s Minneapolis eatery.

Native cuisine is spilling over into noncommercial dining as well. Washington University in St. Louis has experimented with Native American-inspired fare for the past four years, thanks to a dedicated effort from dining services.

The impetus to do so was twofold, says Campus Executive Chef Patrick McElroy.  “As a culinary team, we were looking at ourselves to see what cuisine we really hadn’t touched,” he says. “We decided, let’s look internally in our country and explore what we haven’t really touched on.”

Form educated connections

“There are very little recipes for Native American culture; you can find some, but we wanted to see if we could find someone who had the in-depth knowledge of the foods,” McElroy says. Robert Marx, general manager of dining services, and McElroy first connected with Wash U’s active Native American culture group, as well as the school’s Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies.

The desire to train with a culinary expert led Marx and McElroy to Nephi Craig, founder of the Native American Culinary Association. McElroy and Executive Chef David Rushing trained with Craig, who identifies as White Mountain Apache and Navajo, at the NACA’s indigenous foods conference and Craig also visits Wash. U’s campus for an annual culinary event.

Cook with sensitivity

Fry bread is recognized as a traditional food, but it has a fraught history. The deep-fried flatbread originates from Navajo Indians, who cooked with government-issued rations of lard, flour and salt during the “Long Walk,” when American Indians were forced to relocate from Arizona to New Mexico.

Ultimately, Wash U dining services chose not to incorporate fry bread in its menus. “In some of the tribes, it’s frowned upon,” McElroy says. “Our goal when we started this program was to educate ourselves through different resources and really represent the food.”

Leave room for interpretation

Authenticity is much talked about when it comes to international menus, but with Native American cuisine, Marx and McElroy are both quick to point out that their approach has been more about inspiration—and that’s not just because of a lack of documented recipes. “Part of the education piece is keeping the interest of your public,” McElroy says. Traditional Native ingredients have inspired hot dishes as well as grab-and-go options. One dessert—a flourless black bean cake with candied butternut squash puree and a white chocolate-corn garnish—was inspired by the three major Native crops: corn, squash and beans, known as The Three Sisters.

Listen to reactions

McElroy says he and his team noticed a fair amount of misinformation among diners about what truly is Native. “People are like, ‘Wow, I’ve had succotash. That’s a Native American dish?’” he says. “There are common things that are part of culture that people didn’t even realize.”

The modern native pantry

Sherman spoke to the New York Times in August about his plans for The Sioux Chef and the indigenous foods of the Upper Midwest, where he draws inspiration. Here are a few of his favorite ingredients that FSDs can incorporate in or adapt for their kitchens.

  • Wild rice
  • Maple syrup
  • Walleye
  • Chokecherry syrup
  • Buffalo jerky
  • Wild plum jelly

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