Five Questions Salon Edition with Sean Sherman and Amy Thielen

Five Questions Salon Edition with Sean Sherman and Amy Thielen

Bison Sunchokes

Bison Sunchokes by The Sioux Chef; Photo: Courtesy of The Sioux Chef

On June 8, we conclude our spring ACC Library Salon Series by exploring Minnesota’s rich culinary history. Chef Sean Sherman, the talent behind The Sioux Chef and Tatanka Truck, revolutionized the food world by introducing regionally-based Indigenous cuisine revamped for the modern palate. Amy Thielen, chef, host of Heartland Table, and author of The New Midwestern Table, helps foodies learn to love Midwestern cooking by reimagining traditional European and Scandinavian recipes in fun and approachable ways. We asked them a few questions about the challenges of working from recipes steeped in local tradition, why knowing where your food comes from makes a difference, and how our cultural heritage is linked to the landscape that surrounds us.

What is one of your earliest memories of food and cooking?
Sean Sherman: My earliest memories are of the big family events. Growing up [in South Dakota] on Pine Ridge Reservation, we lived out in the middle of nowhere, but during the holidays and on special occasions, all the family would get together at my grandparents' ranch. And I remember it would be a whole day event. All the women would be cooking all day long, everybody chipping in and building these gigantic meals. Those experiences influenced me because it was a community effort to make the big dinners for everybody. It was a different way of cooking – my aunts and grandmas preparing some older, traditional recipes that have been in their repertoire for quite a while.

Amy Thielen: I remember I had gotten up early from my afternoon nap – I must have been four years old or so – and walked to the kitchen, where my mom was pouring fresh coffee and cutting pieces of coffee cake for her and a repairman. (This was back when repair people made house calls, and they had time to stop for coffee and sweets breaks.) This coffee cake, her signature one, was straight out of Betty Crocker and was called Danish Puff, although I’ve since realized that many Minnesotans also call the same pastry Kringla. Either way, it’s wonderful stuff: the almond-perfumed white icing – so sweet it made my mouth sore, the papery dryness of the cracked exterior of the choux puff pastry, the custardy strands of the interior.

What are some of the key flavors you use and how are they tied in with the cultural traditions that your recipes reimagine?
Sherman: With the work that we’re doing [at the Sioux Chef and Tatanka Trunk] showcasing flavors of the Dakota and Ojibwe, everything’s all micro-regionally-based. For some of the plates that we put together, all the ingredients can be found within a half-mile block of each other. So in Northern Minnesota, for example, we could have Walleye, wild rice, sunchoke, blueberry, maple, berries, and plums. We use a lot of cedar also. And you can find these ingredients just walking around a lake [up North].

Thielen: I’m a big fan of brown butter, especially in home cooking. Butter cooked until it turns amber brown and smells caramelized has a major impact on vegetables, fish, and chicken, but it has super sway with the starches – potatoes, pasta, rice. Brown butter was a staple in my mom’s cooking, and in her mom’s cooking, and [its usage comes from] their Eastern European and German heritage. I have found that it improves everything – even my mother-in-law’s Christmas lutefisk.

Tell us about the role the Mississippi River plays in your cuisine.
Sherman: Here in Minnesota, it’s a huge lifeline; it plays a gigantic role in the food systems. For Dakota people in this region, the Mississippi also has many spiritual spots. Downtown where the waterfalls used to be – near the Hennepin Bridge and Stone Arch Bridge – is called Owamni, and that is a very spiritual place. So that connection – when food is tied in with ancient stories – is a little bit different from just growing it in the backyard. You are grateful if there is some food coming from there.

Thielen: Well, I live only 10 miles from the source of the Mississippi, so it goes without saying that I have pretty much the world’s best-tasting water. And very literally, that water makes my food taste better. It’s a very clean ingredient, and I add it to almost everything. I think it’s interesting that much of the country thinks of us as a landlocked culture, and yet we are surrounded by bodies of fresh water. Freshwater fish, which taste sweeter and cleaner in comparison to saltwater fish, are central to the cuisine of this place. My neighbors and friends fish year-round. It is a common, if somewhat underground, pleasure.

What has been one of the most difficult traditional recipes or ingredients to make appealing for contemporary diners?
Sherman: I think things like maple-crusted grasshoppers would be really hard to put on a plate. Or even roasted moose nose, a really old traditional recipe. Indigenous people used all of the pieces from animals, but now we’re so used to meat being clean and cut for us that it is hard to think about serving things like buffalo tongue or buffalo stomach. Or even beaver tail, muskrat, or squirrels. Plus with the rules of cooking, I’d have to buy proteins from secure sources, and nobody sells any of that stuff commercially.

Thielen: Old Scandinavian recipes often call for grated onion, a method that can make even the sweetest, freshest onion taste old – I always dice it. Also, few people these days salivate when you mention venison, remembering some mistreated, overly gamy venison they’ve had in their past, and missing out on how buttery and rich properly aged venison can be. And I’ve yet to recipe-test a beaver tail, even though some of my old-timer neighbors tell me it’s a real treat.

Why is a connection to what we eat, including how it’s made and where it comes from, so valuable?
Sherman: I think that it’s really important to get people to think about the foods that have been here for a long time. Before Tatanka Truck, I was always told, “Well, I don’t even know what Native American food is.” There have been people living here for centuries, and there are still people in those heritage lines who live here today and have a long history with this region. The foods of this area speak to their past. And our food, it’s completely different from the Native peoples of Southern California, or around the Seattle area, or the Southeast, Northeast, or Southwest. Food styles and systems change everywhere, but each region speaks and breathes its own history – it has its own soul with the food. And the Indigenous people that lived there for so long, those are the flavors that reflect them and their identities. So for me, it’s really important to get people to think not only about the food, but also about the history, the culture, and the region – all those pieces tied together.

Thielen: Eating real food – food with dirty roots – grounds me geographically, physically, and psychologically. When I spend a run of days either eating in restaurants or just grabbing-and-going, I miss something. I miss that relationship-like-thing I have with my garden or – in the winter – with my pantry and my deep freezer. Sometimes they’re needy, the homemade sauerkraut yelling, “Use me soon, I’m going fast.” But I trust this food. I know its past. And I know that if I treat these ingredients well, they’ll reward me with huge flavors and nutrients. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes my pantry and I need a break, but as relationships go, it’s mostly a good one.

The American Craft Council presents a series of public conversations about craft, making, and art in the American Craft Council Library, which is located on the second floor of the historic Grain Belt Brewhouse in northeast Minneapolis. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. with the conversation starting at 7 p.m. Thank you to our social hour sponsor, the Community Keg House, which is located a block from our library. Join them for a social hour directly following each salon. Salon guests will receive a special drink offer. Details will be announced at each event.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.