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Indigenous Inspiration

by jane black

Stone Barns Center invited Jane to be our guest columnist, taking on complex, timely issues in food and agriculture that are important to our mission. We welcome her perspective; the views and opinions expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of Stone Barns Center.

Brazilian chef Alex Atala has visceral charisma. He is Hemingway handsome, with a trim white beard and dark piercing eyes that lock yours when he talks. His heavily accented English compels you to lean in and listen, whether he’s ordering a drink or making his case to revive indigenous foods.

He was doing the latter when I met him recently in Monterey, Calif., at a restaurant table overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The globetrotting chef had made a 48-hour stop there to learn about sustainable fisheries after completing a high-flying week at the MAD food conference in Copenhagen. (A few years earlier, he made headlines at that conference when he decapitated a chicken on stage to make the point that food and death are inextricably linked.)

Atala’s arresting personality translates into show-stopping food at his São Paulo restaurant D.O.M., currently number 11 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Using the Amazon—an area larger than Western Europe—as his pantry, Atala serves Amazonian ants; jambu, a leaf that numbs the lips and tongue and “makes everything taste bigger”; and tucupi, a yellow sauce made from mildly poisonous wild root.

“If you talk about biodiversity, there’s no value,” Atala told me. “But when you taste it, everything changes.”

As with heirloom vegetables and heritage-breed meats, chefs are now touting indigenous foods in an effort to promote—and protect—biodiversity. Admittedly, it can seem faddish. But Atala and others are working to introduce these mostly unknown ingredients beyond the world of fine dining. This spring, Atala opened a food market on the west side of São Paulo that sells products like the Baniwa spice and Yanomami mushrooms. In the United States, Native American chefs also are promoting their heritage foods: Nephi Craig, who identifies as White Mountain Apache and Navajo, serves dishes such as chicken with reservation-grown winter squash and wilted greens at the Summit Park Resort in Whiteriver, Ariz. Sean Sherman has won national attention for his authentic but creative dishes such as braised rabbit with spruce tips. This summer, he raised nearly $150,000 on Kickstarter to open an indigenous foods restaurant, The Sioux Chef, in Minneapolis in 2017.

Sherman grew up in South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the country’s third largest. At 13, he started working in restaurants, rising from dishwasher to line cook to executive chef and, along the way, mastering French and Italian techniques. Inspired by the local and organic movements, he eventually began digging into Native American history and ethnobotany. When, in 2015, Sherman was hired by a Minneapolis housing complex to design a menu for its food truck, he was ready. The Tatanka food truck debuted with “indigenous tacos,” filled with cedar-braised bison and sunchokes, or wild rice-crusted walleye and a manoomin salad of greens, wild rice, roasted squash and cranberry dressing.

Like Atala, Sherman has grand ambitions for his food. He hopes that growing interest in indigenous ingredients will garner new respect for Native American traditions and provide economic opportunities for farms like Wozupi Tribal Gardens, which produces heirloom varieties such as Cherokee beans, Oneida corn and Arikara yellow squash.

There are also environmental lessons. “Indigenous food systems sustainably maintained large groups of people for centuries,” Sherman said, explaining that they did so through specific techniques, such as permaculture, and through their philosophy of taking only what they needed, whether that was bison, salmon or timpsola, a prairie turnip. “They were very careful with the environment,” he said. “They treaded lightly.”

The big question is: Can these foods, which have so much to teach, ever be truly accessible to mainstream consumers?

Both Atala and Sherman are determined. Three years ago, Atala launched a foundation, ATA, to promote Brazil’s biodiversity and food traditions. Its flagship project, the Pinheiros market, now offers more than a hundred different Brazilian ingredients. Some, like the mushrooms gathered by the Yanomami tribe, are only available in small quantities. But Atala’s hope is that growing interest will provide new markets for the Yanomami and permit them to continue their way of life. “I could have used them all at D.O.M. and advertised my restaurant as the only one in the world with this mushroom,” Atala said, “but I wanted everyone to taste them. People love them. They are talking about them.”

Sherman is trying to get his first restaurant off the ground. But he already has plans for others that showcase the cuisine and ingredients used by Native Americans in other regions of the country, from British Columbia and the Southwest to the Mid-Atlantic.  “Curiosity leads to education,” Sherman said. “Education leads to understanding. Understanding leads to respect.”

Originally published on November 3, 2016

Jane Black

Jane Black is an award-winning food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work appears in The Washington Post (where she was a staff writer), The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, New York Magazine and other publications. She is currently at work on a book about one West Virginia community's struggle to change the way it eats.

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