What We Can Learn From The "Pre-Colonial" Diet

mbg Contributor By Leah Vanderveldt
mbg Contributor
Leah Vanderveldt is an author living in Brooklyn, New York. She received her bachelor’s in communications and media from Fordham University, and is certified in culinary nutrition from the Natural Gourmet Institute. She is the author of two cookbooks: The New Nourishing and The New Porridge.

Chef Sean Sherman is making waves in the culinary world by cooking from his roots. As part of the indigenous tribe Oglala Lakota, he's spent the last few years learning about what people ate and how they cooked their food around the upper Mid-Western U.S. before European colonization.

His interest in the history of his region sparked a non-profit, a catering company, and a food truck based on the principals of eating the same whole and local foods that his ancestors would have.

While "eating like one's ancestors" is the cornerstone of the well-known paleo and locavore movements, Sean's story is more in-depth, personal, and connected to his particular environment.

Read on to learn about why indigenous American cuisine is important for both American culture and for health.

The "pre-colonial" diet

"The foundation for the cuisine is understanding the basics about what made up these Native American food systems from the past.

"Some people use the term 'pre-reservation', 'pre-colonial', or 'pre-contact' to describe this diet. From our perspective, it doesn’t mean 1492, when Europeans were first showing up. People weren’t having contact with Europeans all the way up until the mid-1800’s.

"I went back as far as I could with history books to get a sense of the migration of people and their plight after contact with Europeans and the formation of the American government.

"I had this vision of doing an all-Lakota cookbook that reached backwards and used the knowledge of wild plants, wild game, and foraging techniques that they had."

They were true stewards of the land and the edibles that were given to them.

Foraging and farming

"I started really taking the time to get to know the plants in my region and learning if they’re edible, medicinal, or workable in some way, like to make dyes or ropes. A lot of times plant groups crossed over into each of these categories. Everything had a purpose.

"The indigenous groups were really good at figuring out what to do with everything that was given to them.

"Whenever these groups were foraging, they weren’t just decimating it, they were making sure it regrew. They took care of those pieces to make sure they were going to be around.

"They were true stewards of the land and the edibles that were given to them."

Whole, local foods

"After I figured out what kinds of dishes I wanted to do, I developed a list of ingredients I could use — the food is extremely healthy on its own.

"The native people’s main crops were different varieties of corn, beans, and squash. There were also melons and sunflower seeds in my area.

"The hunting and fishing were easy to figure out — those animals are still around today.

"We removed beef, pork, and chicken from our menu. We also removed dairy, processed flours, and sugars. We use maple and birch syrup and lots of berries.

"We try to hold onto as many indigenous foods as possible, but we need certain allowances, especially for positive things, like honey or dandelion. It’s better to use them for the great food sources that they are, since they’re so high in nutrients."

It’s about keeping the food simple and wholesome.

A solution for better health

"There was no obesity, tooth decay, or type-2 diabetes among native indigenous people until they were removed from their traditional food systems and given food by the American government. They're still given a lot of cheaply processed, high sodium, high sugar, and high fat foods.

"But we can reapply the original food systems easily today.

"The food we use is wild and carefully processed. There’s nothing with chemicals or GMO’s. It’s about keeping the food simple and wholesome.

"It’s the un-modernist cuisine. It’s not over-processed or trying to make food taste like something different than what it is. It’s just using the foods of my great-grandparents’ era and bringing that back to the world today.

"It also promotes food parity among communities by popularizing these foods. In the cities, they’re opening up huge economic portals for native food producers. They’re also creating jobs for native people."

Simple dishes

"It’s about thinking about flavor, time, and place, and building menus and dishes so they reflect that. Those flavors live together.

"A typical dish is really simple, like maple-roasted sunchoke. We cut up sunshocke and toss it with sunflower oil, maple, and a pinch of salt.

"We use a lot of nut and seed oil indigenous to our region, like walnut, hazelnut, and sunflower oils. The sunflower oil is organic and available regionally, made using Dakota strains of sunflower.

"We also use animal fat — duck, turkey, bison, or goose.

"Another dish we’ll do is a simple meat stew. Recently, we slow cooked bison for 14 hours and seasoned it with water, cedar sprigs, pine needles, rose hips, maple, and salt. We let it stew and all of those flavors intermingled.

"We don’t need a ton of fat, salt, or sugar to appreciate the foods that we’re constantly eating."

Beyond North America

Globally, "people are living symbiotically with nature and the regions around them. That’s how we’re moving forward, seeing that this applies to all regions of the world."

Learn more about Chef Sherman and The Sioux Chef here.

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