Eating locally, seasonably and sustainably– a radical notion just a few decades ago–is now deeply woven into our mainstream definition of healthy. And rightly so. When you eat that way you are likely getting the freshest possible food, reducing your carbon footprint, and enjoying a balanced variety of edibles based on their seasonality. You are also connecting in a meaningful way to your local community and to the ecosystem in which you live. No one appreciates this more than Sean Sherman, founder of The Sioux Chef and co-author of the new cookbook The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen. His mission is to educate about indigenous food ways –which are the very essence of local, seasonal and sustainable eating— and help people see the health, taste and abundance of the food that identifies North America. With that in mind, and with the fall harvest in full swing, I thought I’d highlight a handful of ingredients that are uniquely American—some of the foods that sustained people on these lands for generations and are still widely available today. Most are familiar ingredients you likely already have in your kitchen, but being aware of their heritage and health benefits can help shed new light on them, fostering a whole new level of appreciation and inspiration.
The cranberry we know and love is a unique species indigenous to North America and its tartness, brilliant hue and nutritional benefits are part of the tapestry of Native American cuisine. Cranberries grow on a low, vining perennial plant in in bogs in the cooler areas of the Northern hemisphere and are harvested in the fall when they are crimson red. They don’t grow underwater, although many have that impression because today water is often used during harvest to float the fruit so it is more easily collected. Besides being turned into sauces and eaten plain, cranberries have been used by indigenous people to make what could be considered the original energy bar –a food called pemicann or wasna that is a mixture of dried meat or fish, berries, rendered fat and seasonings. The fruit is rich in health-protective antioxidants and a unique type of polyphenols which may help prevent urinary tract infections– they are also a source of vitamins C, manganese and fiber. There is every reason to branch out from the once-a-year cranberry sauce habit and incorporate this native fruit into a variety of meals and snacks fresh throughout the fall when they are in season, and dried or frozen any time of year.
The pecan tree, a member of the hickory family, is an indigenous American variety that has been growing in the South Eastern and South Central part of the U.S. for millions of years. It is unique to the Americas and has not been found growing naturally anywhere else in the world. Pecans were a staple in many Native Americans’ diets. Besides being eaten whole, the pecans’ nutritionally rich, buttery tasting meat was also traditionally pounded into a powder and made into a kind of nut-milk soup called powcohicora. Pecans are packed with antioxidants and other protective plant compounds as well as heart-healthy fat, fiber, and minerals. They also have a substantial amount of protein. Sure they are perfect for pies, but it’s worth celebrating this native nut in a more everyday way, so start by tossing them into a snack mix, sprinkling them on cereal, adding them to salads and baking them into muffins.