Pioneering chef Jessica Walks First is bringing back the healthy culinary traditions of Native Americans
Jessica Walks First was feeling tired one day in early November; really exhausted, but inspired to do the work to which she felt called. November is Native American Heritage Month, and Walks First, a Menominee chef, had been in high demand.
As executive chef and founder of Chicago-based Ketapanen Kitchen, a pop-up kitchen and catering service, she had just driven 500 miles to pick up 60 pounds of wild rice. She needed it to make one of her favorite recipes, which incorporates maple syrup, wild berries, and walnuts into cooked wild rice. It’s one in a menu of dishes that Walks First created to “enrich our lands and lives.”
She is finding an audience for the dish in Chicago. Chicago has the third largest Native American population in the country, with more than 65,000 Native Americans in the metropolitan area representing 175 different tribes.
Historically, the natives lived off the land and maintained healthy, natural diets. Colonization undermined their independence and their way of eating, in an attempt to weaken tribal power and force natives into the new American society.
As a result, Native Americans today have some of the highest rates of chronic disease in the country. In fact, they are more likely than any other racial group in the US to have diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated 16% of Native Americans have diabetes, compared to 11% of Americans overall. That 16% is likely even higher, but many people go undiagnosed due to the limited availability of health services for Native Americans, says Cynthia Gourneau, Turtle Mountain Chippewa, pharmacist and diabetes educator with the American Indian Health Service. from Chicago.
RoxAnne Lavallie-Unabia, executive director of the American Indian Health Service and a member of Chippewa’s Turtle Mountain Band, says, “Native Americans had advanced societies. The settlers and the government tried to destroy our food and our culture, but we still exist, and we are reteaching our languages and rebuilding our cultural traditions. We are a strong and resilient people”.
Walks First is part of that reconstruction. Through Ketapanen Kitchen, he prioritizes offering healthy meals to the natives. He also educates non-natives about indigenous foods and sources his ingredients from native-owned businesses and gatherers, including from his own Menominee lands in northern Wisconsin.
The name Menominee means people of the wild rice. “Grain used to be plentiful around the Great Lakes from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, around Minnesota, down to Wisconsin and even to the shores of Lake Michigan,” says Walks First. “But it is disappearing due to colonization, [land] invasion and climate change.
The food remains a favorite at Walks First. “It is grown in water and takes on the flavor of its environment. When I eat it, it makes me feel like I’m home,” she says.
Wild rice sold in the typical grocery store is not enough, says Walks First. Machines, not people, grow and harvest it, altering the taste and nutritional value. For its recipes, Walks First seeks wild rice that grows in shallow fresh water and is harvested by hand using a wooden stick to pound the grains into a canoe. Wild rice, the seed of a marsh grass, is low in calories and high in protein, dietary fiber, and antioxidants.
The natives of the Great Lakes region have grown and eaten wild rice for centuries. But when European settlers colonized the US, they intentionally broke the eating customs that the natives had passed down through the generations. The settlers burned indigenous crops and over-hunted buffalo to near extinction.
Under the Federal Indian Removal Act of 1830, the US government forced many native tribes to move west of the Mississippi River. They were then confined to reservations where the federal government provided them with unhealthy rations, including lard, flour, coffee, sugar, and spam. These food options were not only unfamiliar to people, but had often gone stale or.
“The word to note is ‘servings’ because it was just one serving, it was never enough to feed a family, and sometimes the rations didn’t arrive on time,” LaVallie-Unabia says. “The natives went to the neighboring farms to bring food because from their perspective it was a matter of life and death. They didn’t want their children to starve.”
That unhealthy diet became the standard and was exacerbated in the 1970s when the federal government began distributing staples, food that the government bought with farm surpluses.
People living at or below the poverty level qualify for basic commodities, which LaVallie-Unabia says are still available on reservations. “If you’ve been eating those foods all your life, you’re going to have health problems. And when you eat foods like that, you’re going to run out of energy and you’re not going to move as much as you should. That leads to obesity.”
As a consequence, Native Americans today suffer from a high incidence of many chronic diseases, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart problems, kidney failure, and more.
an innovative cook
Paving a path into the future, Walks First also goes back in time to rediscover healthy ancestral culinary traditions. Walks First, the Midwest’s only Native executive cook, is working to change those statistics, leading by example and encouraging other Native women to take up healthy, traditional cooking.
He began cooking with his mother at a young age and honed his skills at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago. Avoiding processed and genetically modified foods, she goes to great lengths to make sure the ingredients she uses are as healthy as possible. Every week, she drives nearly 1,000 miles to gather organic fruits, vegetables, herbs and meats from grass-fed animals and farms from tribal or native breeders and local farms.
Bison, a very lean meat that is high in protein and rich in minerals and vitamins, is often on their menu, perhaps with a cranberry barbecue sauce. Nuts enhance a vegetable dish with their vitamins and minerals. Pumpkin, low in calories but rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, is made into bread or cake balls. And the berries, rich in antioxidants, go into mousse or sauces.
Lavallie-Unabia says: “I have had the luxury of having a meal catered by Ketapanen. I had the rice and berry dish, which was very tasty, and I had buffalo roast. I have been eating buffalo my whole life. Their buffalo roast, which was exceptional, was tender and well prepared.
Walks First links your passion, your name and the history of your family. “Our family was named because we walked new paths or different paths, and that’s what I’m doing in Chicago,” she says. “I want to lead the way for other chefs to follow, and because Native American food is a new concept, education is an essential part of that.”
In addition to educating others about ancient ingredients and culinary techniques, Walks First also has a message, inspired by her mother, to pass on to others. She “she told me to prepare the food with love and prayers because the expression of that energy is transferred to every dish I prepare. Food not only nourishes the body, it also nourishes the spirit,” she says.
Although Thanksgiving celebrations only last one day, Walks First says giving thanks is built into everyday life for Native Americans. “The expression of gratitude is essential,” she says. “Everything has a spirit, that is why we must give thanks to Mother Earth for the food that sustains us. If we take care of her, she will take care of us.”
Traditional Menominee Wild Rice and Berries
Courtesy of Ketapanen Kitchen
- 1 cup traditional wild rice
- 8 cups of water
- 1 pint mixed organic blueberries, raspberries and blackberries
- 1 pint organic strawberries, sliced
- 1 cup pecans or walnuts
- 1 cup real maple syrup
1. Rinse the wild rice. Add to a large pot with the 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil
2. Once it boils, lower the heat to maintain a simmer. From time to time, I add berry juice to the water while it is boiling. This is optional.
3. Cook the rice until it begins to swell. The time depends on the type of rice you use; it is usually around 40 minutes. The more you cook the rice, the puffier and softer it will be. If you prefer softer rice, the final dish will be more like a pudding than a salad. I like it both ways.
4. Once the rice is cooked, strain. Add maple syrup to the rice and mix well. Let cool. Add your berries and mix gently. Sprinkle nuts on top. Cool and serve.