Chef Steve Watson of Commonwealth College - Indigenous Food Resurgence through the Culinary arts
Written by Claire Heidenreich
Chew on This! is a bi-weekly mini speaker series hosted at the South Osborne Farmers’ Market that aims to bring market-goers and local food champions together with the idea that a market should be a meeting place and a place of critical ideas as well as commerce.
Since he’s been at Commonwealth, Steve has confronted the idea of what it means to have “authentic” or “traditional” Indigenous cuisine. When asked to cater an event for an Indigenous health organization, they asked him to cook traditional Indigenous food. And that sparked a discussion: what is traditional Indigenous food? It turns out, it’s different than most people think. After some research, he found out that many of the foods that most people commonly associate with Indigenous cuisine originated with European recipes and ingredients. For example, bannock was originally a Scottish dish, made from ingredients brought to Indigenous communities by colonizers. This created a conflict: should he keep these dishes with European origins, or restrict the menu to what Indigenous peoples would have eaten before the colonization of North America? Steve highlights an unfairness in the second option: most cultures have had the past five centuries to develop their cuisines, often using ingredients from the Americas. For example, Italy didn’t have tomatoes 500 years ago, so many of the dishes we consider quintessential to Italian culture have emerged since then. But Indigenous food cultures have had far less opportunity to continue their flourishing and development during these past 500 years since colonization, due to ongoing systematic suppression of Indigenous peoples and cultures. Those who have survived, says Steve, have largely adopted European cultural practices, including its cuisine. And while Indigenous cuisines do exist today albeit different from they were 500 years ago-- proof of cultural adaptability and survival-- the diet of many has become mainly comprised of processed foods due to structural issues of access and poverty. Realizing all of this, Steve wanted a better alternative to turn to.
So, he decided to create an alternative, and embarked on an ambitious project: to develop a menu using only Indigenous foods from prior to colonization. He called his project ‘1491’, named for the year before Columbus landed in the Americas and in the 1491 menu, Steve researched the ingredients and technologies Indigenous peoples would have had to work with in that time, and created dishes that could have possibly been developed from that point forward. To do this, first he first eliminated the five ‘white’ foods of European cuisine: refined flour, salt, processed sugar, milk and dairy products, and certain fats such as lard and seed oils. What remained were ingredients like bison, elk, deer, venison, berries, wild rice, wild onions, and sumac (a tangy tree bark). This ingredient list presented some challenges, such as legal and health restrictions on these mostly-wild foods, but there was also the challenge of making the food taste good for the modern palate which is tuned to liking sugar, fat, and salt. Even more than great taste though, Steve’s goal was to make a menu that would tie in core aspects of Indigenous culture-- to connect emotions to the food being made. Because, he says, while food is a basic necessity, it is also much more than that: it is a source of pleasure and an expression of culture.
To that end, he began developing tantalizing dishes such as smoked white fish seasoned with sumac and wild onions, served with wild rice cakes which were fried in duck fat, or, a wild rice pudding made creamy by a roux of corn flour and duck fat, sweetened by maple syrup and blueberries. He often flavours dishes with concentrated meat stocks, and even uses wood ash to impart a salty flavour on the tongue without using salt. While many of his dishes rely on less commonly found or wild ingredients, Steve says sourcing is not the biggest obstacle to his project; the bigger challenge comes with honouring the culture through the ingredients and techniques used, and the spiritual and emotional connections made. Steve says he wants to create food that gives back to the creator, honours the ancestors, and connects Indigenous people with their culture. To do this, he uses spiritually important ingredients and elements like sage, tobacco, and fire in his recipes. He might set sage on fire over a piece of meat. This infuses it with an aroma that’s subtle, but meaningful; incorporating smudging into a culinary setting might allow an Indigenous student to feel a sense of familiarity and comfort that otherwise might not be found in such an environment.
In adapting Indigenous practices and foods to a modern culinary context, some difficult questions have arisen, questions like, can spiritual herbs be used as ingredients? How much does the culinary institution have to change to adapt and allow a project like this to happen?
These are not easy questions to answer, but Steve is dedicated to wading through the challenges with the hands-on practicality of a chef, and with the determination and passion of a person taking on the monumental task of bringing 500 years of cultural knowledge to the fore. Despite the struggles, Chef Watson considers his work valuable and worth the effort. Passing on knowledge is incredibly important to Indigenous culture, and that’s exactly what he’s doing. He’s making people smile by feeding their minds, bodies, and souls. And that’s something worth working to achieve.