By Amelia Levin
In honor of Indigenous People’s Day on Oct. 12, we caught up with Native American (Anishinaave) chef and ACF member Victoria Wells, who formerly worked at the Little River Casino Resort in Manistee, Michigan, and is currently working on opening her own catering business, with an educational arm intended to teach others about indigenous food.
A member of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, Wells was adopted out of the tribe as a baby, but has since worked to reconnect with her roots. At the urging of one of her instructors while in culinary school The Great Lakes Culinary Institute in Traverse City, Michigan, she attended the Intertribal Food Summit in 2019, where she made connections that connected her with the likes of indigenous celebrity chefs Sean Sherman, Shane Chartand and Elena Terry (stay tuned for the November-December issue of National Culinary Review, for an in-depth article on indigenous cuisine featuring Chef Sherman and others).
“I felt a little lost in culinary school and I was able to start exploring our food and it felt like coming home,” says Chef Wells, who has enjoyed educating others about indigenous cuisine, which, sadly, she says has become lost as a result of “intergenerational trauma” and elders not wanting to talk about the past. “I understand now why Chef Sherman and everyone says “food is medicine,” because in this case, it really is, it’s healing.”
There are many Native American tribes around the country, and while they have their differences, they do share in common the use and passion for natural and wild crops and animals native to each region. Think: hyper-local cooking at its best. “Indigenous food is not fry bread,” says Chef Wells, who says that was a product of the federal government giving Native Americans rations in the form of flour, sugar, butter and oil, foods that have led to diabetes and other health conditions among many tribes. These ingredients are a stark cry from the natural, grain-free meats, gluten-free nut flours, wild rice and naturally “organic” vegetables that otherwise make up “indigenous cuisine.”
Michigan is home to many indigenous foods, including deer (venison), river trout, fire-roasted rabbit, wild rice and quail as well as vegetables like squash, corn, beans, mushrooms and fruits like cherries, apples and elderberries. Sumac is another biggie—Chef Wells works with a local forager to get her hands on the wild herb, which she dehydrates and grinds into a savory spice that can be used in place of salt. She’ll also crust fish with a blend of sumac and sunflower oil, another local ingredient, and then slow-roast it over fire or in the oven. She’s even made a tea out of the herb by steeping it with cedar in hot water for use as a beverage as well as a flavor-enhancer when sous vide cooking meats. And though it sounds unappetizing, Chef Wells has lately experimented with beaver, another indigenous ingredient that, like with venison, tastes less gamey when the glands are removed during butchery and before cooking (beaver glands are located on back and legs).
In the fall, and particularly in October, Chef Wells tries to beat out the squirrels and scours the fields for acorns, which she cooks, dehydrates and grinds into a powder for use as a gluten-free flour for breads, baked goods and as a natural thickener for soup and sauces.
“Acorns can have a bitter taste so you have to boil the nut meat down by boiling it for 15 minutes, dumping out the water and repeating the process for about six hours to remove the tannins,” says Chef Wells, who admits that the labor intensiveness can be off-putting for many. “But if you can stick with the process, the result is a really nutty, rich flavor like walnut, and you can dehydrate the meat for about six hours and grind it into flour.” While she’ll normally take to the trails in search of red oak acorns, which she says are the best for flavor, she recently lucked out when her school offered up a pile of the nuts they had gathered off the premises. Often, as in the recipes below, Chef Wells will combine both acorn and chestnut flour, the latter of which is much easier to prepare –just score the meat, roast, dehydrate and grind.
Lately, Chef Wells has been hosting free Zoom classes and hopes to do in-person tasting with local tribes in the future when it’s safe. Read more on her blog, https://www.makwaniwiisin.com/.
Maple Acorn Chestnut cake
Highlighted with maple, this cake tastes like fall! For either recipes you can substitute raw honey instead of maple syrup for a different flavor experience. Each pound of chestnuts makes about 1 cup of flour.
1/2 cup maple sugar
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 cup acorn flour
1/2 cup chestnut flour
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Using a stand or hand-held mixer, whip eggs to a cold foam. Add sugar, a pinch at a time, on high speed, whipping until thick and frothy. Add maple syrup and continue to whip until soupy but thick. Fold in flours and mix until just combined. Pour into tins or mini cake pans.
Bake until tooth pick comes out clean, about 15 minutes. Glaze with an optional maple buttercream.
Anishinaabe Acorn Donuts
Don’t overcook these donuts, as the flour is very delicate.
2 cold eggs, yolks and eggs separated
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 cup chestnut flour
1 cup acorn flour
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Using a stand or hand-held mixer, bring egg whites to stiff peaks and set aside. Mix maple syrup with egg yolks and whip.
Blend in flours to the maple syrup-egg yolk mixture until just barely incorporated. Do not overwhip, which will make the end product very stiff. Fold in reserved egg whites.
Grease a cake or cake donut pan. Spoon in batter and cook for 15 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Over baking will lead them to be very stiff. Use a maple glaze on top for extra flavor and sweetness.