What a local chef wants you to know about Thanksgiving

UWhen I first called Sherry Poknett, she was about to walk out the door—heading off to look for mushrooms. But on Mashpee Wampanoag a chef and long-time caterer invites me to his restaurant, Sly Fox Den tooin Charlestown, Rhode Island, which specializes in the East Coast Local cuisine. There, in a little red house right next to the lands of the Narragansett Indian tribe, she cooks lunch – crispy duck skin like potato chips – and explains that the sunflower oil she uses to cook our food can also be rubbed into hair and skin you to keep you looking youthful.

Poknet, 62, is a member of the tribe best known for its food Pilgrims. Her restaurant — named after her fisherman father and Native American rights advocate Chief Sly Fox — is her own way of using the knowledge of her people to feed Americans today. And she hopes the menu shows the breadth and depth of local foods, which are much more than Thanksgiving turkey. In fact, at Sly Fox Den Too, which opened in June 2021, the only one turkey the pieces are feathers protruding from a hand-woven basket hanging on the wall. Poknett explains that her people do eat turkey, but they also respect the birds for their intelligence and wear the feathers in their hair to absorb the turkeys’ intelligence.

Read more: What Thanksgiving means today to the Native American tribe that fed the Pilgrims

Her menu is based on a simple concept: “the food I grew up eating,” she says. She cooks locally and seasonally. At this time of year, that means foods like rabbit and quahogs, hard-shell clams native to the Atlantic coast. A photographer and I watch as Poknet prepares duck hash and venison—from a deer freshly killed by her brother-in-law that she skinned herself—topped with onion rings. Chopped onion rings, she admits, aren’t exactly an ingrained tradition: They’re “mixed,” she says, “but I just love them.” She also makes “travel cakes,” cornmeal patties with dried cranberries, versions of which have a long history as travel food.

As she stews reduced beach plums her niece has picked on Martha’s Vineyard to pair with the venison, Poknett explains that many people don’t realize that this tart native fruit is both edible and delicious, so they go unpicked, left behind of the birds. To wash it all down, there are pots full of iced tea made from boiled sassafras roots that are plucked right behind the restaurant. Even if you’ve never heard of this common North American tree, you probably know its taste—it’s long been a key ingredient in root beer. The holiday is based on foods that appeared at the meal known as the First Thanksgiving in 1621. According to historian David Silverman This land is their land, waterfowl, venison, cornmeal, and seafood would feature prominently on the colonists’ table.

Restaurants specializing in Native American cuisine are rare, but a dedicated core of local chefs are working to enhance their reputation. Ovamni, an upscale Minneapolis restaurant focused on local cuisine and ingredients won a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant this year. Owner Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota chef, says Native American restaurateurs face the same challenges other people of color face in the industry. “We’ve lost a lot of our own resources, especially when it comes to land ownership,” says Sherman, “and a lot of us coming off the reservations come from poor communities.”

Read more: Sean Sherman: The Thanksgiving Tale We Tell Is a Harmful Lie. As an Indian, I found a better way to celebrate the holiday

Chef Sherry Poknett forages on Oct. 31 in Charlestown, Rhode Island (Tony Luong for TIME)

Chef Sherry Poknett forages on Oct. 31 in Charlestown, Rhode Island

Tony Luong for TIME

Despite the difficult history, many members of the Wampanoag tribe still like to gather with their families on Thanksgiving – after all, it is a day off. CheeNulKa Pocknett, Sherry’s nephew, who helps run an oyster and quahog farm in the Cape Cod area, plans to serve his family wild salmon he caught in Washington state with nets he made himself. On his Thanksgiving table, there is always an extra plate with a small serving of everything for the “ancestors and spirits.” Danielle Grindir, who runs a shop that sells traditional art and jewelry in the heart of Mashpee tribal land, harvested corn for the food she hosts at her home. She sees the occasion as a natural way to celebrate First Thanksgiving, turning the holiday into a celebration of “survival”. After all, she says, “the only way we survive is by eating.”

While customers at Pocknett’s restaurant wait for their food to come out, they can flip through a book called If you lived during Thanksgiving in Plymouth— who retells American myth from the point of view of the Wampanoag people. And yet, throughout the year, many customers still just want her to tell them Thanksgiving. So she tells them the story she heard growing up. “We are a loving, giving people. We helped them, and then look what happened,” emphasizing the statement with outstretched arms. “They took everything from us and killed us. We were deleted. But not all the way. We’re still here. We have been here for over 12,000 years. We’re not going anywhere.”

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman c [email protected].

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