ONTARIO – Raised in the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in southern Ontario, Tawnya Brant and her sisters lived on their mother’s lush garden and the fish and game her father caught and hunted. While the family had no running water or electricity on the reservation, Brant’s parents taught her the culinary traditions of their people, the Kanien’kehá: ka (known as Mohawk in English).
Brant, now head chef at Yawékon Foods, will give a virtual lecture on the revival of indigenous food culture as part of the “Haudenosaunee and the Erie Canal Series”, presented by the Erie Canal Museum and Skä • noñh – Great Law of Peace Center. The Haudenosaunee range is part of the museum’s Erie Eats Foodways Project.
Yawékon Foods – the name means “it tastes good” in Kanienʼkéha – offers a modern interpretation of indigenous American foods such as corn, beans, pumpkin, wild rice, potatoes, berries, fish and game. Brant uses her 27 years of culinary experience to promote the movement of indigenous food sovereignty and to reintroduce the people of the Haudenosaunee into their traditional cuisine.
“Our food has a spirit. We believe that foods are linked by our DNA, ”said Brant. “Our food is already healthy.”
In both the United States and Canada, tribal peoples have been torn from their families and forced into boarding schools, where they are forbidden to speak their language, practice their religion, and eat their traditional foods. Today, many indigenous peoples rely on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food distribution program for Indian Reservations (FDPIR). The program mainly offers canned or frozen products, which are often high in sodium and added sugar.
Alaskan Indians / Native Americans are more likely to be overweight or obese than non-Hispanic whites, according to the U.S. Department of Health for Minority Health. Obesity can be a risk factor for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
European colonizers brought food to America that was difficult for indigenous bodies to digest.
“We don’t know any dairy products. We don’t know a lot of foreign meats like chicken, beef and pork, ”said Brant.
While cultural assimilation has resulted in many indigenous peoples losing touch with their traditional foods, a stigma persists in some indigenous communities.
“There are many communities where eating traditional foods like ‘Oh, you are poor’ is despised,” Brant said.
Brant acknowledged that true “pre-colonial” diets are not feasible for most people because high quality fresh produce is expensive and often scarce in urban settings.
“That’s impossible for most people right now, unless you grow your own food, unless you’ve spent your entire life harvesting that food,” Brant said. “I spend as much time procuring as I do cooking in the kitchen. … My supply chains are extremely limited, but it works and it works because we work hard. “
Rather than directly reproducing her ancestors’ recipes, Brant works with what the seasons offer her, so some dishes are never made the same way twice.
“We probably came up with over 100 dishes in the nine months we were open,” Brant said of Yawékon.
Brant said she doesn’t stick to a recipe and prefers to cook what she has never cooked before.
“Recipes stand still. … I want to blow people away, ”she said. “I really enjoy cooking for teenagers. You have such spoiled palates. They know all the different cuisines, but they don’t know any indigenous food. “
By combining modern cuisine with the Haudenosaunee food traditions, Brant hopes to “bring more indigenous food into the bellies of the indigenous population” and inspire people to make healthier choices.
“There are 20,000 people in Six Nations and that’s 20,000 palates who are not used to our food,” she said of her community.
The virtual conversation with Skä • noñh and the Erie Canal Museum is Brant’s first major presentation aimed at a Haudenosaunee audience. She said that she tailored each presentation to the audience and encouraged healthy discussion.
“I’m not an academic. I don’t have a recited presentation to give to people because I think these conversations should be organic, ”she said.
The virtual discussion “Reviving Haudenosaunee Food Culture” by head chef Tawnya Brant will take place on Tuesday, August 24th at 7 pm. Registration at facebook.com/events/396910868511648/. The event is free and open to the public, but Skä • noñh and the Erie Canal Museum are accepting donations to fund future events. More information is available at skanonhcenter.org or eriecanalmuseum.org.
To learn more about Brant’s work, visit cheftawnyabrant.com or Facebook.com/cheftawnya.