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Chef Wolfman shares Indigenous culture, cuisine and community

Chef David Wolfman on set of Cooking With the Wolfman presenting Indigenous Fusion of traditional foods with a modern twist. Photo: cookingwiththewolfman.com

By Sharon Harrison
Traditional Indigenous cuisine and culture formed part of the conversation with Chef David Wolfman, Thursday. The informative and fascinating talk, which Wolfman dubbed ‘The Past is the Future’, was part of the Prince Edward County Public Library’s National Indigenous History Month programming.

This Xaxli’p First Nation’s descendent spoke to Indigenous culinary techniques and gathering principles, and the importance of sustainability, as well as ways of life for Indigenous people. He also shared a few fascinating personal stories and lessons he learned from his late mum, particularly the lesson of giving.

Chef Wolfman is an internationally recognized expert in traditional Indigenous cuisine, a professor at Toronto’s George Brown College, a cooking television show executive producer and host, and co-author of ‘Cooking with the Wolfman: Indigenous Fusion’.

Before his presentation, Wolfman addressed National Indigenous Peoples Day and month, in light of the recent findings of the unmarked graves surrounding the residential schools, saying, “this year has been significant for all the wrong reasons.”

He also noted that National Indigenous Peoples Day and month “in the past has been symbolic, it has not been all that meaningful. In order for reconciliation to happen, the truths need to be heard.”

Wolfman spoke first about where he grew up in Regent Park in Toronto, as an “urban Indigenous person”, noting he always wanted to learn more about the ways in which his mum cooked food.

He fondly recalls his nine-year-old self sneaking into the kitchen as his mum made home-made bread, not because he wanted to gain knowledge and skills, but because he was hungry.

“That was the first step in the kitchen for me to be working with my mum, although I was basically just stirring the stew,” he said. “As I was eating the freshly cooked bread with my mum, I was developing a relationship with my mum talking about the stories.”

He listened to his mum talk about how she yearned to go back home because she missed the mountains and the ways, although he didn’t understand what she was referring to at the time. This is when he asked her to share more about how she lived.

He was able to visit the reserve in the mountains out west after his mum passed away and this is where he learned about the environment, and how his ancestors live.

“We would listen to the environment and the environment would talk to us,“ he said, referring to “environmental indicators”, things that would indicate to the Indigenous peoples when the salmon were ready to be caught, for example. On that trip, he also learned how they shared food, but also not taking too much, because other people wouldn’t have any.

“When we think of this, we think of conserving the earth,” he said.

“The more I thought about this growing up an urban Indigenous person, the more I thought they are really in touch with the land and making sure we don’t take as much,” he said. “It’s a far cry from the practice we do today in the city where we have jumbo cars, jumbo packages from big stores, we put them into our jumbo fridges, throw them into our jumbo garbage cans and we take it to jumbo landfills.”

“This is really affecting our environment, we are buying food in such large quantities, we are not sharing, and it is completely different from what I learned from growing up.”

He said he also learned on his trip out west about the connection people had for each other.

“I learned about bonding with the environment; there was also trust, sharing with others, caring for strangers, conserving for the future, and this really opened up my eyes to see this is true sustainability, this is amazing,” he explained.

It wasn’t a suggestion, he said. People were obliged to take care of the land, and it wasn’t an option.

“The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was right within the community.”

He also compared the trendy sustainability many are familiar with, such as the food-to-table movement, the 100-mile diet, eating local and comparing what he knows as an urban Indigenous person and what his family had done and how the two can come together.

“In order to find the balance of health and life skills, consider looking at your future, maybe I am looking in the wrong direction, so I should be looking back.”

Wolfman described how his family and ancestors used a word ‘N-Tlak menth-katha’ which means to look after the land. Elders told him that it also meant it was a circle as in community because each person was no different to the plants, fish, bears and so on.

“From a Xaxli’p perspective, sustainability was knowing right from wrong. Doing the wrong things traditionally would lead to be shunned, and according to my uncle, it was like a death sentence because everybody needed each other to survive. All of us had an integral part in the community.“

Wolfman speaks to the differences and experiences growing up in Toronto as a “city slicker” which he describes as the total opposite of his peoples lessons, something they had undertaken for thousands of years.

“In Toronto, I learned to protect myself, think for myself, to speak for myself, to physically fight for myself, to learn to be street-smart, city-wise, not to trust strangers, to be one step ahead of anybody else, and it didn’t matter about the people next door to me, and I didn’t even know their names, and I learned not to look them in the eyes and don’t talk to strangers.”

With the majority of Indigenous people in Canada now living in cities, “it makes it harder and harder for us to pass down this traditional knowledge with each other, and our languages are slowly disappearing the less we use them.”

Wolfman spoke to how methods of cooking and Indigenous cuisine and foods were shared and were often done around storytelling and in a circle, something that was the complete opposite to what he had learned growing up.

“When we look at the environment, we look at the viewpoint of protecting it,” adding that family members told him, “they did not inherit land from the earth, but from our ancestors and our children, so it was up to us to look after this land and to look after the food.”

Wolfman also spoke to different ways that different groups of people look at food, noting there is a difference between Indigenous foods, to traditional, to cultural.

“Indigenous foods were foods that were here pre-contact, such as buffalo, caribou, salmon, fiddleheads, milkweed pods.”

“If we look to, for example, to the north to the Inuit people, when they would get seal or whale, they wouldn’t cook the food and it was customary to eat a liver right after they took an animal, and that’s because it was warm, and everything else was freezing.”

He noted how he was always giving things away.

“Knowledge was given to me to give away, being part of the community, being able to give is fantastic, I am trying to do small steps for the environment.”

“For our environment, what are we doing for our families and for our future and our communities, I like to say it’s contagious; in my opinion, the more I did something for people, when someone says what can I do for you? I say, ‘just pass it on’.”

“I have the greatest job in the world, I get to give the knowledge that has been shared with me, I get to give food away, and as a professor and a lecturer, I get to share the stories that have been shared with me, and that’s the greatest feeling in the world.”

A copy of the presentation will be available library’s YouTube channel in due course.

National Indigenous History Month programming continues at the Prince Edward County Public Library with another special presentation Wednesday, June 30 at 2 p.m. with Darrel J. McLeod, author of Peyakow and Mamaskatch, which received the Governor General’s Literacy Award for nonfiction. Click here to register. 

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