“We can look at ourselves as seeds,” said Elena Terry, while chopping a Hubbard winter squash in front of a live crowd at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in the nation’s capital. “How we interact with these ingredients is the way we really should be caring for each other.” Terry is a seed saver, member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and founder of Wild Bearies, a Wisconsin Dells-based catering nonprofit dedicated to feeding ancestral foods to Indigenous communities and preserving those same flavors for future generations.
It was the first Friday in November—Native American History Month—Terry and her daughter Zoe Fess had been invited to share their family’s signature dish: Seedy SassSquash. The audience watched in awe as the dynamic mother-daughter duo pureed the squash with coconut milk, egg yolks, and maple syrup, stirred the resulting custard over a low flame, and poured it into a series of muffin-sized crusts made with seeds and blue corn before topping it with fresh berries.
The pair were participating in the American Food History Project’s Cooking Up History—a project that has welcomed nearly 100 guest chefs to showcase their heritage through cultural cuisine since it began in 2015.
Dr. Ashley Rose Young, a Smithsonian food historian overseeing the Cooking Up History Program, said it isn’t “something you’d see on the Food Network,” but rather the cooking demos are designed to be history lessons shared through the lens of food. She eagerly awaited the arrival of Terry and Fess, whose demo marked a defining moment at the museum. “It’s an important milestone to have their voices and stories on our stage,” said Young.
The Smithsonian’s network of guest chefs and community advocates have recently pressed the museum to reimagine Cooking Up History as an educational platform, telling stories about food through advocacy and activism. And Terry’s grassroots work with Wild Bearies—which began as a catering company within the Ho-Chunk Nation focused on serving traditional foods, and has recently expanded to include education and community outreach—fits the bill.
“There is so much healing in truth. Reconciliation comes when you take a stand and say, ‘We are going to share this narrative differently, and we are going to recognize the history more appropriately.’”
Inviting the chefs to share an alternative take on the month of November is an important part of that cultural shift at the Smithsonian: A handful of previous demos spotlighted meals from Turkey Day without any acknowledgement of Indigenous perspectives surrounding the federal holiday.
“Our Native chef colleagues said they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. This is a challenging marker in their history. It’s a symbol of the Western occupation of their lands,” said Young. “We want to adapt, listen, and change our programs. We’re not doing Thanksgiving-themed programs anymore. I can’t imagine we would ever want to do one again.”
Terry said that unexpected shift has made her feel seen: “It’s incredible. . . . There is so much healing in truth. Reconciliation comes when you take a stand and say, ‘We are going to share this narrative differently, and we are going to recognize the history more appropriately.’”
Although Terry didn’t use the word Thanksgiving during the recent cooking demonstration, she tackled other examples of grief and trauma, including the forced relocation and assimilation of Ho-Chunk peoples. In response, Wild Bearies offers culinary mentorship programming for those suffering from emotional trauma as well as drug and alcohol addiction. And Terry spoke candidly about how seeing food as medicine can provide a pathway for coping with internalized, intergenerational pain through mentorship.
“The medicine is in this—being in the kitchen with my child or saving these seeds,” said Terry. “I am not ashamed to say that I was the first one that needed to come back to my community, and food led the way.”
Mikaila Way, the Indigenous Peoples’ liaison at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization‘s (FAO) North American office, said she has been following Terry and is “impressed by her work, but also her strong focus on mentorship and young training.” During the early days of the pandemic, Way partnered with Slow Food USA and Slow Food Turtle Island to publish a cookbook, curating the tastes of seven Indigenous chefs from North America, including Terry.