On a crisp fall Friday in St. Paul, Minnesota, at precisely 5 p.m., the first two among the plaid-shirted assembly drop place-holding coasters on top of their IPAs, put down their cribbage hands, and exit the trendy taproom at Burning Brothers Brewing to grab a bite. A couple sipping Roasted Coffee Strong Ale ceases discussing their latest kombucha experiment to join the food truck queue outdoors. I follow, expecting Korean-Mexican or gourmet poutine or some other nascent food trend. Instead, I find the hungry foodies have gathered outside the gluten-free brewery to eat like we the people did long before Christopher Columbus ever dreamed of crossing the Atlantic.
“Custer, eat your heart out,” observes a home-kitchen kombucha advocate perusing the white-board menu at the Tatanka Truck.
Named for the Lakota word for bison, the multicolored Tatanka Truck roams Minnesota’s Twin Cities peddling “indigenous tacos,” featuring braised bison on a corn cake sprinkled with crunchy cracked corn, seeds, and puffed wild rice. It simultaneously, if sub-textually, sells a doctrine of pre-European-contact American fare. That means pre–dairy industry, protein-rich, naturally vegan, hyper-local, and, wherever possible, wild.
“We are on the path to redefining ‘American’ food in general, beyond hamburgers and Coca-Cola,” says Sean Sherman, the Oglala Lakota chef behind the truck. He is also known as the Sioux Chef, a title he adopted during his 27 years in upscale restaurants reviving indigenous fare.
Don’t bother pointing out that tacos were never in the native inventory, a larder of corn, beans, and squash among other healthy staples. “You can’t reach people without having fun. Tacos are fun,” he says, even if his “tacos” require a knife and fork for those patrons toting paper trays back to the taproom.
Bred as a “super latchkey” kid who started cooking at home at age 10, Sherman grew up on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota with a grandmother who still made traditional chokecherry syrups and intestinal soups. But there was also lots of fry bread, the fried dough forged by the government-issued staples of flour, lard, sugar, and salt that separated tribes from traditions. Fans, aboriginal and non, often ask for it at the Tatanka Truck, to their disappointment.
“Through my grandfather’s era, we were still living on the plains with a traditional lifestyle. By the turn of the century, things started going downhill quickly,” says Sherman. “Fry bread was oppression food.”
Sherman doesn’t claim to make America’s only original food, just one high-plains version of it given to bison, walleye, and wild rice. He plans to take his truck-based dishes in a more stylish direction by opening his first brick-and-mortar restaurant in 2017, after a lightning-fast, small-donor Kickstarter campaign raised $150,000 this past fall.
“We have broad visions,” he says, laying out more plans for a cookbook, culinary training center, and a general reorientation to what’s local. “You can’t get more Minnesotan than these foods.”