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  • Writer's pictureKara Marselle

It’s all Indigenous (except for fry bread) with Ketapanen Kitchen at the next Monday Night Foodball

Check out chef Jessica Walks First’s Native American menu at the Reader’s weekly pop-up series at Ludlow Liquors. by Mike Sula March 1, 2023

There are more than 34,000 Native Americans living in Chicago according to the 2020 census—and that’s probably an undercount. So who’s cooking at all the weddings, funerals, feasts, ceremonies, and powwows?

That would be Jessica Walks First, the omnipresent chef behind Ketapanen Kitchen. Walks First was born on the Menominee Indian Reservation in northeastern Wisconsin, but she grew up in Chicago cooking Native foods ever since she could reach the stove.

“My entire family on both sides lives on the reservation,” she says. “So anytime we were on school break, even on weekends, we were there. My father went there to hunt and fish. Every time we went up there they loaded us up with stuff, whether it was wild rice or corn, fish, venison, whatever it was, it got sent home. My parents always kept the deep freezer with all these things. There was a constant flow of traditional foods coming from home.”

Not all members of the city’s 100-plus tribal nations have it so good. Since 2014, Walks First has been on a mission to promote Indigenous foods and food sovereignty through catering, educating, and now through Monday Night Foodball, the Reader’s weekly chef pop-up at Ludlow Liquors.

Walks First is always running. With a health and wellness pilot program in the works with the Trotter Project; her Seed to Feed Native Foods Initiative, focused on the restoration of traditional food systems; and usually three catering gigs each week, we’re lucky to have her this Monday, March 6, when she and her crew will be throwing down a menu that spans the intertribal universe of Native cuisine. Take her medley of chicken fried woodland mushrooms with sage poblano ranch: “Mushrooms are pretty prevalent in our diet, especially with woodland Indians.” The ground bison in the black bean and sweet potato chili is coming from a family friend’s farm in southern Wisconsin, and same goes for the bison brisket plate with a choice of cactus pear or blueberry barbecue sauce.

Of course there’s a fry bread taco, built on the most familiar traditional food for non-Native people.

What now? That’s not right, says Walks First. Fry bread “is absolutely not a traditional food,” she says. “It is a contemporary food. It is a survival food. We didn’t have flour and lard and all that stuff. That was forced upon us when our people were forced into reservations. That’s where that food comes from. It’s not the healthiest food. But I use healthy oils like coconut oil to fry and organic ingredients right down to the butter. It is as big as your face. Crispy on the outside, soft and fluffy and airy on the inside. It is a beautiful food when cooked the right way. It’s like heaven on a plate.”

Is this the first fry bread taco to be served on the Foodball field? Unclear.

But Walks First herself is no stranger to the intersection of California and Wellington. Back in her 20s on special “Native Nights” at the long-gone Red Lounge, she and her crew used to dance atop the bar until last call. “They did have clever Native names for some of the drinks,” she says. “Red Mother Fucker [was a] take on a Blue MF. Me and my sister Melanie were the queens of Red Lounge.”

Join the Queen’s full circle starting at 5 PM Monday. You can roll the bones on a limited number of available walk-in orders or preorder right now. While you’re waiting, Grace and Joel will be mixing mezcal mules and sumac gimlets behind the bar.

Can’t make it? Next Saturday Ketapanen Kitchen is throwing a cultural immersion buffet dinner with tribal Salish stick gambling games at the Joy Room in Portage Park.

Meanwhile . . . Skoden! Stoodis! There are many more Monday Night Foodballs to come. The full schedule abides:

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