Jessica Pamonicutt, known as Chef Walks First, takes a break Saturday while her harvest soup cooks during Heritage Day at Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland. Pamonicutt a member of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, is part owner and executive chef at her Stickney-based Ketapanen Kitchen, which focuses on indigenous foods. (Vincent D. Johnson/Daily Southtown)
Like many households throughout the Chicago area and indeed the entire country, Thanksgiving for Jessica Pamonicutt was a celebration of food and family.
But she didn’t celebrate the American storybook Thanksgiving holiday, a pleasant affair from foggy history when friendly English settlers happily feasted with their new neighbors, the Indians.
At the gatherings she remembers, there were no tall paper hats, no buckled figurines nestled in the table centerpiece, because “what’s written in storybooks about Pilgrims and Indians never occurred,” said Pamonicutt, a member of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin who was born on a reservation north of Green Bay and raised in Chicago.
“For me, it’s a difficult subject,” she said. “Thanksgiving is always touchy for us.”
Thanksgiving was declared an official American holiday by President Abraham Lincoln as a way to reunite a weary country at the end of the Civil War, centuries after the Massachusetts feast that still adds imagery to November family gatherings. The modern fairy tale of Thanksgiving glosses over years of injustice and conflict between Indigenous people and the colonists arriving from Europe.
That’s not to say Pamonicutt doesn’t have fond memories of the holiday.
“Our mother was big on family meals,” she said. “Whether or not it was Thanksgiving that we were celebrating, it was a time for her to feed the family, and a time to bring family that we didn’t always see home to share a meal with us.
“We celebrate it as a time of connection. There always was more food than anyone could possibly eat. And all that stuff on the menu, she taught me how to make.”
Jessica Pamonicutt prepares harvest soup Saturday at Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland. She planned to provide tasting samples of the soup to Heritage Day visitors, but said most would be fed to staff and volunteers after the event wrapped up. (Vincent D. Johnson/Daily Southtown)
That cultural and familial inheritance remained largely untapped as Pamonicutt explored different avenues trying to find her calling. About 10 years ago, her husband suggested going to culinary school. It felt right.
“I was raised in the American Indian community here in Chicago, and when you grow up in a communal setting, especially as a young girl, you spend a lot of time in the kitchen,” she said. “It’s not a stereotypical thing, that women belong in the kitchen. But that’s the way we show our people, our community and our families, that we care for them.
“The act of preparing food, the act of serving your community, it’s a sacred act. I was taught at a very young age how to do that. It was ingrained in me and was part of who I was.”
Now with some formal training under her belt, Pamonicutt gazed across the Chicago area’s vast and diverse culinary landscape and found a missing ingredient: indigenous food.
“Here in Chicago, there was nobody doing that,” she said. “So I took it on.”
She began a part-time catering gig for the Trickster Cultural Center in Schaumburg and found out she had the chops, and three years ago she “ventured out on my own and have been wildly successful.”
These days Pamonicutt, of Stickney, is known as Chef Walks First. Though her business, Ketapanen Kitchen, which she owns with her husband, Tony Garcia, and her mentor Chef John Abels, she is busy giving presentations about indigenous foods up to three times day, as well as traveling throughout the Midwest to set up pop-up restaurants and cater private events.
It’s rewarding, but it hasn’t been easy.
“With indigenous foods, you can’t just pick up any old book and learn about it. You can’t go into grocery stores or restaurants, or even specialty stores and buy our food,” she said. “You really have to be an educator and have a relationship with the foods.
“I had to take the time to understand the stories of these foods. Every food that we use has a story, has a spirit, has an essence. Those stories are part of who we are as Indigenous people. They tell our stories.”
Wild rice and other ingredients simmer in a harvest soup being cooked over an open fire Saturday by Chef Walks First, aka Jessica Pamonicutt, during Heritage Day at Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland. (Vincent D. Johnson/Daily Southtown)
Among the foods with the deepest roots and the longest story in the Chicago area is manoomin, a dish that relies upon a form of wild rice that’s been harvested throughout the Great Lakes region for “thousands and thousands of years,” Pamonicutt said, noting the food also has a personal connection.
“The Menomonie people are known the people of the wild rice,” she said. “That’s what Menomonie means.”
The manoomin dish she grew up with is flavored by a combination of blackberries, raspberries, strawberries or blueberries, nuts (“not peanuts, but walnuts or pecans,” she said), and some maple syrup for sweetness.
“You can serve it cold or heat it up and it becomes like a porridge,” Pamonicutt said. “Some people add a protein, like chicken or turkey. But in its traditional format, it’s just wild rice, berries, maple and nuts.”
Pamonicutt’s use of — and advocacy for — indigenous foods isn’t limited to what her direct ancestors in the Midwest ate, though she’s partial to regional ingredients such as freshwater fish, venison, bison and “a lot of squashes.”
She dips into indigenous cuisine of other regions as well.
“If you go Southwest, it’s chilies, tomatoes, a lot of corn, goat meat,” she said. “In the plains, it’s bison, corn and different berries — huckleberries, chokecherries — that we can’t get here. Along the California coast there are a lot of acorn dishes.
“There’s a regional aspect to cuisine, but I’m more intertribal. Let’s recognize it all, bring in food from all over the place to create these dishes. It’s a dream come true to get my hands on some of these ingredients and offer them to people in my dishes.”
Jessica Pamonicutt chops apples Saturday at Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland during a cooking demonstration as part of the Forest Preserve of Cook County's Heritage Day. (Vincent D. Johnson/Daily Southtown)
Getting those ingredients can take some effort, as she prefers to source all of her ingredients from Native American producers who harvest food in traditional ways.
“It takes a lot of driving, a lot of networking, a lot of knowing people who harvest,” Pamonicutt said. “I’m preferential to the integrity of ingredients and will make that drive. I’ll drive 500 miles round trip to pick up bags of wild rice. That’s true for a lot of our ingredients.
“Other times, people say, ‘I have a bag of sunflower heads — want them?’ That’s how we roll.”
While the 17th century imagery of Thanksgiving doesn’t resonate with Pamonicutt, Thursday’s traditional menu is rife with indigenous dishes, she said, “but a little bit different.”
Her first tip is to trade in the Butterball bird for a wild turkey.
“Those things run around my reservation like they run the place,” she said. “It’s a traditional food for us.”
She seasons her turkey with sage and cedar and sumac — all natural spices and medicines for her people. There’s also a squash dish, a sweet potato dish with all traditional ingredients and cranberry sauce made with maple syrup. The stuffing includes sage sausage with chestnuts, wild mushrooms, wild rice, apples and cranberries.
“We don’t use a lot of those fancy seasonings or sauces. Our foods are simplistic — we rely on the natural flavoring and natural seasoning, really highlighting the flavor of the food itself,” she said.
The rustic surroundings of Sand Ridge Nature Center's Homestead exhibit is the backdrop to Heritage Day presentations. (Vincent D. Johnson/Daily Southtown)
And the food itself is worth celebrating, Pamonicutt said, as well as a great reason to gather with friends and loved ones for a shared culinary experience.
“It’s a beautiful thing. People have gotten away from that,” she said. “Food can feed your soul. True comfort foods make you feel all the love that went into that dish. You walk away and your body is full and your spirit is full.
“Those are the dishes I like sharing. There are a lot of cultures that do that, but that’s my favorite thing about mine: the way we care for and nourish each other with food.”
Landmarks is a weekly column by Paul Eisenberg exploring the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on the Southland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.