Food as Medicine

August 10, 2020 | TPL Staff

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Indigenous Advisory Council member Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith recently tackled the topic of food as medicine for this blog post. Find her top three cookbooks by Indigenous authors below!

Christine is a Saulteaux woman from Peguis First Nation. She is an emerging writer, having graduated from the University of Toronto in June 2011 with a specialization in Aboriginal Studies, and a Masters in Education in Social Justice in June 2017. She has written for the Native Canadian, Anishinabek News, Windspeaker, FNH Magazine, New Tribe Magazine, the Piker Press and MUSKRAT Magazine.

 


 

Writing about "Food as Medicine" for the Toronto Public Library blog was a challenge. Not because I didn’t like to read books, but because I felt perplexed about writing on a topic that I have had issues with for most of my life. But as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the topic really began to resonate with me. I felt that I was able to turn around and try to put those particular issues aside and teach myself to cook. My slow cooker has become a life saver because it has taught me to cook healthier, and in turn that makes me think, feel and act healthier.

Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

In this book, the author writes about the disconnect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous worldviews. Not only how the earth came to be, but also how there is a recognized hierarchical structure that non-Indigenous people tend to believe in. She also shares wisdom on how scientific knowledge and the teaching of plants connect within the Indigenous worldview.

The author writes how the Indigenous worldview has taught Indigenous people to look beyond themselves. To look at our teachers from among other species for guidance. They teach us by example, because they have been on Mother Earth far longer than we have and have had time to impart their wisdom among us. Wall Kimmerer also imparts to the reader that "plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then they give it away."

Within this wisdom Wall Kimmerer speaks of the story about Skywoman. She says that she would:

 

...like to imagine that when Skywoman first came and scattered her handful of seeds across Turtle Island, she was sowing sustenance for the body and also for the mind, emotion and spirit... she was leaving us teachers, and within that "the plants can tell us her story: we need to learn to listen."

 

Having read this book, I in turn have learned to become more in tune and aware of my choices when I cook for myself. The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was using vegetables in my cooking and also using herbs and seasonings. Food in all its complexities has a lot to offer. For many it involves culture, story and tradition. It is not strictly only related to Indigenous people, but in many cultures everywhere. I see this when I go online to research the next dish I want to make. Or when I heed the advice of a friend who tells me how they cook something, and explains how I can incorporate it into the way I cook.

 

Modern Native Feasts

Modern Native Feasts: Healthy, Innovative, Sustainable Cuisine by Andrew George Jr.

This book imparts the knowledge to readers about how Aboriginal people have a strong tie to the land and to their traditions. It was the author's experiences as a child growing up that, "for food, my family and I had to take advantage of what was available to us seasonally, in the wild." His family home didn’t have indoor plumbing or running water.

As a result of learning to live from the land in his earlier years, George Jr. says, "it has always been my goal to fuse these traditional values with modern and innovative cooking techniques."

Though I don’t know a lot about fusion cuisine, it was very interesting to read some of the recipes that George Jr. documented. There were two recipes that stuck out the most to me. They were recipes about infusing a modern twist to bannock by adding poached eggs, cream cheese, arugula, salmon and hollandaise sauce. He called this recipe “Bannock Bennies with Smoked Salmon."

Though this might be a completely new recipe for some, I am reminded of the old school way of how ni mama pan made bannock. Historically, bannock is not technically an Indigenous people’s recipe. But I remember heading back home to visit ni mama and her bannock was the talk of the little town she lived in. Everyone loved her bannock, and sometimes when money was a bit tight, she would bake it for various families around the town and sell it.

I recall sitting in her living room and I would head into her kitchen, just to watch her make it. It always made me smile because once she got all the ingredients together, and started kneading the dough, she would be covered from head to toe in flour. We would just laugh at the mess that happened while she prepared her bannock. Humour always found a way into ni mama’s kitchen.

 

A Land Not Forgotten

A Land Not Forgotten: Indigenous Food Security and Land Based Practices in Northern Ontario. Edited by Michael A Robidoux and Courtney W. Mason

In the last book that I read, the reader is taken through the realities of "food is medicine". But there are hindrances that surround the richness of Indigenous foods.

These hindrances are in particular food insecurity, and how it can impact your health in many unfortunate ways. Food insecurity may be experienced in large cities. But it quickly turns into a much larger issue for smaller and more rural Indigenous communities. It is a privileged position for many people in urban metropolis’ that few think about where their food comes from. Or in what conditions it was produced or processed.

The editors of this book state:

Throughout Canada, Indigenous groups engaged in diverse land based practices that made use of local or regional ecosystems, fluctuating climates and varying access to resources, including seasonal patterns of mammal and fish migrations...

and

[T]he development of this unique set of knowledge about diverse ecosystems is the result of millennia of Indigenous experience engaging in these practices.

 

Indigenous people have been impacted immensely by colonization and assimilationist policies. By having their land encroached upon, and parceled off onto unfarmable tracts of land, Indigenous people are unable to practice the ways that were once known. It is through the erosion of the health and integrity of Indigenous cultures, ecosystems and social structures that Indigenous people fight harder to maintain not only a way to survive themselves but to create a different future for the generations to come.

 

By Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith, member of Toronto Public Library Indigenous Advisory Council

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