Interview with an Indigenous Chef: Jessica L. Pamonicutt

Chef Jessica Pamonicutt in front of trees and "Land of Menominee" sign
Chef Jessica L. Pamonicutt

Name:  Jessica L. Pamonicutt 
Location: Chicago 
Education/background: Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts 
Business name: Ketapanen Kitchen 
Tribal affiliation: Menominee 

What led to your passion for indigenous foods? 

I grew up in Chicago, 250 miles away from my home, my reservation, my family and my culture. When you grow up disconnected in such a way, I feel like you have to work harder to maintain your cultural identity.  My family spent a lot of time connecting with other Natives at the American Indian Center of Chicago. I would often find myself in the kitchen helping. My mother instilled in me the importance of cooking for my family and community. She taught me that food brings people together. It connects people. She taught me that food not only nourishes our bodies, but our spirits. So when I cook, I should do so with good feelings in my heart and I should put good feelings and prayers into my food. Cooking was a way for me to connect with my culture and my community. It was something that I enjoyed and something that I did well. So well, in fact, that I could command a kitchen at 12 years old. It seemed only natural that it would be that career path that I chose.  

Cooking wasn’t enough. I wanted to do something that mattered — something that benefitted my community and Native people as a whole. I realized that I was in the perfect place to do something that mattered. I live in a cultural mecca, a place where you can find any ethnic cuisine your heart desired. Except one: Indigenous foods. There was a big niche in the culinary industry in Chicago that needed filling. As I developed my business concept, I also realized not only was there no representation in the culinary scene in Chicago, but also a lack of access to Indigenous foods. Contributing to that void was the utter lack of knowledge when it came to Indigenous foods. I decided then that  I was not only going to bring Indigenous cuisine to the forefront of Chicago’s culinary scene, but I was also going to bring education, resources and visibility with it. And so my passion began… 

Why do you think it’s important to make traditional foods accessible for Natives? 

We live in a country where many of the foods we eat are banned in other countries. They say if you were born after the 90s you have never tasted real food. We live in a world full of convenient, highly processed chemical concoctions disguised as food, and with that comes higher rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, hormonal imbalances and even autism. Our bodies are not meant to process and digest chemicals. Going back to a “natural” diet is imperative to better health.  

Our ancestors were much healthier than our current generations. I think it’s time to get back to relying on the land to nourish our bodies. If people realized how vast Indigenous food options are, how many good foods are just waiting to be rediscovered and reintroduced and if they had easy access to such foods, we could chart the course for healthier future generations. I currently have to drive 250 miles for wild rice, maple syrup, hull corn, wild ginseng, and other traditional goodies. It should be just as accessible as the processed foods that plague our diets. The first step in bringing about that change is to increase accessibility. 

What is the importance of an indigenous diet for a healthy lifestyle? 

Indigenous diets are clean and natural and not plagued by all the chemicals that are commonplace in our diets. It is so important to know and understand where our food comes from and to know exactly what we are putting in our bodies. Our bodies are not meant to process and digest chemicals. When you change to a decolonized diet, you are taking a big step in a healthy direction. Fresh, organic and GMO-free fruits, vegetables, plants and herbs are major components of a decolonized diet. Meats such as bison, fish and wild caught salmon are much healthier than grain-fed or farmed. The chemicals in our food can affect our bodies in many ways from heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure to autism. We need to get away from processed foods, foods that have been genetically modified and foods that are grown or raised in unnatural ways. Historically, prior to colonization, Native people were very healthy. We didn’t have all of these diseases that currently plague Indian Country. Our people lived longer lives. If we can get back to a Decolonized Diet, there is hope for us to have healthy future generations.  

What other ways (besides your business) are you involved in the education, restoration and accessibility of traditional Native foods? 

When I first started my catering business and pop-Up kitchen, I had no idea that education would be a big part of what I do. I was filling a void in Chicago’s culinary scene. I came to realize that a majority of people had no clue what Indigenous foods are and what a decolonized diet consists of. I realized then that my vision for my business needed to change to include education.  

I have done speaking engagements and food demos for many local organizations, libraries and schools. I was recently invited to help a Girl Scout Troop earn a patch. I provided a traditional meal and had an open table discussion with the girls about Native foods and culture. I am working to expand this and offer a program to other troops for the same patch program. I have a few projects I am currently working on that center heavily on education. I am working with Pilot Light, a non-profit organization in Chicago that focuses on food education. They developed a model for food education that integrates food into traditional subjects like math, reading, history, and science. Pilot Light’s community of teachers builds on students’ knowledge and experiences of and with food through the lessons teachers are already teaching. Simultaneously, students are also learning about food and how it connects us to ourselves, our communities, and our world, while advocating for an equitable future. This summer I will be working with Pilot to create a Native Foods Education Program that will be implemented in the 2022-2023 school year in Chicago Public Schools. I am also working with The Field Museum to create Native food resources for their Harris Collection. The collection is available to educators to check out and use in their classrooms. Over the next six months I will also be working with Trickster Cultural Center, The University of Chicago, University of Illinois and several local libraries on various education programming. 

As for accessibility, it is something I struggle with as a business and individual. My mission is to use all Native vendors, growers, farmers and foragers for my ingredients. I currently have two people growing ingredients specifically for my menu. I am also working with the Intertribal Agricultural Council to source ingredients. As part of some of the educational programs I am developing, we hope to include projects within those programs that would involve planting and growing traditional foods with youth. 

How can community members be involved and support the cause of restoring and protecting indigenous food systems? 

In small numbers we create ripples, in large numbers we create waves. As a community we should be working together to restore and protect Indigenous food systems. I would love to see a food sovereignty program developed in Chicago. Teaching community members how to identify, harvest, grow and cook Indigenous foods is a great way to restore our food systems. We currently have three small garden spaces in the Chicagoland area, but that is not enough. In an ideal world, I would love to see the community secure land for planting and growing. A community owned and operated farm/garden space where we could come together to grow and feed the community would be a dream come true. 

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