Rebel rousers and rooted memories
Dana Thompson and Jeremy Umansky go wild
The Indigenous ingredient illuminator and koji king discuss foraging for wild foods and even wilder regulations, Jewish and Indigenous food culture – and the linked values of cultural wealth and health
I would advise people to get intoJeremy Umansky
what I would call ‘good trouble’.
Does the cosmos exist in a jar of sauerkraut? Can we find medicine in the sidewalk cracks? When we slip through the net of institutionalised education, can it lead us down the rabbit hole to resilience?
Dana Thompson, a descendant of the Dakota tribe, and Jeremy Umansky, an Ashkenazi Jew, are all too familiar with the failings and flaws of the American school system. Dana left home at 15 and went to live by herself in Duluth, a port city on Lake Superior in Minnesota. Jeremy has been kicked out of more institutions than most have graduated from. In spite of this – or thanks to this – the pair have become avid, award-winning food and plant educators, and the urban and wild foragers are now considered thought leaders within their fields.
A lineal descendant of the Wahpeton-Sisseton and Mdewakanton Dakota tribes and lifetime Minnesota native, Dana is the co-founder of NATIFS, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, from which it takes its name.
Run alongside Sean Sherman (Oglala Lakota) – founder of The Sioux Chef – the pair also co-own newly opened, award winning Owamni Restaurant. It is one of a small handful of Indigenous-focused commercial restaurants within the US, prioritising Indigenous ingredients, foodways and producers. Last year, the culinary duo celebrated the addition of Best New Restaurant 2022 at the James Beard Foundation Awards to their long list of accolades.
Often described as “the man who will pickle anything”, Umami-lover Jeremy is the co-author of Koji Alchemy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020), a certified foraging and mushroom expert, the founder and owner of Larder Delicatessen (pictured below), located in the Ohio City Firehouse in Cleveland’s Hingetown neighbourhood, and four times James Beard Nominee.
TOPIA asked the culinary pair about the importance of preserving language, how food can conjure up lost memories and why we should all be seeking out ‘good trouble’.
Q&A: Dana Thompson and Jeremy Umansky
First things first, as advocates of food tasting of the place it comes from, what does ‘home’ taste like to you?
Dana: I’m lucky to own a restaurant that serves the food of the Dakota people, which is my lineage. To be able to go in there and get dandelion pesto on venison with beautiful vegetables and local flowers is one thing, but then to share that with our community makes it taste better too. I’ve been lucky to learn how to walk around the city block and come back with some delicious tree species; I can find what I need to make a gorgeous tea that’s packed with nutrient dense antioxidants, flavonoids and vitamin C. I hope that people understand they can have that too if they just get to know the plants and animals that surround them.
Jeremy: It’s been interesting, being a Jew whose family came here out of survival, owning and running a Jewish delicatessen here in Cleveland. When you really get into the intricacies of Jewish food, you can’t just say ‘Jewish’ food because the Jews in Yemen and the Jews from Uman in Ukraine, where my family came from, and the Jews in Spain and Chinese Jews and so on… they eat foods that are native to the times and places they are in. Some of those traditions have carried over to other populations of Jews, but if I served the Yemeni gefilte fish, they would probably be very puzzled as to why that is Jewish food. That’s part of what happens in a diaspora. Once we spread out and move out and go to safe places, the place that we end up calling our new home gives us these incredible tastes and flavours.
I mean, I have a Jewish delicatessen that is essentially powered by Japanese moulds. The food that we serve at our restaurant is thanks to Indigenous food ways that I pursue by going out and foraging mushrooms, gathering wild fish and making caviar and foods that my ancestors did. It’s also in line with what the Indigenous peoples in my new home were already doing.
I have a Jewish delicatessen that is essentially powered by Japanese moulds.Jeremy Umansky
Dana, why is the name of your restaurant especially significant to you? (Owamni means ‘place of the falling, swirling water’).
Dana: My grandfather was a farmer out in Prior Lake, Minnesota. There was a gentleman that lived in town named Paul Durand, who noticed that all the waterways had these amazing Indigenous names but they were disappearing. He was afraid that they were going to go extinct. And so, he searched for someone that was a Dakota speaker, found my grandfather, and they became very close friends. They spent the 1960s going on hikes to archive and preserve these names, and to put it into a book, Where the Waters Gather and the Rivers Meet. The book was dedicated to my grandfather. We’ve got the map up in the restaurant, and that’s how we knew the restaurant could only have one name; it’s the name of the place it sits.
It feels like a natural human desire to practice the traditions of the people before you or the people before them. What does it mean to be a good steward of the land and a steward of your culture?
Jeremy: I have this conversation a lot with people, especially delicatessen culture. Jewish food culture in America has gone from there being at one point literally thousands of Jewish delis in Manhattan alone, to now being down to perhaps 30. We have to stop sabotaging ourselves.
What do you mean ‘sabotaging ourselves’?
Jeremy: We need to talk to Grandma and say, ‘Grandma, you can’t give all the grandkids separate recipes for this favourite dish that we all love. When you die, we’ll all wonder who’s got the right recipe!’. Grandma felt that her way of doing it was sacred, special, and only she could do it. But if she, or any other relatives give us the wrong information (or none at all) about these dishes, our connections to the food, the tradition and history run the risk of dying with them. We shouldn’t be trying to figure out what they knew once they’re gone, they should be sharing the information while they’re here.
So, isn’t it down to the younger generations as well to ask rather than just the older generations’ responsibility to tell?
Jeremy: It’s the responsibility of both. My grandmother was a kosher caterer. She’s the reason I became a chef and why I fell in love with food and the food traditions of my heritage. But she gave me quite a few recipes that they were still debating. I have a great aunt who had this amazing butter cookie recipe, and she never gave anybody the exact recipe. Everybody swore up and down these were the best cookies they’ve ever had, and we have a somewhat close approximation but, when people eat them, it still doesn’t line up exactly with whatever their sensory memory is.
Dana: I’ve never heard of anyone’s grandmother ****ing with their grandkids by giving them all different recipes! I don’t know if this is unique to you, just your family? That’s pretty evil stuff from grandma!
Jeremy: Maybe it’s a Jewish thing? It isn’t necessarily intentional. Part of it is, she didn’t always measure everything… it’s all an approximation. Maybe Grandma just didn’t have that ingredient in the fridge at the time, so she didn’t put it in when she normally would. Those sorts of things can happen, so it’s not always an intentional thing but it is surprisingly common.
What happens when that knowledge is intentionally disrupted beyond a community’s control?
Dana: It’s completely different with Indigenous communities because the food system was so systematically removed by the US government. However, the Indigenous trauma is very similar to the Jewish cultural trauma. Here, they were put on plots of land that specifically didn’t have the foods they knew growing. They were then given commodity foods, which were literally poison, and these foods became a sign of resilience because the people survived, but it really messed up the communities. The subsequent rates of obesity, hypertension, diabetes and heart disease are astounding. We had a wonderful gentleman come through our programme for six months who had just signed on for another year. He had a massive heart attack at 30-years-old and just died. And that’s not uncommon. The median age range for a man on Pine Ridge where Sean is from, for instance, is around 45. The passing down of recipes is almost beyond what we’re able to even function with right now.
The Indigenous trauma is very similar to the Jewish cultural trauma.Dana Thompson
You’re both educators and restaurant owners. What can food and the land teach us?
Jeremy: It’s a damn shame that we don’t integrate food and outdoor education within the mainstream education system here in the US. We’re advancing science and technology, mathematics, and art and music and all these things, but eventually we’re not going to have a home for any of them. I’m a firm believer in integrating this education; it should be taught hand in hand with everything else. We tell those stories as best we can for our restaurant guests and diners, but it can’t be kept for a bunch of white suburbanites with above average incomes. It has to be for everybody, by everybody. Our goal is to make it accessible to as many people as possible, and if we can get larger institutions to understand the value in this, then we’d have a real chance for success.
Dana: The whole reason that we launched NATIFS, our non-profit, was so we could develop two silos; culinary education and Indigenous education. It has been a lot of work to get this up and running over the last five years, within which we had a pandemic and an uprising. The kitchen that we moved into is literally on Lake Street in the heart of the revolution.
Dana: By bringing back the Indigenous wisdom – wisdom that was passed down through generations then systematically removed through genocide, and the forced assimilation by the US government – we believed we could set up the foundational elements which multiple generations could build on. We can bring it back into our own communities. We can create education for Indigenous peoples, but also be applicable to everyone, so anyone who is interested can have access to that knowledge.
We can create education for Indigenous peoples, but also be applicable to everyone, so anyone who is interested can have access to that knowledge.Dana Thompson
How are you working to do that and what should we keep an eye out for?
Dana: We’re currently creating a market in the Indigenous Food Lab that is going to be a television studio, where we can make cooking and seed keeping videos. And then at the other end, there’s going to be a market where people can come in and engage with our staff and purchase things that they think are difficult to buy. People are always coming in and asking for Cedar, and we think, ‘Well, it’s probably in your backyard, but we’ll sell it to you’. There are many different ways that we can engage with this knowledge, share it and take the scariness out of having to find it on your own.
Jeremy: I have a question for you, Dana. How do we, as a group, organise in a way to effectively lobby for change? I’m in Ohio and, in the state of Ohio, it is illegal to harvest, sell and serve wild foods unless they come from a licensed processing facility. But Ohio doesn’t grant licences for processing facilities. It’s literally a series of laws based on food choices that have been developed to hold down and oppress the Native peoples. What do we do to change these antiquated, oppressive and just plain wrong laws? And how do we get people to realise that this isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue, this is something that affects everybody?
Dana: I just don’t think that bell has really been rung yet. The Sioux Chef and Indigenous Food Lab is getting media attention right now [having just won a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant] but this is the first time a lot of people will realise that there’s been a problem. Why would they change something if it’s not on their radar? That’s where our focus needs to lie.
You have both moved the dials of perspective within your industries, despite such fundamental and institutional odds. What advice would you give to others who want to do the same?
Dana: We have a whole project management team whose purpose is to eliminate barriers and create resources for entrepreneurs that want to start their own businesses in this area. So as far as advice goes, I’d say people can be your best resources! My other advice, based on my own experience, is not to be afraid to ask for help. I didn’t go to college for a single day. I moved out on my own when I was 15, graduated from high school and started working. I had to learn how to pay my bills, how to understand what a credit score was – something I still didn’t get until I was in my 30s. I asked for help, was shamelessly vulnerable and learned. Funders are very willing to help us succeed, but we have to ask for the help we need.
Jeremy: I would advise people to get into what I would call ‘good trouble’. For instance, when I’m told that I can’t serve wild mushrooms at my place because of Ohio laws [see earlier answer] even though I am a certified mushroom forager, I’m still going to. Here’s the thing with food rights issues, especially ones that are connected to the bigger issue we are discussing; the court of public opinion goes a long way. Good trouble is any trouble that is not going to hurt anybody. It’s the trouble that, in the long run, is actually going to help people. It’s a lot easier said than done and it does cause a lot of headaches, it’s not for everybody. But, if you want to see change happen – even if it is really small, incremental change in a given time – you need good trouble and a community that has your back. It’s about that intersection of what food really is to people, that sense of community, the uniting of people enjoying the foods from their area.
Good trouble is any trouble that is not going to hurt anybody.Jeremy Umansky
What aspects of institutionalised education did you have to unlearn in order to progress. Any advice for teachers or students out there?
Jeremy: Well, I’ve been kicked out of almost everywhere. After getting kicked out of the last higher educational institution I attended, I had a bit of a revelation. It’s okay to be a rebel; oftentimes, rebels think outside of the box, and they’re very happy being outside the box, throwing stones at the glass houses or whatever, but I’ve never been able to make long lasting change by doing that. I realised that I had to put myself back in the box.
What does that mean?
Jeremy: Here’s a great business example. I do a lot of consulting for Nestle. When I was a rabble rouser, if you had asked me if I would work with a multinational conglomerate, i’d have refused. But if we burn the factory down, how’s the food made? Now here I am working with them and their food scientists and the chefs who design the things that will eventually be in a freezer case. We’re working on stabilising fermented foods into them and securing local and regional sourcing. By using traditional methods of food preservation instead of having to add a host of unnecessary stabilisers, they can increase bioavailability of nutrients in industrialised processed foods which directly benefits their customers.
What about within schools?
Jeremy: I now go into school systems that suspended and expelled me and I talk to the students and work with the staff. For learners like me, that educational system is broken. But now that I’ve built a career and a name for myself, people will sometimes listen to me. I can show that this next generation is coming up that there is a place for them, and they can find ways to learn and work and live within that system. And they can change it for the better. I hold up a jar of sauerkraut and I tell them, ‘In this gallon jar of sauerkraut, the number of living organisms is directly reflective of a number that astrophysicists have put on the amount of celestial bodies in the universe.’ You can experience everything that physics has documented within the cosmos, from creation to destruction, in the palm of your hands, and then be able to experience it in a very intensely sensory way. By eating it, smelling it, touching and tasting it. *First part could be shortened, overall maybe a bit too cosmic?
What other tools are important within your organisations to help the community?
Dana: We’re trying to educate people on increasing nutrient density through a program that we’re doing with the USDA. We’re creating videos showing people how to forage and how to incorporate it into the foods that they might have access to. It’s incredible, you know, especially when you look at the policy issues that Jeremy is bringing up. We’ve got the USDA that’s actively partnering with us and trying to move the dial the right way, and a huge ship we’re piloting. Our goal is trying to get that aimed in the right direction. It’s not going to be fixed in our lifetime, but what we are trying to do is lay the foundations for multiple lifetimes’ worth of work.
Jeremy, you mentioned gefilte fish earlier. How do you use it as a gateway into Jewish foods?
Jeremy: Through our cuisine, we’ve found that the more modern sensibilities we put on these archaic traditions and foods that we’re working with, the more people relate to them. When I serve a gefilte fish sandwich, if I bread it and fry it, it is kind of like a fillet of fish. Then when we get questions about what kind of fish it is, I can explain the Yiddish word, and its original form, and it clicks with people. It helps engage everyone, not just Jews. Then when I do the fish differently, like on a platter with a salad and pickled veg, that same person who enjoyed the fried fish sandwich understands a more traditional presentation of it, and is going to be more open to enjoying it that way.
Dana, what gateways do you see within your community?
Dana: Digging into these recipes and sharing the food with each other is what I see as a therapeutic mechanism. It’s a way to heal trauma. It’s medicine, not only nutritionally, but for families and communities. Really understanding how to get as micro-local in your food system as possible is only going to benefit us. When you look at the supply chain issues that are happening right now and throughout the pandemic, it’s a wakeup call. All these philosophies are healthier for us as a species; it’s a no brainer.
Storytelling is such a huge part of both Jewish and Indigenous cultures. What role does storytelling play in your businesses and nonprofits?
Dana: Well, we have several different ways that it manifests. At the restaurant, we use our menus to tell stories; we let the dishes tell stories and we encourage our staff to tell their own personal stories about the foods of their own ancestors. When guests come in, they get to have that experience, that opportunity to hear somebody’s own perspective. With the nonprofit, we’re creating booklets and different types of handouts that we can share with communities that are, in a sense, put into a storytelling form. We also have a system where we train teenagers to capture ancestral memory at special community events. When we put these culturally relevant foods in the mouths of elders specifically, there’s this incredible thing that happens, and the stories start just spilling out of them. Teenagers are taught how to write it down and try to document it and ask questions. It’s healing for the elders, but the teenagers are inspired by the things that they hear. It’s something that we can then share with their communities to help preserve it. That is cultural wealth.
Wow. That sounds so powerful. Good luck following that!
Jeremy: So right now, I have a project that I’ve been working on with two nonprofits here in Cleveland. We are essentially working to reform the culinary vocational program. We have to look at how we’re teaching the next generation. Not just the people out there eating, but culinary professionals – the stewards of these food systems – about sourcing and presenting food by highlighting the nuance behind them.
So, storytelling comes into play through community education?
Jeremy: Yes. One of the things the health department has sought us out for is that we offer free identification services of wild ingredients to people. We have our foraging classes, and we teach people about all these things. But we also offer ourselves. You can come in with your plants or mushrooms and we will help you identify them with no obligation to buy anything. Not even a cookie. And we’ll teach you to continue identifying them, even though the foods are illegal in Ohio. Just the act of a guest walking in the door with them is technically illegal, but if they shut us down because we’re teaching people how to not poison themselves and be good stewards of their local ecosystem while enjoying the bounty of it, we go back to the court of public opinion. For us this is a form of food justice and fighting the issues that capitalism has brought to the enjoyment of food. You know, just sharing everything you know.
Transparency of knowledge seems to really get at the heart of what you both do – knowledge that is meant to be shared and built upon. Thank you for talking to TOPIA and being part of this world of good.
Dana & Jeremy’s tips of Good people to follow
– @vsegrest – Indigenous community nutritionist in the Pacific Northwest
– @linda.black.elk – forager and educator in North Dakota
– @felicia.cocotzin – curandera, author, educator, NATIFS board member in Phoenix Arizona
– @Shared Cultures – wild food forager, wild mushroom expert, fermenter
– @thebadjew – barbecue and Jewish humour, defying BBQ’s co-opted white bro culture
What’s so good about this?
BEYOND THE STALE is an ongoing interview series that celebrates the indie storytellers and tastemakers changing food media for the better by addressing its blind spots – building communities and creating spaces that don’t have to cater to the masses and mainstream narratives. This duo is part of a new generation creating fiercely engaging and compelling work that provides a window into a more nuanced range of cuisines, histories, neighbourhoods, politics and global perspectives.
Meet the writer
Adrienne Katz Kennedy is a London-based food and culture writer. The former Clevelander and former New Mexican dance anthropologist is a contributing writer for the travel cookbook Hong Kong Diner and has also been featured in Whetstone Journal, Pit Magazine, Heated by Bitman, Courier Media and Sierra Magazine. Her work focuses on storytelling, identity and communication – whether through dance, food, cultural practices or Instagram Stories. She often wonders how she ended up living on a chilly island, and how late is too late to make the day’s last cuppa without risking the sacrifice of sleep. Follow @AKatzKennedy.