My Intentional Meal: Discovering Ancient Seeds with Indigenous Chef Elena Terry

My connection to the land beneath me felt even more complete

Chef Elena Terry

Courtesy of Travel Wisconsin and Megan Zabel Holmes

We’re dedicating our September features to food and drink. One of our favorite parts of travel is the joy of trying a new cocktail, snagging a reservation at a great restaurant, or supporting a local wine region. Now, to celebrate the flavors that teach us about the world, we put together a collection of tasty features, including chefs’ top tips for eating well on the roadhow to choose an ethical food tour, the wonders of ancient indigenous cooking traditions, and a chat with Hollywood taco impresario Danny Trejo.

When I first stepped foot onto the grounds of The Barn at Mirror Lake, a rustic ranch in the grassy farmlands of Wisconsin, I joked about the cows we spotted grazing on the pasture. “Is this lunch?” 

The question might seem off-putting to some. But a part of that discomfort stems from our lack of connection to our food sources and an understanding of healthy food webs. In 2017, a survey showed that 7 percent of participants thought chocolate milk came from brown cows, and 48 percent didn’t know how chocolate milk was made. While this survey’s results are humorous, they’re also a good indicator of how little understanding and connection most of us have to our food sourcing.

That lack of connection doesn't exist for most indigenous groups worldwide, and certainly not for Chef Elena Terry of Ho-Chunk Nation, who was cooking a meal for me on the ranch that day. An indigenous activist who has dedicated her life to preserving ancestral seeds and indigenous ways of cooking, Terry has also used her platform to educate those around her regarding ancestral foods. As I awaited the meal being prepared, I was more than just excited for a delicious treat—I was anticipating the opportunity to look at my meal in a whole new way.

As the meal began, Terry introduced each dish, speaking of her journey connecting with her ancestral roots and her tribe’s way of preparing food. 

First Course Wisconsin Meal

Courtesy of Travel Wisconsin and Megan Zabel Holmes

“Being able to help provide those [ceremonial] meals, you naturally learn about these traditional ways of cooking and preparation, and that goes a lot further than technique,” she said. “When we cook in spaces like that, we do it with intention and prayer and this connection to our ancestors and our culture. There’s so much more deep meaning in preparing food in that way, and hope that you’re nourishing someone receiving that meal.”

There was a sacredness in how she spoke of the ingredients and the processes required to create each dish. It immediately put me in a much more intentional mindset even as I took my first bite. 

That day, the first course of my meal was a sage-smoked turkey with sweet potato salad and cranberries with maple vinaigrette. The ingredients were all locally sourced from within Wisconsin, and it was the cranberries that stood out to me. With the state producing more than half of the country's cranberries, I was eager to try the fruit that the Badger State took so much pride in. To taste those local cranberries in a dish crafted by a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation made my connection to the land beneath me feel even more complete.

My second course was wild rice traditionally harvested and hand-parched, paired with fresh berries. I’ve had plenty of rice in my life, but when Terry explained the harvesting process, I savored every kernel. The wild rice I was eating only grew in certain areas, I was told, and the man who harvests it takes a canoe out with his grandsons every year. To collect it, he gently taps the grains into his canoe.

Second Course Wisconsin Dinner

Courtesy of Travel Wisconsin and Megan Zabel Holmes

Just the mere sourcing of my rice required so much intention. I began to wonder where my rice back home came from. Who had harvested it? What did that process look like? I cherished the food on my plate while considering how little I knew about the food I consumed daily. 

The third course was a sweet blue cornbread from the Ute mountains. Terry chose this dish to honor the sweetness of life and the connections that we have with each other and Earth. She spoke of the food and Earth with a tender love that I had never seen so vividly. 

“With the indigenous foods, those connections are now so much deeper because it doesn't just connect you to the person or the moment that you had, but to all the people that helped provide for that meal,” said Terry. “And in that, it's also in all the people that share the knowledge on how to care for our foods, that knowledge is preserved. All of that is going into the meal. How could you not be affected with gratitude when you share something like that?”

I began to wonder where my rice back home came from. Who had harvested it? What did that process look like?

Chef Terry showed me another level of intentionality when it comes to food. Not only did she know where every ingredient came from, but she also knew who harvested the ingredients. The gratitude that she exemplified—not just toward those who brought the food to her but to the ingredients themselves—was something I won’t forget. 

As I finished my meal, I recognized my time with Chef Terry as part of a larger unlearning for me in terms of my relationship to food, ethics, sustainability, and even my own culture. Instead of eliminating whole food groups, I’ve come to understand that it’s more important to operate out of gratitude for the finite resources we have access to. Our relationship to food and Earth isn’t simply to view it as a resource to be used but a symbiotic relationship that nourishes and nurtures us.