Honoring Native American History within Modern Cuisine
Thanks to Chef Sherry Pocknett, the food at this museum café matches its mission.
Sherry Pocknett, the food and beverage manager at The Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center in Mashantucket, Connecticut has some devoted fans. A quick peek at the museum’s Instagram feed reveals Chef Sherry's hearty venison stew, a side of salmon roasting over an open fire, and clam chowder with the comment, “I love Sherry's cooking! The turtle soup, fry bread, and blueberry slump (just to name a few) is not only traditional but extraordinary. Everything Sherry makes is AMAZING!!!”
Pocknett says she enjoys the challenge of creating a line-up of café fare to compliment the Museum’s mission as an educational center: teaching the history of Native Americans and exploring the diversity of indigenous people currently living in the United States and Canada.
Though the chef draws from a variety of traditional and contemporary Native American cuisines when putting together her menus, Pocknett is part of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, People of the First Light. Growing up on Cape Cod, she was very aware of the seasons and their integral role Native American cuisine. “Indian people from the East Coast have always lived by the season and eaten by the season," she says. "Our new year starts in early spring, when the herring come back from the ocean.” When winter is over, that harbinger of spring has a big role to play in the kitchen; Pocknett grew up eating herring roe, corned herring, smoked herring, fried herring, and adding whatever was left to their gardens for fertilizer.
Of course, herring wasn’t the only staple pulled from the ocean; Pocknett has fond childhood memories of waking up to the smell of Bluefish hash frying up on the stove. “Living from the land, sea and sky and the seasons was an amazing thing to be taught as children," says the chef. "Now I appreciate it."
Pocknett brings that way of eating with her to work. The café recently introduced a weekly specials menu, featuring the likes of that Instagram stew photo along with a bison chili rice bowl, a traditional dish called “Three Sisters Wild Rice” and sassafras tea brewed with wild foraged roots.
Jonna Chokas, director of marketing and development, weighs in on Pocknett’s contribution to the museum, saying “Not only is Sherry’s food authentic and modern, but as a Mashpee Wampanoag, her ancestors were the first Native People to have contact with the Pilgrims.” Which, as Chokas points out, is central to the nation’s origin story and especially relevant this holiday season. Chokas also reminds us that Native Americans were participating in “Thanksgivings” well before the arrival of the Europeans. “By giving thanks many times over the course of a year, with each new seasonal harvest: fish, birds, berries, nuts and roots. By celebrating and honoring the bounty of the seasons, they were the original sea-to-table and land-to-table foodies!” says the director.
The tribally owned Mashantucket Pequot Museum has been serving the public since 2008 and its outreach continues to grow, perhaps especially through its café. Come for the education in traditional culture; stay for the food.
Mashantucket Pequot Museum -110 Pequot Trail, Mashantucket, CT, 860.396.6800, pequotmuseum.org