Some foods smack of history, and one local chef is using them to reconnect with the past and share his Indigenous heritage.
In April, chef Scott Iserhoff kicked off a series of free Indigenous cooking classes in partnership with Edmonton Public Library, which opened a new kitchen at the Downtown branch in March.
“I’m teaching Indigenous food ways from what I’ve learned from my family as a kid,” Iserhoff said. “I’m reliving these memories through food and sharing it with other Indigenous folks that want to participate.”
But the sessions offer more than just instructions, Iserhoff added, and serve to encourage food sovereignty — the idea that people have a right to healthy, culturally appropriate and sustainably produced food — as well as share stories behind the meals and their ingredients.
“It’s also a way to teach younger Indigenous people to cook — engaging with them and really making them more aware of our food history,” he said.
Originally from Northern Ontario, Iserhoff is the founder of Pei Pei Chei Ow, an Indigenous food, catering and education company in Edmonton. The business’s name translates to “robin” in Omushkegowin, also known as Swampy Cree.
Pei Pei Chei Ow offers its own cooking classes for a fee, but Iserhoff wanted to reach a wider audience, so he found a way to make them more accessible.
Funding for the free classes comes from a new grant introduced in 2021 through the Edmonton Heritage Council. The Funding Indigenous Resurgence in Edmonton (FIRE) grant program awards successful applicants up to $10,000 to support Indigenous revitalization efforts in Alberta’s capital.
Designed for Indigenous applicants and Indigenous-led organizations, the program began with a $50,000 purse that’s since been doubled for 2022, said Jessica Johns, Indigenous initiatives lead for the council.
“There were so many great applications last year, it just made sense to increase our ability to fund more,” Johns said. “We’re getting a lot of interest from folks that have really exciting projects that we could showcase in Edmonton.”
The 2022 FIRE grants are focused on efforts that centre on Indigenous storytelling and art, but they’re not just for Edmonton applicants, Johns added. This year’s program will also consider candidates from First Nation reserves and Métis settlements on Treaty 6 territory.
Iserhoff was among five successful applicants awarded FIRE grants last fall, including the Edmonton 2 Spirit Society, which is working to provide a greater sense of belonging for two-spirit people in Edmonton, and a podcast dedicated to “the untold history of Indigenous music.”
“Scott’s incorporating Indigenous knowledge, Indigenous cuisine and skills into teachable opportunities for the community,” Johns added. “It was such a wonderful project to fund.”
April 15 marked the deadline for the first round of 2022 FIRE grant applications, but the program will be considering projects for a second round of funding in the fall.
Iserhoff has only just begun his free series, but he’s already considering a second application to keep the program running. Until then, as the sole instructor of the series so far, he’s looking for ways to add some variety to the project.
“As we bring in more chefs, they’re going to be doing their own lessons, talking about their own dishes and introducing different perspectives,” he said, adding that a variety of voices will help dispel the misconception that Indigenous culture (and cuisine) is monolithic.
“We have our own cultures,” he added, “We’re different groups of Indigenous people, and I think that’s the most important thing to teach.”