Thanksgiving celebrates local food for Chef Walks First

By | November 21, 2023

Like many households in the Chicago area and across the country, for Jessica Pamonicutt, Thanksgiving was a celebration of food and family.

But she wasn’t celebrating the picture-perfect American Thanksgiving, a pleasant affair from foggy history when friendly English settlers celebrated merrily with their new neighbors, the Indians.

At the gatherings she remembers, there were no tall paper hats and no belted figures on the table centerpieces because “what is written in storybooks about Pilgrims and Indians never happened,” said Pamonicutt, a member of the Menominee Born of the Wisconsin Indian tribe on a reservation north of Green Bay and raised in Chicago.

“It’s a difficult topic for me,” she said. “Thanksgiving is always a delicate matter for us.”

Thanksgiving was declared an official American holiday by President Abraham Lincoln to reunite a weary country at the end of the Civil War, centuries after the Massachusetts holiday that still adds a figurative touch to November family gatherings. The modern Thanksgiving fairy tale glosses over years of injustice and conflict between indigenous peoples and the colonists coming from Europe.

That’s not to say Pamonicutt doesn’t have fond memories of the vacation.

“Our mother valued family dinners,” she said. “Whether we celebrated Thanksgiving or not, it was a time for them to feed family and a time to bring family we didn’t always see home to eat with us.

“We celebrate it as a time of connection. There was always more food than anyone could ever eat. And all the stuff on the menu, she taught me how to make it.”

This cultural and familial heritage remained largely untapped as Pamonicutt explored different paths to find her calling. About 10 years ago, her husband suggested she go to culinary school. It felt right.

“I grew up in the Native American community here in Chicago, and when you grow up in a communal environment, especially as a young girl, you spend a lot of time in the kitchen,” she said. “It’s not a cliché that women belong in the kitchen. But this is our way of showing our people, our community and our families that we care.

“Preparing food, serving the community is a sacred act. I was taught how to do it from a very young age. It was deeply rooted in me and a part of me.”

Now that she had formal training behind her, Pamonicutt looked at the vast and diverse culinary landscape of the Chicago area and found a missing ingredient: local food.

“Nobody here in Chicago did that,” she said. “So I took it over.”

She started a part-time catering gig for the Trickster Cultural Center in Schaumburg and realized she had what it took, and three years ago “she took the plunge into self-employment and had great success.”

These days, Stickney-based Pamonicutt is known as “Chef Walks First.” Although she runs her business, Ketapanen Kitchen, which she co-owns with her husband, Tony Garcia, and her mentor, Chef John Abels, she gives lectures on local foods up to three times a day and travels throughout the Midwest to host pop-up restaurants found. We open restaurants and host private events.

It’s rewarding, but it hasn’t been easy.

“When it comes to local food, you can’t just pick up any old book and learn about it. “You can’t go to grocery stores, restaurants or even specialty stores and buy our food,” she said. “You really have to be an educator and have a relationship with food.

“I had to take the time to understand the stories of these foods. Every food we use has a story, a spirit, an essence. These stories are part of who we are as Indigenous people. They tell our stories.”

Wild rice and other ingredients simmer in a harvest soup cooked over an open fire by Chef Walks First, aka Jessica Pamonicutt, during Heritage Day at the Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland on Saturday.

Among the foods with the deepest roots and longest history in the Chicago area is manoomin, a dish based on a form of wild rice that has been harvested throughout the Great Lakes region for “thousands and thousands of years,” said Pamonicutt pointed out that food also has a personal connection.

“The Menomonie people are known to be the wild rice people,” she said. “That’s what Menomonie means.”

The Manoomin dish she grew up with is flavored with a combination of blackberries, raspberries, strawberries or blueberries, nuts (“not peanuts, but walnuts or pecans,” she said) and a little maple syrup for sweetness.

“You can serve it cold or heat it up and it becomes like a porridge,” Pamonicutt said. “Some people add a protein, such as chicken or turkey. But in the traditional format, it’s just wild rice, berries, maple and nuts.”

Pamonicutt’s use and use of native foods is not limited to what her direct ancestors ate in the Midwest, although she has a penchant for local ingredients such as freshwater fish, venison, bison and “lots of pumpkins.”

She also deals with the local cuisine of other regions.

“If you go southwest, there are chilies, tomatoes, a lot of corn and goat meat,” she said. “On the plains, it’s bison, corn and other berries – blueberries, chokecherries – that we can’t get here. There are many acorn dishes along the California coast.

“There is a regional aspect to the cuisine, but I am more cross-tribal. Let’s recognize everything and bring in foods from everywhere to create these dishes. It’s a dream come true to get my hands on some of these ingredients and offer them to people in my dishes.”

Jessica Pamonicutt chops apples during a cooking demonstration as part of the Forest Preserve of Cook County's Heritage Day on Saturday at the Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland.

Sourcing these ingredients can take some effort as she prefers to source all of her ingredients from Native American producers who harvest their food in traditional ways.

“It requires a lot of driving, a lot of networking and a lot of knowledgeable people harvesting,” Pamonicutt said. “I value ingredient integrity and will advocate for it. I drive 500 miles round trip to collect bags of wild rice. This applies to many of our ingredients.

“Sometimes people say, ‘I have a bag of sunflower heads – do you want them?’ That’s our way.”

While the 17th-century Thanksgiving imagery doesn’t resonate at Pamonicutt, Thursday’s traditional menu is full of local dishes, “but a little different,” she said.

Your first tip is to trade the Butterball bird for a wild turkey.

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“These things walk around my reservation like they run the place,” she said. “For us it’s a traditional meal.”

She seasons her turkey with sage, cedar, and sumac—all natural spices and medicines for her people. There is also a pumpkin dish, a sweet potato dish with all the traditional ingredients and cranberry sauce made from maple syrup. The filling consists of sage sausage with chestnuts, wild mushrooms, wild rice, apples and cranberries.

“We don’t use a lot of these fancy seasonings or sauces. Our food is kept simple – we rely on the natural flavor and seasoning, enhancing the taste of the food itself,” she said.

The rustic setting of Sand Ridge Nature Center's Homestead Exhibit is the backdrop for Heritage Day presentations.

And the food itself is worth celebrating, Pamonicutt said, as well as a great reason to gather with friends and loved ones for a shared culinary experience.

“It’s a beautiful thing. People moved on from it,” she said. “Food can nourish your soul. With real comfort food, you can feel all the love that goes into the dish. You walk away and your body is full and your mind is full.

“These are the dishes I like to share. There are many cultures that do that, but that’s what I like best about me: the way we take care of each other and feed each other with food.”

Landmarks is a weekly column by Paul Eisenberg that explores the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on the Southland. He can be reached at

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