It was all about erasing our identities, our origins

"I was born Nuxalk, but I was brought up white," Inez Cook told me when we sat down to talk at Salmon n' Bannock, the restaurant she founded in Vancouver, British Columbia. "I'm one of thousands of First Nations who were forcibly removed from their homes as children and placed into non-Indigenous families across Canada."

Cook was just a year old when she was taken from her mother and Nuxalk Nation community during the so-called Sixties Scoop, the government policy of cultural assimilation that began in the 1950s and lasted until the '80s. "It was all about erasing our identities, our origins," she said. "The belief was that we'd be better off living European lives, but it ended up creating trauma for generations to come. I was one of the lucky ones. I grew up in a home filled with love."

Cook credited her adopted family for instilling in her a deep and long-lasting appreciation of good food. "My mother's side were Dutch-Russian Mennonites," she said. "Their cooking was wonderful. I loved eating pierogis and learning how to make borscht." Despite growing up in a happy home, Cook still felt out of place. "It wasn't just being the only dark one in the family photos when everyone else was fair. I had this deep yearning for my culture that never went away."

Then, one day, she drove past a sign on the highway that read "Don't panic, we have bannock" (the bread traditionally associated with the Indigenous people of Canada). She made the decision then and there to open a restaurant that would celebrate her roots. "I had worked in the food industry since I was a teenager in some shape or form – washing dishes or waiting tables – and it had always been my dream to open my own place. Seeing that sign was the moment when the penny finally dropped, and I knew what I wanted to do next."

An enthusiastic home chef, Cook set to work researching native ingredients and First Nations cooking techniques. "I wanted the restaurant to showcase food from the land and sea that the Indigenous people had traditionally hunted, harvested and eaten – everything from fiddlehead ferns to bison and sock-eye salmon," she explained. "I wanted to incorporate their traditional methods too: how they smoked food or preserved it over the long winters. I did a lot of asking and learning, then began to improvise."

In 2010, Cook opened the doors of Salmon n' Bannock, with its menu of native cuisine with a modern twist. "Back then I did everything. I was either in the kitchen or front of house, or dealing with suppliers, like the First Nations elder who collected wild huckleberries for me; he always carried a gun in case he needed to frighten off the bears."

As the restaurant became successful, Cook stepped away from the kitchen to run the business but has remained hands-on with the menu ever since. "I chat with the cooks and we discuss the food and flavours we like. Mostly we take a native ingredient, like soapberries or kelp, and dream up something new: the soapberries we whipped with water and sugar to make a fluffy, pink dessert; with the kelp we did our own take on cabbage rolls and stuffed the seaweed parcels with wild rice. Occasionally, we'll take a classic First Nations recipe and reinvent it altogether." At this point, she asked a waiter to bring me a dish to sample; he returned moments later bearing a plate topped with a swirl of savoury mousse.

"This is a spin on pemmican, one of our ancestors' most important foodstuffs. Traditionally it was a mixture of dried meat and berries. They'd bury pouches of it so they'd always be able to find food on their journeys. We've revived it and updated it. We smoke, dry and hand-grind the bison meat before blending it with cream cheese and sage-infused berries."

The pemmican was delicious; light with rich and smoky undertones, and perfectly complimented by the crunch of the accompanying toasted bannock.

Food can help build bridges

"I want to offer more than just good food though," Cook said. "I want it to be a path for people to learn about Canada's Indigenous peoples. The First Nations face a lot of prejudice and ignorance. But if we tell our stories and share our traditions through food, we can go some way to overcoming it. Food can help build bridges."

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Finding family – and herself – through food

From the outset, Cook wanted Salmon n' Bannock to feature an all-Indigenous team representing as many different Nations as possible. "We are often thought of as just artefacts in the museums, or stereotypes in old movies," she said. "Food gives me a chance to show diners that, we – whether Nuxalk, Cree, Ojibwe or Ts'msyan – are here, and our cultures are alive." 

Soon after opening, the restaurant was met not only with accolades for its culinary flair but by a stream of visitors curious about Cook herself. "When we were reviewed, it said that a Nuxalk person had opened this new restaurant. But the Nuxalk community didn't know me," she said. "They were concerned that there was some kind of cultural appropriation going on; that the First Nations angle was a gimmick." One woman in particular bombarded her with questions about her background. "I answered as best as I could," said Cook. "Thankfully, I knew my biological mother's name was Miriam. I went away to fetch the lady her cup of tea, and when I returned, she finished up her phone call to the community, stood up with her arms extended and said, 'Let me be the first to welcome you home. We're family.'"

Shortly afterwards Cook's blood uncle also paid a visit. "He had promised my birth mother Miriam that he would find me one day. And he did. But that moment was very bittersweet. He told me she already had passed away. I had lost a mother I never knew, but gained a new, extended family."

Cook's uncle gave the restaurant a traditional Nuxalk blessing and invited her back to the community for a three-day potlatch (a traditional Indigenous ceremony accompanied by a feast), where she met hundreds of relatives and received her traditional Nuxalk name, Snitsmana, meaning "protector of the sacred dance, and lively".

"In many ways I felt like a complete alien looking into another world," she said. "But receiving my name was an incredibly emotional moment, and a turning point. It gave me a sense of belonging. I began to grow into a new skin of sorts. Over time, I went on to learn some of the cultural protocols of the Nuxalk and grew to understand what it meant to be Native. Whereas before I had felt conflicted about who I was, I slowly began to accept both the Indigenous and white sides of myself, and to embrace them and appreciate them."

I'm a proud, born again Native

"So, you see, food can be so much more than just a meal, or about nutrition. It has helped me reconnect with the family, community and culture that were missing for so much of my life. It has led me through a process of healing. And the menu at Salmon n' Bannock is a declaration and celebration of who I am now. I'm a proud, born again Native."

What's next?

"For many visitors to Vancouver, the only experience they have of the First Nations is seeing the Stanley Park totem poles," said Cook, referring to the popular tourist attraction that receives millions of visitors every year. "Sadly, the totems are often just treated as a photo opportunity. People arrive, take their selfies and move on. They have no idea – and probably no interest – in what they represent, nor indeed how rich the city's Indigenous heritage is."

With this in mind, Cook has begun talks with the Vancouver International Airport authorities about opening a pop-up eatery in the departures area. "It would feature Indigenous artworks from British Columbia and a menu of Indigenous cuisine, so that even if visitors have been blind to the First Nations up to that point, they'd have the chance to engage and learn while waiting for their flights. Being at the airport would allow me to spread that message internationally. I'd go global," she said with a laugh. 

Cook also wants to make her mark on airport arrivals. "I'm continuing to campaign for airlines to change their pre-touchdown announcements and include a proper land acknowledgement," she said. Alongside the words "Welcome to Vancouver", Cook wants recognition that the city is located on the unceded territory of the Coast Salish Peoples – the area's original inhabitants for 9,000 years before "first contact" with Europeans, who never ceded nor legally signed away their lands.

"Even if just a few passengers on board say to themselves, 'Wait, what did they just say?' it might lead to a conversation, an interest in finding out more. A land acknowledgement is a small but necessary step towards honouring the original occupants of a place," she said. "It shows respect for Indigenous people's relationship with the land. It is a small step towards righting the many wrongs of the past." 

Favourite dish

For Cook, her sage-smoked salmon burger incorporates some key elements of First Nations culture all in one dish. "Salmon has a spiritual significance for many Indigenous people," she told me. "It has an incredible, transformative journey; born in freshwater, it travels to live in saltwater before returning to freshwater to spawn and die. So, it represents to many the Circle of Life."

Cook dry-marinades and home-smokes the fish using dry white sage, a sacred herb for the First Nations. "It's used in smudging," she explained. "That's the practice of burning herbs during important rituals and ceremonies. We've applied the same process to the kitchen and come up with a simple alternative to a smokehouse. Smoking with sage gives a really beautiful, earthy flavour." Finally, the salmon is served in freshly baked bannock bread. "Each bannock is split in two and the breaking of bread is symbolic. It means that everyone, no matter their race or culture, is welcome at the table."

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Sage-smoked salmon burgers
By Inez Cook

(Cook shows how the burger is made in this YouTube video.)

Oven-baked bannock:
1½ cups (350ml) unbleached, all-purpose flour
1¼ tbsp (19ml) baking powder
¾ tsp (4ml) salt
2/3 cup (160ml) cold water
Canola or sunflower oil for brushing

Sage rub:
1 tbsp (15ml) ground dry white buffalo sage (leaves can be purchased from online retailers)
1 tbsp (15ml) ground juniper berries
1 tbsp (15ml) ground bay leaves
1½ tbsp (22ml) ground dry dill
1¼ cups (310ml) brown sugar
1 cup (250ml) sea salt or kosher salt

Handful dry white buffalo sage
6 salmon fillets (5 oz each or 142g)
Pickles, arugula and mayo to serve

Method:
For the bannock, preheat the oven to 400F (200C). Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Make a well in the middle and add about half the water. With a sturdy spoon, start incorporating the flour mixture, beginning with the walls of the well. Once the water is incorporated, add more water as needed and continue to mix until the dough is sticky. Do not over mix.

Sprinkle a generous amount of flour onto your work surface and form the dough into six puck-sized portions.

Oil a baking sheet and place the bannock directly on the sheet. Brush the entire surface of the dough with oil. Place on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 10 minutes. Flip and bake for an additional 10 minutes or until lightly golden brown.

Meanwhile, assemble your "smoking station" by placing a small fireproof bowl in a large deep-dish container big enough to hold both the salmon fillets and the bowl. (A metal roasting pan works well for this, with the small bowl placed in a corner.)

Grind the rub ingredients in a pestle and mortar, herb or spice mill, then coat each salmon fillet. Place the fish in the deep-dish container and add a handful of white buffalo sage into the small fireproof bowl. In a well-ventilated space, away from smoke detectors, light the sage and quickly cover the container with a lid or a sheet of aluminium foil. Allow the salmon to smoke for 20 minutes. Relight the sage if you desire a smokier flavour.

Remove the lid or foil along with the fireproof bowl and place the salmon in an oven preheated to 425F (220C) and cook the fish for 8-10 minutes, or until almost baked through.

To serve:
Slice the bannock in half, add the salmon fillet, and top with your choice of arugula, pickles, and either garlic, lemon or regular mayonnaise.

Serves 6.

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