by Lou Mancinelli
While she jokes that she must have been an Indian in her past life, Mt. Airy resident (for 14 years) Sue Wasserkrug is unsure why she has been drawn to Native American cultures her whole life.
Wasserkrug, 53, the granddaughter of the owner of a delicatessen in Baltimore, is so interested in Native American cultures that a few years back the former homeless advocacy lawyer traded in the law after a 12-year legal career for the stove and in 2012 launched Zea May’s, a food truck serving Native American-inspired cuisine with the larger goal of introducing people to Native American cultures. (“Zea May’s” is the scientific term for corn, which was a staple crop throughout Native America.)
Now she’s packed up the truck and is focusing on educational initiatives. She’s teaching how food connects us with the past.
“I think people just don’t realize so much of the food we eat we wouldn’t eat without the contributions of Native American cultures,” said Wasserkrug.
Intertwined between the table and the food we eat today is a direct link to history. That link is something Wasserkrug will explore during her class, “Cooking Inspired by Native American Cuisines,” on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 7 to 9 p.m., at the Unitarian Society of Germantown, 6511 Lincoln Drive. It is sponsored by the Mt. Airy Learning Tree (MALT).
Like potatoes. When one thinks of potatoes, one is inclined to think of the Irish. And tomatoes tend to be more associated with Italian food. But potatoes originated in Peru. They arrived in Europe because Europeans brought them back from the other side of the world.
Tomatoes hail from Central America. And that smooth Swiss chocolate was first developed by the Olmecs around modern Mexico 1100 years before the birth of Christ.
Fry bread is considered a quintessential Native American dish. It is used to make Indian tacos. It is also the main dish featured at a Powwow, where various Native American tribes or groups gather to celebrate and preserve their cultures.
But the history of fry bread is genocidal. It was first developed, according to tradition, by the Navajo tribe when the U.S. government forced Indians off their land in Arizona in 1864 and onto reservations, known as “The Long Walk.”
It was a 300-mile hike to land too poor to bear their staple dishes of vegetables and beans. As a result, fry bread was concocted from flour, powdered milk, salt and other rations provided to the Navajo people by the government.
After running the food truck for almost two years, a job Wasserkrug says was tougher than being a lawyer, she has moved on to the educational element she set out to include when she first envisioned what Zea May’s could be.
After working for 12 years in the legal profession, mainly for two local non-profits, including the Homeless Advocacy Project, Wasserkrug felt she needed a change.
She had studied anthropology while an undergrad at Oberlin College & Conservatory in Ohio, because when she was a teenager, a one-week summer camp trip to a reservation awakened her imagination to the mystery and fading reality of the American Indian.
It was coincidentally a recent visit to the cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., that inspired some of her old inklings.
Wasserkrug’s first vision was to open a restaurant that served Native American cuisine, but that required large amounts of investment. So as a startup, she instead decided to launch a food truck and in the spring of 2012 debuted Zea May’s downtown. It was a 10-hour a day, seven-day a week operation.
“Imagine opening up a new restaurant every day of the week,” she said.
Each night she had to unload the truck. Sue was selling dishes like marinated mushrooms with quail eggs over wild greens; or sweet potato empanadas, but what Wasserkrug wanted to talk about and share with the public was Native American cultures.
So now she has fully moved into the educational arm of her Zea May’s vision. This past November in conjunction with Awbury Arboretum in Germantown, Wasserkrug developed programming to discuss the role Indians played in the history of Thanksgiving. This spring she plans to work with various community organizations.
At her MALT class, Wasserkrug will introduce elements of Native American culture by teaching students how to cook fry bread and Indian tacos. Sometimes fry bread is served as a dessert, topped with honey or powdered sugar. Other times it’s topped with a taco filling, like bison chili. She’ll also talk about corn, another quintessential element of the Native American diet.
“I don’t really know why I’m drawn to it,” said Wasserkrug about Native American cultures, “but I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t.”