Written by Jennifer Cockrall-King
The nêhiyaw (Cree) word tawâw contains the ideas of “welcome,” “come in,” and “there’s room.” It’s also the one word that sums up the past five years of my life.
I am the non-Indigenous co-author of a cookbook titled tâwaw: Progressive Indigenous Cuisine. The obvious question is: How did that come about? And more importantly, who was I to have my name listed alongside Shane Chartrand, one of Canada’s most prominent First Nations professional chefs?
In 2014, I took a phone call from Shane, whom I knew mostly by his professional cooking reputation. Shane’s Indigenous dinners at his fine dining restaurant at River Cree Resort & Casino, in Enoch, Alberta, near Edmonton, were definitely creating a buzz in the local food community.
He told me about his idea—to write a cookbook exploring “progressive Indigenous cuisine.” Having been in 10 different foster homes from the ages of one-and-a-half to almost seven, he had lived until 29 years old not knowing his home nation was the Enoch Cree Nation, and now, he explained, he had “a lot of learning and catching up to do.” He was on a journey to discover his own Indigenous identity, and cooking was his portal. He thought I could help him document this journey in a cookbook.
I was intrigued. I was flattered. Mostly, I was completely convinced that I was the wrong person for the job. And I told him so.
Shane and I are about the same age. Adopted by the Chartrands, he grew up in a Metis household in rural Central Alberta. I was born and raised in central Edmonton, with all the advantages and white privilege to match my European ancestry.
But we had an easy and instant chemistry, right from that first hour-long phone conversation, and I was a published writer and author with a couple of decades’ experience and connections in mainstream media and publishing. We were both from Treaty 6 territory, and recognized in one another a shared connection to the land and its food.
To jump over some major plot points here, Shane and I worked together amassing recipes and stories and writing them down for about two years before we got our publishing contract with House of Anansi in 2017. Throughout the process of writing the cookbook and living our lives around it, we became great friends.
Shane continued to insist that I was the only writer he would consider working with on this book. I also understood by this point that my contributions really did benefit this book, and if Shane was brave enough to consider putting his life and his recipes on to the page, I could certainly be brave enough to bring my best to the project and trust that together we would create something of value.
So yes, I was concerned—terrified actually—that I would make mistakes out of ignorance. As a white settler, I worried the gaps in my knowledge would diminish our efforts. I was also concerned that I was taking up a spot in this book project that could otherwise go to an Indigenous writer who could help Shane tell his story. But ultimately it was Shane’s call, and he asked for my help. All I had to do was say yes.
It was only later in the process that I really understood that Shane’s conviction that Indigenous foods need to be celebrated by everyone was the driving force of this book. His fighting for my involvement was part of that conviction. Our partnership demonstrated that celebrating Indigenous food and cooking Indigneous dishes was something every Canadian could do, regardless of their background. And when elders and others in the Indigenous community saw how hard we were working, they supported, taught, and encouraged us. If they were cheering us on—our “team tâwaw” as we took to calling ourselves—then our fears only made us work harder, be more precise, be more professional, be more ourselves.
Though my firm intention was to leave no trace of myself on the page, so that only Shane’s voice rung loud and clear throughout, I now understand that my name on the cover is part of his invitation. If I was a good and respectful guest, making that room was always going to be part of his welcome. In the spirit of tâwaw, there always seems to be room.