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Wisdom: Culinary graduate infuses Indigenous culture into passion for cooking

Elizabeth Henderson did not always know that her passion would be to integrate her Indigenous culture into her cooking.

FORT FRANCES -- Elizabeth Henderson didn’t always know what her passion in life would be. Born and raised in Northwestern Ontario, she now lives in her homelands in Treaty 3 Territory.

A mother of two, Henderson decided to enter the culinary program offered at Seven Generations Education Institute. There, she successfully completed the one-year program, receiving her certificate in Culinary Skills.

While speaking with Mike Jones program coordinator of the Culinary Program, at SGEI, he described how the program is accredited through Canadore College. Once a student completes this program, they receive certification from there.

“The Culinary Program has been running for a few years now. It is an accredited program offered through Canadore College, so students completing this receives their certificate from them,” said Jones. “SGEI has a culinary lab on campus and we run the program from Monday to Friday, September through April,” added Jones.

Henderson describes her interest in food as one which began as a child watching her grandmother Judy Bird. She talks about how she remembers those days stating that, “I remember fondly how it involved a massive stack of pies, including apple, blueberry, and lemon meringue. She cooked wholeheartedly, which inspired me to continue her legacy,” said Henderson.

As a child, Henderson watched the Food network, during which she was fascinated by the way in which meals were created. “I was fascinated by the artistry and creation of delicious home-cooked meals,” shared Henderson.

A teacher himself in the SGEI culinary program, Jones spoke about how Henderson just recently graduated and how the program and teachers are encouraged to integrate culture into their teaching. “Instructors in the program are encourages to incorporate the culture in the cooking. Elizabeth has taken that to the next level,” stated Jones.

Henderson reflected on her journey to SGEI, a journey which wasn’t always easy, stating that, “My path to food was never a straight line. I originally went away to school for environmental science. I struggled because I moved away from home to pursue higher education. Faced with financial and mental health struggles, I had to quit,” said Henderson.

Yet she describes her struggles as a blessing in disguise because it was after having to quit school at the time, that it led her to cook for herself. That resulted in her discovering her passion. After several other career choices, Henderson discovered this culinary program that was offered at SGEI and as a result she felt confident that taking the program for her, was the right choice.

Reflecting on her having completed the program Henderson spoke about the reaction from her children. “I will never forget the feeling when I showed a picture to my oldest child of the food I created in my chef’s uniform. She said, “Wow, are you a chef, mom? You’re a cool mom.” “All I wanted to be was a cool mom from that point forward,” said Henderson.

Ultimately, her passion for cooking, gave her the forum to create meals that allowed her to bring her own Indigenous culture into her cooking. SGEI gave her the direction that she needed to get to where she is today.

Henderson speaks fondly about the school and the program and how it helped her succeed in reaching her educational goals. “The school has kind staff and instructors who are always willing to go above and beyond for their students. They offered bursaries, counseling services, and a safe space to smudge and practice my culture by praying to the Grandfather Drum Saagajiwe and Grandmother Eagle Staff Gookomisinaan ,” said Henderson.

One particular experience she recalls is the complimentary breakfast and lunch program offered at SGEI, that she describes as a game changer for her. “I looked forward to Nadine’s lunches every day,” recalls Henderson.

Today, Henderson continues to focus on her passion of cooking, one that she merges her culture into. Indigenous culture, tradition and the connection to the land is reflected in her cooking. It was through her parents and grandmother that she learned Indigenous values, and adopted key ingredients, she uses in her own cooking today.

Henderson talked about how this tradition and these values were given to her by her parents. “My parents have always been connected to the land. They traditionally harvested wild foods such as rice, blueberries, and walleye. They have gifted me with the knowledge of preparing wild foods,” shared Henderson.

For Henderson appreciating the land and keeping those traditions alive for the next generation, and her own children, is very important. For Indigenous people food is a huge part of the culture and is considered sacred. Like her own teacher at SGEI stated, Henderson works hard to take this perspective to the next level. That is her vision.

“I envision elevating Indigenous cuisine and reconnecting with the food of the land. I would like to incorporate modern cooking techniques to take traditional foods to the next level,” said Henderson.

Her goal is to incorporate modern cooking techniques into traditional foods in order to take this to the next level. “My background in environmental studies helps me because I know the trees, shrubs, and plants in the boreal forest, some of which are edible, and I can put them into the food I prepare,” said Henderson.

She also recognizes the importance of encouraging healthy food choices and that too is reflected in her cooking. Historically, she also knows Indigenous people continue to face health issues as a result of what she describes as the “modern colonial diet.”

Today, Henderson has a job at the Flint House in Fort Frances as a line cook. She has also received many job offers because of her talent and passion for integrating her culture as a chef. “I have received many job offers, even before the end of the second semester. The food industry is growing and in high demand for cooks. My dream is to continue my education and one day open a business,” said Henderson.

Throughout her reflection about the journey that has taken her to a place where she can live out her dream, Henderson spoke about her time at SGEI, and the valuable skills and direction she was given while a student there. She developed a unique insight into food and credited this to her own parents and grandmother, who she learned from as a child.

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