Michael Hall ’19
Although Vail Commons’ Chef du Jour wields an unimaginable culinary versatility—concocting coconut curry on Monday and vegetable paella on Tuesday—they have somehow been overlooked by the James Beard Foundation, distributors of some of America’s most coveted gastronomic awards. Not overlooked, however, is Chef Sean Sherman, Oglala Lakota, recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s 2018 book award.
Not one to be intimidated by Commons’ running history of rave student reviews, Sherman joined forces with Davidson’s History department to put on a lunch at Vail Commons. A Davidson College Instagram of Sherman laboriously picking sage brought excitement and established the intimacy between Chef and food every student seeks from on-campus dining. Once inside Commons, images cycled to Sherman’s narration of Native American history, Commons’ staff slung indigenous cuisine on Soviet-issued plates, and rind-heavy lemon was water on-tap, all together fomenting a palpable energy. The menu was extensive: Hunter’s Stew, sunflower-crusted trout, three sisters mash, cornmeal mush, and maple squash were accompanied by wild rice bowls and two soups.
With the soundtrack of dropped silverware and apathetic groans, I enthusiastically grabbed my tray and filed in line. I loaded up on acorn squash, three sisters mash, and the crusted trout then followed a friend (and Commons veteran) straight to the Chef du Jour for my customizable bowl: wild rice, maple-sage roasted vegetables, cedar braised turkey, hominy, and wojape mixed berry sauce with mint.
Salt and pepper at the ready, I dove into my first plate of the express station’s offerings. The maple acorn squash had not the faintest whiff of maple, or much flavor at all for that matter, although it was cooked to a pleasantly smooth texture. I somehow lost out on the fried sage—inevitable in cafeteria catering—yet received two roasted squash seeds. The resourcefulness is admirable, following a root-to-leaf mentality using every part of the produce, and contrast in texture certainly helped the squash dish. Nevertheless, the seeds had an unrelenting durability that demanded continual chewing, normal to under-roasted squash seeds, less forgiving than other smaller, commonplace seeds such as roasted pepitas.
Moving on: the trout was overcooked and dry but had a sunflower-crust so seedy and crisp I scraped it off to enjoy by itself. The last of the three, the three sisters mash (beans, corn, and squash) was a whopping success. Obtuse chunks of corn signified it was un-canned, sweet corn, the flavor reflected as much; sweet with a subtle bite, the corn complemented the heartiness of the beans and smoothness of squash to create a heart-warming mash that I went to back to for seconds. The wild rice bowl was nothing special, with all elements somewhat dull in flavor and lacking a compelling acidic component (a missed opportunity for apple cider vinegar given the fall flavors). Most engaging was the wojape, which tasted of berries but fell short on the promise of mint. I also dabbled with one of the two soups but was turned off by a viscosity reminiscent of unset Jell-O. Although cooking for the masses does not provide the same liberties as small, restaurant plates, Sherman’s lunch was an upgrade from the quotidian Commons’ offerings and provoked interest in his cooking and Native American cuisine in general, arguably the goal of the event.