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How Cooking Ancestral Foods Changed My Life

Written by Andrea Murdoch

How did we get here? What was I thinking? What was he thinking? Why did this happen? It was November of 2015 and my divorce was finalized just after my business was launched. I was in an overwhelming amount of pain and disillusionment. On my path to healing, I discovered a deeper, rooted cultural identity and unexpected allies. Here’s how the power of cooking ancestral foods helped me heal and find resilience. 

Grounding: My Journey to the Rocky Mountains

The man who had been my best friend—sweet, kind, and considerate the first six years we knew each other—had regressed into a self-harming, at times suicidal shell of the person he used to be. For the last two years of our marriage, he mixed alcohol and antipsychotics, which resulted in verbal and emotional abuse toward me. 

I did not understand how deeply my turbulent marriage affected me until I left Milwaukee, WI for Denver, CO to start my life over again. I did not realize that what I had endured in my marriage was technically abuse until I started working with the yoga therapist Beck Forsland. She truly helped me with the first year of my life transition after divorce with specific yoga poses, meditation, and visualization exercises.

The first two years after the divorce I slowly discovered and began to understand the activities that were healing and grounding for me. Hiking the Wisconsin forests with my dog was a way for me to get lost in order to find myself again. Some of the most therapeutic moments I have had were finding a massive tree during a hike to lie under and simply let myself feel. 

I compartmentalize like it’s a professional occupation but I have learned to let myself feel my traumas in doses that are manageable at that moment in order to continue the healing process.

The first time I hiked Chautauqua was during a business trip to see if Colorado was the right fit for me as a human as well as the business I intended to build. I found a boulder under a beautiful Ponderosa Pine tree just off the trail. I climbed up, laid down and just cried and felt as I looked up at the sky through the branches and pine needles. As an Andina, I knew I was home in the Rocky Mountains and as soon as I made it back to Wisconsin I started planning my move. 

The Connection Between Foraging and Healing 

Hiking and foraging for food in nature now go hand-in-hand for me as a chef specializing in Indigenous cuisine from all over Turtle Island. It is a self-educated process because I did not grow up within the Indigenous culture. In a way, it makes the connection even deeper for me because I am choosing this path, this education, and this work.

The process of foraging is deeply healing: for me, it provides the connection, grounding, and even identity that I need to continue healing. I talk to the plants, my Gods, and ancestors while foraging. I give back an organic offering as thanks to the plant family for the sacrifice so that I may connect and learn. I take the foraged plants back home and dehydrate Prairie Sage to burn as medicine. I dehydrate pine needles for tea to ward off a cold, pickled spruce tips to garnish a dish three months later and grind wild sumac for seasoning. These practices provide not just a grounded feeling but a rootedness. To

Discovering Cultural Identity Through Ancestral Foods

There are many ways to uncover and work with cultural identity to heal and connect: I work with ancestral foods. And, you can learn more about cultural identity from any place. 

I used to identify as Venezuelan and Latina simply because Venezuela is my birth country. When I was working on my first business plan I quickly discovered that I was heavily leaning toward an Indigenous identity, specifically Andean. There is only so much information to be obtained on Indigenous culture from books, articles, and other publications. until I am in a position to visit South America again, I rely on what is attainable in my current US residence.

Today, I enlist the help of many talented people to help me source ingredients that originated in South America. A local butcher found llama meat for me after three months of searching. My main produce guy found dried aji amarillo peppers so that I could make my own paste and sauces. Llama is a pack animal used in the Andes and aji amarillo is found all over Peru.

Working with these items and ingredients like quinoa, amaranth, and potatoes are a source of cultural identity for me.

Family and Culture: Bridging The Gap

I love my parents dearly; they are my best friends. They are the reason I had access to opportunities most young people within my demographic do not.

I was adopted from an orphanage in Caracas, Venezuela when I was just nine weeks old. After a few years in El Salvador, we came back stateside for good when I was about three years old. My parents have always encouraged me to be who I am and live my life on my terms. These are empowering lessons that I am grateful for on a daily basis. They have never been hurt by my desire to learn about my indigeneity through ancestral foods.

I like to get playful with my food in ways that bridge the gap between two of the multiple worlds in which I live: being born Andina and being raised in white America by white American parents. 

One of my latest experiments has taken me down the road of my maternal grandfather who was Polish. I called him Papi and his life’s work was as a potato farmer in New York.

Pierogies and Purple Potatoes

Pierogi is a well known Polish dish. It is commonly a potato mixture wrapped in dough, boiled and then pan-fried in butter. Toppings can vary but pan-fried onions, cabbage, and maybe some sour cream are often used. While I did not grow up eating Polish food, a boy I used to date in high school introduced me to these wonderful little potato dumplings and I was hooked. In my latest experiment, I made pierogi stuffed with purple potatoes, connecting my Polish and Andean roots.

When I told my mother about this during my recent visit in January, she smiled. She told me, “Boy, Papi would get a kick out of you if he was still here.” He would have been delighted that my parents adopted a child who grew up to be an Indigenous chef and loves potatoes. (I love them as a source of cultural identity so much that I have tattoos of heirloom potatoes originating from the Andes on my arm.

Ancestral Foods and Resiliency

My ex-husband’s suicide attempt shook me to my core. I didn’t understand his headspace nor how I had missed any potential warning signs. I was only 26 years old. No one pulls you aside in high school and says, “Honey, in case your partner snaps mentally and wants to kill him or herself, this is how you handle it…”

There is no manual for enduring—and then coping with and healing—trauma. I connected to Charles Hunt’s presentation with TedXCharlotte not because we have similar stories but because we have the same superpower—resilience.

In a presentation at the Wellness Disruptors Conference in Pittsburgh in October 2019, I shared this popular quote with attendees in my keynote speech: “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” 

This does not come from a place of ego: it comes from the understanding that resiliency is an Indigenous person’s legacy, not genocide. The world knows our story of genocide, not our story of survival and resiliency.

I started walking down a path of Indigenous foods to help cope and heal my own personal layers of trauma. When I couldn’t sleep, I cooked. When I was angry, I went to the gym to exhaust myself and then came home and cooked myself a recovery meal. When I was unsettled with an anxious mind or trying to get over yet another break up with someone who wasn’t capable of accepting me as a human being living with PTSD, I cooked. When I came out of an intense trigger that rendered me unable to eat, I cooked a high-protein, lean, and vegetable-forward meal utilizing ancestral foods. 

When I started my own catering business focused on my interpretation of Indigenous cuisine. I felt like I was cooking for my life every time I executed an event.

One day, I started openly sharing bits and pieces of my PTSD story along with my ancestral foods and the result was shocking.

From a Diagnosis to Resilience

For nearly five years I identified as someone with PTSD. I was not able to separate myself from the diagnosis—I was the diagnosis. It wasn’t until I started sharing my story of layered trauma in conjunction with cooking ancestral foods that I started separating myself from the diagnosis. I went from someone who lived (and re-lived) their diagnosis to someone who thrived: I used my diagnosis as fuel to do more, be more, heal myself, and help others by spreading awareness. Here are some ways that my connection with ancestral foods have taken root:

Giving Back: The Warrior Goddess Dinner

I host the Warrior Goddess Dinner every May to bring awareness to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) epidemic. I tell our story through my menu. The “Three Sisters” in North American Indigenous culture are beans, corn, and squash. To illustrate our stolen sisters I omitted one of the three sisters in every course except for the dessert course. Net sales were donated to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center because their work specifically caters to Indigenous women and the concerning realities we face on a regular basis.

Empowerment Through Community

What has surprised me the most about my work are the emails, text messages, and private messages through social media platforms I receive from people thanking me. Brown women from all over the country have reached out to me after a presentation, a benefit dinner, my Huffpost Personal video, a story that I have published—and thanked me for sharing my story. Many have even shared their own personal traumatic stories. They feel empowered to keep pushing forward because they’re watching me do it. They feel a sense of community instead of isolation and loneliness that often plagues trauma survivors because I am sharing some of my experiences. Community is a major tool in healing. I still have difficult days where I have to force myself to text or call a friend and say, “I don’t feel okay. I’m having a really tough PTSD day.”

Healing: The Mirror Effect

To have young Indigenous women reach out to me, or watch me on a stage or in front of a culinary classroom, and view me as a role model is surreal and humbling beyond words. It is healing to share my story in an articulate way. It is even more powerful to see this process mirrored in others—to see them find their own personal courage and heal in a way that is appropriate for them. It is an honor to be an advocate for Indigenous culture and mental health awareness.

The Healing Path

Everyone has a different healing path. Mine is steeped in working with my ancestral foods. If you love cooking or baking as well, I encourage you to explore your own heritage, roots, and identity and observe what comes up for you. I enjoy and utilize many other coping tools aside from food and cooking: 

  • Cooking
  • Drawing and painting
  • Writing and journaling
  • Therapy
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Exercise
  • Hiking and walking
  • Snowboarding
  • Service or companion animal
  • Reading
  • Listening to or creating music
  • Tattoos
  • Socializing with friends or family
  • Volunteering
  • Massage therapy
  • Touchstones

I hope something in my toolbox finds its way into yours.

About The Author

While Andrea continues to grow her catering business, Four Directions Cuisine, she also travels to share ancestral knowledge through lectures and cooking demonstrations. She is currently working on writing a book and launching an online retail project. Andrea lives outside of Denver, CO with her sweet-hearted dog, Chelsie.

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