FOOD TRUCK FILES: Zea May's Smart Take on Native American Cuisine
RESUME: As the granddaughter of the owner of The Standard Deli in Baltimore, Maryland, Sue Wasserkrug has the need to feed in her blood. Though her career up until now hasn’t included professional cooking – she’s been a lawyer in the public interest sphere for the past twelve years – connecting with, and nourishing others has always been a part of her life. “You could say I’m interested in the offbeat,” she says. “I’ve advocated for homeless people [at the Homeless Advocacy Project] and seniors [at the Senior Law Center], and now I’m promoting Native American culture through food… these are not things that are on people’s minds or lips on a daily basis.” Even the Zen of Food, the column she used to write for an alternative-weekly in Iowa City, explored the world of edibles through essays, instead of a more traditional review or feature format.
BUSINESS PLAN: “A couple of years ago, Goat Hollow, a Mount Airy institution of a restaurant, changed hands and then closed,” says Wasserkrug, a resident of the leafy northwest Philadelphia neighborhood. “I had an idea to start a restaurant, like the café at the National Museum of the American Indian in D.C. Ultimately, it was not viable – I’m not a trained chef, it’s lots of money – but myself and a restaurant consultant came up with the idea of a food truck as a startup.” Wasserkrug purchased the brightly-colored vehicle that had formerly housed Far From Home Café’s mobile operation, and set about translating traditional Native American flavors and ingredients into portable snacks that would educate minds as they filled stomachs. The name of the operation itself is a play on the scientific name for corn, zea mais.
“I’ve always been interested in cultures and anthropology,” says Wasserkrug. “I like to say I was probably Native American in a previous life – I feel strongly connected to these cultures.”
EDIBLE OUTCOME: “I’ve started simple,” says Wasserkrug. “Two types of empanadas every day, two salads, bison hot dogs – in the winter I’ll add things like soups, dessert items… I’ve got pages and pages of recipes.”
Daily-changing empanadas ($3), a staple of South American diets introduced by the Spanish and Portuguese, are stuffed with locally-sourced ingredients. Mushroom and sweet potato pack an umami-laced punch; spicy black bean and cheese proves you don’t need meat to get a healthy protein fix. Local strawberries star in a dessert pocket – but first, snag a bison hot dog ($4) fixed with Wasserkrug’s housemade cranberry relish on a Wild Flour brioche bun.
“Bison is leaner, lower in calories and cholesterol and higher in protein than beef,” adds Wasserkrug. “The buffalo itself is a very important, central symbol and central element of culture for many tribes.”
This introduction to history through the medium of food is Wasserkrug’s real goal, though she does say her favorite thing to do is cook. “Native Americans have contributed so much to modern-day life that is overlooked,” she emphasizes. “Think of potatoes – they are associated with the Irish, but they were first cultivated in South America. Chocolate is the same way – it first cultivated by the Olmecs, and used in religious ceremonies by royalty, mostly as a drink.”
PROS KNOW: Wild rice salad ($5, sourced from the tribally-owned Red Lake Nation in Minnesota) with seasonal vegetables is an edible example of the revered “Three Sisters” of North American tribes: corn, beans and squash. “Corn was the first cultivated crop among Native American people,” says Wasserkrug. “In the Three Sisters form of planting – now called ‘companion gardening’ – corn is planted in the center of a mound, with bean seeds around it. The bean plants need support, so they grow up the cornstalk. Around that, squash seeds are planted. They spread out over the ground, and keep the weeds down. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the three crops; the three sisters.”
Love Park at 15th & JFK, Monday 11am-3pm
Farmers Market at South & Passyunk Ave., 2:30-7pm
Farmers Market at Carpenter Lane & Green St., 3-7pm
Farmers Market at Moyamensing & Morris, 10am-2pm
FELICIA D'AMBROSIO is a Philadelphia-based food writer. Her work also appears in City Paper, GRID, Metro, and Keystone Edge. Send feedback here.
Sue Wasserkrug, owner of Zea May's food truck
Wild Rice and Veggie Salad
Empanadas at Zea May's
The Zea May's Truck
Zea May's at South and Passyunk
Bison Hot Dog w/ cranberry Relish
Location mystery - Solved
All photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO