CHARLESTOWN — Chef Sherry Pocknett started cooking locally and seasonally long before the term farm-to-table became buzzy. A member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she has been foraging, farming and fishing since she was growing up on Cape Cod in the 1960s.
“Our people have always focused on local food,” Pocknett says. “In the fall, we’d have raccoon and rabbit. In the springtime, it was striped bass with fiddlehead ferns, sunchokes and wild ramps.”
Pocknett now shares her Indigenous culture through the food she serves at her 30-seat Charlestown restaurant, Sly Fox Den Too. She runs it with her daughters, Jade and Cheyenne Pocknett-Galvin. The trio make dishes including quahog chowder, venison skewers, and three-sisters rice with corn cakes.
The restaurant is named after Pocknett’s father, Chief Sly Fox, Vernon Pocknett, who died in 1999. “He taught us everything,” she says. “He took all of the tribal kids under his wings and taught us how to fend for ourselves in nature,” she says.
The “too” in the name references the fact that Pocknett’s Charlestown restaurant is actually her Plan B. Shortly before the pandemic began, she started raising funds to renovate a property near her home in Preston, Conn. She is still working on developing the project, called the Sly Fox Den Restaurant, Museum, and Oyster Farm, where she plans to cook as well as offer educational programming on Indigenous culture. But her progress has been slow.
“It’s been really hard with the pandemic, and I’ve almost given up a couple of times,” she says. “It’s my real dream though.”
For now, Pocknett is renting the Sly Fox Den Too’s space on Route 2 in Charlestown, which she stumbled upon while attending a Narragansett tribe event. The restaurant also serves as a hub for her catering business and a revenue source for her Connecticut project.
Q: How did you become interested in food and cooking?
Pocknett: I’ve always loved to cook for people, even back when it was in my Easy Bake Oven. And I helped my mom in the kitchen a lot as a kid. I also remember doing things like going blueberry picking with a little basket around my neck when I was 3 or 4 years old. We were always self-reliant and harvested a lot of our own food. When I was older, I started waitressing at my uncle’s [now closed] Mashpee restaurant, The Flume, which was really popular. In my 20s, I got into catering through that restaurant and started traveling around to different pow-wows and events, which I still do today. I make things like bison burgers, frog legs, turtle soup and smoked mussels. Later, I got the opportunity to become the food and beverage manager at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center, and that’s how I ended up in Connecticut. I decided to stay in the state after I left that position.
What does the term Indigenous food mean to you?
We embrace the bounty of each season and cook with sustainably raised, hunted and fished animals. We also use our original crops, like the three sisters combination of corn, beans and squash. I believe that we are here to love one another, to help one another, and to take care of the land, and those concepts are important to our food as well.
What motivates you to keep these food traditions alive?
Wampanoag people have been here for 12,000 years, and we’re not going anywhere. It’s important to educate the public to let them know that we’re still here and we still have our traditional lifeways. I also think of my children and grandchildren. They need to know and love their heritage and make sure it stays alive.
Which dishes on your menu do you think best represent Native American cooking?
I do my own version of a corn cake with ground yellow cornmeal. I put scallions and dried cranberries on it — people love it. I also make frybread, which came from out west and represents a painful time in history, when the Navajo were forced to relocate from Arizona to New Mexico and use government rations like flour and lard. But, you know, they created something really good out of it. I also love serving local fish, like striped bass and bluefish. And I always use maple syrup from the nearby Mashantucket Sugar Shack.
What’s your vision for your project in Preston, Conn.?
We’ve had the property since 2019. We’ve come a long way with it, but we still have a lot of work and fundraising to do before we can open. It’s a beautiful place — right on the Poquetanuck Bay and a mile from my home in Preston. The vision is to have a restaurant with at least a hundred seats, as well as a living history museum with an outdoor kitchen and a large wetu, or wigwam. We want to have interpreters doing demonstrations on the property, plus a garden and eventually an oyster farm. It will be a fun place for students and adults to come learn about Indigenous peoples.
Last year you were featured on Hulu’s “Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi.” What was filming that like?
It was awesome. Before she came, I didn’t really know who she was. But I welcome anyone who wants to come and take a cooking lesson from me because I love to teach. She was very gracious — and so was her crew.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Sly Fox Den Too, 4349 South County Trail, Charlestown, R.I., 401-642-7350, slyfoxdenrestaurant.com