Chef Sherry Pocknett says, “I grew up with a wooden spoon in my mouth.” Chef Sherry is a member of the Wampanoag Tribe and daughter of Chief Sly Fox. Earlier this year, she purchased an old abandoned biker bar on CT-2A, between Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, and will convert it into a restaurant and cultural center celebrating Indigenous life and cuisine. On this particular Thursday afternoon, she’s invited me to lunch at her house in Connecticut, and the two of us are in her kitchen. She tells me about growing up in Mashpee, Mass, while stirring a pot of steaming Three Sisters rice with, ironically, a wooden spoon.
“The first thing my parents did was teach us to survive,” she says. “We were responsible for helping out the family. We had chickens, a garden, a potato garden. I picked and sorted potatoes — they were all different sizes. I hated that part. I collected chicken eggs in the morning. My mom was hard on me, or at least that’s how I saw it. She gave me a lot of responsibility. But I cooked with her every chance I could get — she’s an amazing pastry chef.”
Chef Sherry comes from a line of talented culinarians, not only her mother and father, but also her uncle and grandmother who owned The Flume restaurant. She would visit her grandmother and together they’d go to the river, where at 11 years old she was tasked with getting the herring and taking out the roe. “We also removed the heads, tails and guts and kept them for garden; it made great fertilizer. The herring backs could be pickled or fried or smoked — herring are a big part of my life,” Chef Sherry confirms. “We even had a herring ceremony, or Thanksgiving. We don’t have just one Thanksgiving. We have many.”
Being thankful for the bounty of the earth is one of the key components of Chef Sherry’s upbringing, the philosophy she wants to share with others. “There is bounty all around us, all the time,” she says, “and we need to go back to eating with the seasons. In New England we have four — really five — seasons: winter, spring, summer, Indian summer (or autumn) and fall.
“We celebrate New Year in the spring, when the leaves turn green — it’s when we see new beginnings and new life. Birds come up from the south, the fish come down from the north. In the spring, the water would be black with herring; you could reach down and pick them up,” she says, thrusting her arms into an imaginary river and pulling up a herring in each hand. “After the herring come the mackerel, then the striped bass, the blue fish, the blue crab — there’s so much bounty in the bays, you could live off it alone.”
It’s clear her passion for cooking goes beyond the simple joy of putting good food in front of people to fill their stomach, although that plays a significant role in her life, too. “I got my first EZ-Bake oven when I was 5 or 6 years old, and I experimented with anything. If there was eels, I cooked it. If there was deer meet, I cooked it. I tested whatever I made on my brothers. They were heathens,” she laughs. “They ate anything.”
Her primary focus, however, is to feed others with knowledge, with gratitude, and with respect for our earthly home. “Fourteen thousand years later,” she says with pride, “and we’re still here. We are the caretakers of the earth. Nobody really owns the earth, but Native Americans — we feel like we’re responsible for taking care of it.”
This is where Sly Fox Den, the restaurant named for her father, will come in. “It’s not just a restaurant; it’s going to be a whole cultural center,” she says.
The building sits between a river, where herring will come upstream every spring, and an estuary of brackish water where striped bass and white perch will migrate and heron and egrets will fly. She wants to build a smokehouse for the restaurant and offer burnout canoe demonstrations near the water. There will be a wetu and an outdoor kitchen; a living museum with Indigenous plants and someone to narrate the history of the East Coast Native people; food demonstrations with clay pots, fish drying, and rotisserie. There will be a Three Sisters garden for beans, corn and squash; sunflower and sunchokes along the road; and lots and lots of dandelions. “It’s medicine, you know?” she says.
On the lower level of the building there will be a cooking school, and upstairs — the main dining area — there will be a raw bar, a Chef’s Table, and a stage; it’ll be a venue for weddings and showers and private events. The restaurant itself will feature pre-Columbus foods and true Indigenous cuisine: frog legs and turtle soup, venison and wild quail. The emphasis will be on eating with the season, but Chef Sherry wants the menu to be accessible for everyone, so less adventurous eaters will find fresh vegetable dishes, chicken, Three Sisters rice, corn cakes and Indian tacos.
“I was only looking for a place to cater out of, but then I found this,” she says. “I don’t know how I bought it — the Creator gave it to us. I’ll never forget the day, February 1. We had no money, but somehow we were able to get $35,000. I did a GoFundMe and we borrowed money from everybody, neighbors who don’t ‘have’ money. That goes to show you how much these people believe in me.
“When I get this restaurant open, it will complete my dream,” she concludes. “I want people to leave with education about why it’s so important to take care of this planet. It’s not about ‘selling’ my culture — I want to teach my life ways. My life ways make my culture. People have to stop eating out of boxes and recognize the bounty.”
Visit slyfoxdenrestaurant.com to learn more. You’ll also find a link to Chef Sherry’s GoFundMe campaign, to help get this restaurant up and running.