Food as medicine at a new Fort Langley cafe


Chef Sarah Meconse Mierau makes medicinal lemonade.

The preventative concoctions incorporate natural plant medicine rooted in Indigenous knowledge into different kinds of food, including lemonade, jam, and cappuccinos.

Mierau didn’t grow up around the traditional Indigenous food she specializes in today. She grew up outside of—and disconnected from—her Indigenous community. Her new restaurant, Ancestor Cafe is, in part, for Indigenous people who grew up like she did—in busy urban or suburban areas, without access to their cultural food. She wants to help them connect back to their roots—as well as to expose non-Indigenous people to the beauty in traditional food.

Part of that plan involves blending Mierau’s growing wealth of knowledge and experience with contemporary tastes and flavours: hence the lemonade.

FVC: Can you tell me about how the idea for Ancestor Cafe first came about?

SM: Well, I had already started my business, Tradish. Two years ago, I started a business because I wanted to incorporate my culinary experience with my Indigenous ancestry, because I didn’t grow up in my community. I started researching and I had always been connected with plants and the medicinal properties of plants. So I started my jam company, where I went to markets and sold the jams, and I sold them online. And that became very successful. 

So my next step was a food truck. I had always wanted a food truck. So because the jam was doing so good, I thought we would do good with that. We ended up getting the food truck and that was super successful as well. But I also always had people ask me, ‘Where’s the physical place I can go to buy your items?’ The next step was the Ancestor Cafe. 

FVC: Was it always part of the plan for the cafe to be part of the Fort Langley National Historic Site?

SM: So they had the spot open. It had been run by an Indigenous company called lelem’, years ago, and it has been empty ever since then. 

A friend who was once a part of lelem’ told Mierau that she should look into the open spot, which sits within the wooden walls of the old fort. She did, and a plan started to form.

I jumped on it. It seemed like a beautiful opportunity.

FVC: Can you visit the cafe without paying for admission into the Historic Site?

SM: Yes, so the yearly fee for a pass at the historic site is $20. The Fort was nice enough to reduce it to $10 for people who are coming just for the café. And then, whoever buys that yearly café-visitor pass, I give them a free bannock and jam, which is worth $10. So they really don’t pay for anything.

A mother-son team

FVC: I heard your son is running the cafe with you. What’s working together like, as a mother-son team?

SM: It’s great. It’s really great to show my son that he can go for his dreams and be successful. As parents, we lead by example, right? I also have another son, he’s 12 (almost 13.) And he actually does a lot of the markets for me. So my whole family really is involved. 

Anthony, who runs the kitchen at Ancestor Cafe, is 17.

FVC: Whose idea was it to get Anthony involved in running the cafe?

Well, he started with me on the jam company, he was the one who would come and help make jams with me. So it kind of evolved. It was both of our dreams to get a better kitchen, because we were in a shared common area at the time. And it was a little hard, working there, because there’s so many other people cooking at the same time and waiting for the dishwasher or the next spot on the stove. And it just made a small job really big. 

We knew that our next step was to find our own kitchen. And when the Ancestor Cafe came about, he was really excited about it. He likes the responsibility. I don’t know if this is what he’s going to do forever, but as long as he’s happy doing it, I’m so happy to have him there.

Different experiences of Ancestor Cafe

FVC: Is there a difference in what you hope an Indigenous person might experience, visiting the café and trying the food, and what a non-Indigenous person might experience?

SM: Definitely. So for the Indigenous person, I know there’s a lot of urban Indigenous people in the city here that are disconnected from their culture and food. And that’s why I started this business. I didn’t grow up seeing any types of foods that were meant for me and my culture. 

[It helps] urban Indigenous see stuff that’s meant for them. And we do things like plant medicine lemonades—which is a way to incorporate this idea, for the younger generations, that there are things that are meant for us. We have cultural food. 

For the non-Indigenous, oh my goodness, yesterday, I had this young boy come in. It was his 10th birthday, and he’s been learning about plant medicines in school. He heard about our café on the radio and he wanted to have his birthday at our café. It was so sweet. 

And he and his whole family just respected the food and they were reading the books (we have some literature) and they’re talking about plant medicines, and about what the 60s Scoop is…To see people that care and love our foods that way. It’s such a good feeling. Education is a really big part of it for me. I want to show them how beautiful our food and culture is.

FVC: The National Historic Site gets some international tourists, too. What do you hope somebody who might not have any kind of background knowledge about Indigenous people gets to see at the café?

SM: I hope they see authentic traditional Indigenous foods and art. We also have a gallery, we take in other people’s Indigenous art, and it’s all over the walls. And we have different artists and businesses that sell their products. It’s not all just food, right? It’s the cultures and the art and the products. And the people. We have already had so many people from out of the country come in and they’re so amazed because they come here and there’s nothing really about the first people in their pathway. 

FVC: You mentioned some of the things you’ve got on your menu, like lemonade and that kind of thing. And so I’m curious what your approach is to blending traditional Indigenous food and contemporary tastes?

SM: I just want to get plant medicines into any types of foods that we can. For our plant medicine lemonades, we make our own plant medicine simple syrups in-house. When we work with plant medicines, as Indigenous people, we have protocols that [to ensure] they’re taken in a proper way, that they’re not over harvested, and that they’re in their purest form possible to have the full medicinal property. All of my plant medicine products are 100% organic and locally sourced from the land that we live on…And they’re quite yummy. 

FVC: Is there a particular way that experiencing traditional food or medicine is different from learning about it in, say, a classroom?

SM: Yeah, definitely. When people come in and even just ask about the jams, I explain every use and every medicinal property. And that is a lesson right there. People have no idea that food is medicine. That’s something that I’ve always stood by, that food is medicine, as long as you’re eating it in the proper way and it isn’t processed. And it’s not processed. Even carrots have medicinal properties. Every single thing we eat has the medicine, or the nutrients in it, that are good for certain parts of our body. That’s why we eat them, right…I know that everything that comes from Mother Nature was put there to nourish us.

FVC: There’s poisonous berries and things out there as well.

SM: There are poisonous berries, and even some poisonous berries could be used medicinally for certain things. It’s about the knowledge of it. I don’t know everything, but our ancestors did. I’m just starting to crack the surface of what our medicine has done for people.

FVC: What’s your goal, in that process of cracking the surface and learning more about traditional medicine and food? Is there a point where you’ll be able to say, ‘I know as much as I can?’

SM: You’ll never stop learning. Even if you travel, you learn from other Indigenous communities and I learn everyday. There’s so many, there are thousands of tribes of Indigenous people and where they live, there’s certain plants for that area. And they know the knowledge of that. And I know the knowledge of what I’m learning, and we can all share. But every different region has different plant medicines. So I don’t think that there’s enough time in our lives that we could ever stop learning.

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