“Our Food of this Land” – High Country News – Know the West

Golden cubes of acorn squash, roasted and still in the skin, mixed with chopped pecans. A bed of greenery sprinkled with sparkling strawberries, voluptuous blackberries and edible blossoms so vibrant they look tropical. Wine-colored blueberry tea. Pine nut and lavender cookies. And the centerpiece: crisp, juicy bison and blue corn meatballs drizzled with a blueberry sauce so dark and rich it could be mistaken for chocolate.

It is pre-colonial. It is decolonial. It is a good, decadent and delicious medicine.

Still got your mouth watering? This Thanksgiving, there’s a new Native American restaurant in the West, part of a movement to reclaim – and redefine – Native cuisine. In mid-November, Chef Crystal Wahpepah opened Wahpepah’s Kitchen in Oakland, California’s first sit-down Native American restaurant. “You can call it fusion, you can call it whatever you want to call it – but I call it our food, “she said.” I want people to feel proud, happy and excited, just like we do when we go to another restaurant. For example, I love Thai food; I am excited. I want it. same feeling when people come here.

Crystal Wahpepah is a citizen of the Kickapoo tribe of Oklahoma.

“You can call it fusion, you can call it whatever you want to call it – but I call it our food.

Wahpepah is a citizen of Oklahoma’s Kickapoo tribe, and her restaurant, she explained, promotes a return to original native foods by using dishes from her own nation, like Kickapoo chili, which combines dried sweet corn. , game and pumpkin with “lots of spices”, as well as pan-Indian dishes like wild rice from the Great Lakes accompanied by more southerly edibles, like the three sisters: corn, beans and squash. (“So, you know what?” Wahpepa joked. “That makes Four sisters. ”) Wahpepah fills the restaurant space with his outgoing presence, breaking off with a harsh, upbeat frankness that is disarming and often infectious. “We are now in this harvest season, where all of these dishes are actually harvested and served in the community,” Wahepah told me.

Today, many of the world’s favorite foods are indigenous to the Americas: Italian tomatoes, Irish potatoes, Thai chili peppers, Belgian chocolate, and French vanilla are all in fact Native American foods carefully cultivated by agricultural geniuses. natives while Europe passed through the dark ages gnawing hard bread. and who knows? Maybe eat plague rats.

Classic American Thanksgiving foods are largely of Native origin: the turkey, whose feathers adorn the badges in all Native cultures, is known in Choctaw as fvkit (pronounced, yes, exactly as you would expect Рand hopefully Рit is pronounced) or cholokloha, after the growl he makes. Cranberries are a superfood of the Great Lakes nations. Before Americans mashed them with butter, potatoes were an Inca food made from a poisonous root, inspired by the observation of the llama-like vicu̱a munching on clay before eating them. tubers to make them digestible. Thank you, llama cousins! (And sweet potatoes arrived from Polynesia via international trade routes that Europeans had no idea existed.)

The squash, including the pumpkin, is one of the three sisters, the sacred trinity of corn, beans and squash, three vegetables that not only grow together in symbiosis, but together create a complete protein for the basis of a nutritious plant-based diet, which flourished across North America after the spread of corn.

Line Cook Joshua Hoyt (Ojibwa) prepares buffalo and blue corn meatballs at the grand opening of Wahpepah’s Kitchen in Oakland, Calif., Ohlone Land.

“Our bodies are really designed to have all of these nutritious foods from our homeland.

The idea of ​​mixing the squash with cow’s milk and baking it in a wheat flour crust, of course, sounds like a very French approach to pumpkin. “The natives have a gluten-free and plant-based diet,” Wahpepah told me, adding that the introduction of wheat flour was disrupting the health of the local population. “Our bodies are really designed to have all of these nutritious foods from our homeland.

How food connects people to place is a cornerstone of Indigenous thinking. If you want to dig deeper into this rich topic, a good place to start is last year’s Thanksgiving episode of the Food Sovereignty Podcast. Grilled sister. In one segment, Danielle Hill, a citizen of Mashpee Wampanoag, dissolves any separation between oneself and the environment and makes stewardship of land and water a primary concern. “The more you ingest of the food that has been grown in your soil and the waters around you, the more you become where you live,” Hill said on the podcast. “I introduce myself by saying that I am Mashpee. I’m not saying I’m from Mashpee or live in Mashpee. I am Mashpee because I literally eat and ingest Mashpee.

Customers order from Isabella Zizi (Northern Cheyenne, Arikara, Muskogee Creek) at the grand opening of Wahpepah’s Kitchen.

After the United States destroyed the native ways of eating, in part to create dependency, it sent staple foods like worm-eaten flour and powdered cheese to the reserves. With little else to eat, families developed fried bread, a quick bread scraped with flour, salt and baking powder, fried in oil – a famine food.

The disruption of healthy Indigenous eating habits and connection to place continued throughout the displacement and continues today with urbanization and cultural disconnection.

In mid-November, Wahpepah and I connected by phone from two coastal towns. His nation, like mine, is based in Oklahoma. She told me that she even had Choctaw parents. But neither these Pacific towns nor Oklahoma are our ancestral lands. “My tribe is originally from the Illinois area,” Wahpepah explained, “and moved all the way to Kansas, Oklahoma, all the way to the Mexican border. Can you imagine all those seeds and all the foods that really got lost along the way? ”

Crystal Wahpepah and sous chef Concepcion Del Rio (Mexican) prepare the orders.

“Can you imagine all those seeds and all the food that really got lost along the way? “

Suddenly, just by eating in a different landscape, people were consuming foods for which their bodies were not optimally suited. “So our bodies are going to go through something,” Wahpepah said, adding that the problem was made worse by the introduction of sugar. “I mean where did we get all these diseases from, you know?” “

“Well, we sure didn’t get them from the buffalo,” I replied. Wahpepah erupted into the gritty, tumultuous laughter that punctuated our entire conversation. “Yes. Yes exactly.”

She said her cooking was all about making things right. “This is our food from this earth, and health and wellness is number one. “

“So is the fried bread off the table?” I asked him, a little sad that the beloved powwow snack was excluded from contemporary dining. I understand, of course: like powwows, fried bread was not a part of pre-colonial Aboriginal cultures. But still… “I come from a family that ate it every day,” Wahpepa says. “And of course your health will deteriorate. But also, at the same time, we all love cakes for our birthdays, right?

Fried bread won’t be on the daily menu, but it will always be part of Wahpepah’s cuisine. “You can have this balance in your diet,” she conceded.

Matthew Young and Kiona Young (Apache, Pueblo, Cherokee, Choctaw) and other young dancers perform with the All Nations Singers at the grand opening of Wahpepah’s Kitchen (left). Crystal Wahpepah cuts the ribbon at the inauguration (right).

Wahpepeah also collects seeds to grow her own crops, like the Lakota squash, and soon, she hopes, a white Kickapoo bean. Its ingredients are not the kind you can just order wholesale from Sysco. Wahpepah says sourcing indigenous ingredients involved a decade-long journey to build relationships with farmers and seed holders. She sees these relationships as a matter of trust.

“It’s just not me who represents Wahpepah’s cooking and food,” she told me. “I also represent the farmers and the people from whom I source my ingredients. “

Walls burst with color in Wahpepa’s Kitchen: classic Indian teal collides with the yellow of acorn squash. The support columns are adorned with murals of corn stalks against an electric blue sky by painter Tony Abeyta. The colors seem to draw in the sunlight from the floor-to-ceiling windows on the street side. On the built-in squash-colored shelves are jars of ingredients, somewhat resembling this reporter’s own kitchen, and, Wahpepah told me, hers too. “You’re coming to my house, trust me, it’s just a quick glimpse,” she said, resuming her unsupervised laugh that heats up the kitchen.

“We see food in our kitchen. So why not check out these beautiful native seeds and ingredients that we have here? ” she said. “It’s whole corn, it’s blue corn, cherry sauce, elderberry sauce, you know, and so forth, different kinds of native seeds.

“If I go to a restaurant, I’d love to see it all, wouldn’t I?”

Jars of spices and other ingredients are prominently displayed in Wahpepah’s kitchen.

Brian Oaster (they / them) is a writer at High Country News and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. They are an award-winning investigative journalist living in the Pacific Northwest. Email them at [email protected] Where send a letter to the editor. See our letters to the political editor.

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