Indigenous California Chefs are Reviving and Preserving Native Cuisines

Vincent Medina (right) and Louis Trevino (left), founders of Café Ohlone by Mak’amham. (Café Ohlone)

Vincent Medina spent seven years as a docent at the oldest building in San Francisco, Mission Dolores, one of the 21 missions in the state at which the Spanish tried to convert Native Californians to Catholicism.

A member of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe from the East Bay, Medina (pictured above, at left) was trying to change the narrative schoolchildren heard about the Ohlone people indigenous to the area, who the conquerors enslaved in the missions. But when Medina started to feel locked in at his job at the Mission, he left and started working in the produce department at the popular East Bay grocery store, Berkeley Bowl.

“It was so fun to be able to work with these beautiful peaches and apples instead of having to think about slavery,” he said. “I just remember how much I enjoyed being around the food.”

Working at the grocery, Medina began thinking about serving the food native to the area, an idea he talked about with his partner, Louis Trevino (pictured above, right), a member of the Rumsen Ohlone tribe, which originated in the Monterey Bay area.

Now the two run Café Ohlone by Mak-’amham—meaning “our food” in Chochenyo, one of several native Ohlone dialects—where they serve up traditional foods such as acorn soup, chia seed pudding, venison meatballs, and acorn-flour brownies.

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Located outdoors in the backyard of University Press Books in Berkeley, the tribe’s aesthetic runs throughout the café. “Ohlone Land” spans the fence in capital letters, tribal baskets decorate shelves, bay laurel—important medicinally and in food—hangs from the balcony, and the space features a large table made from a fallen redwood. The café uses a pop-up model, opening one or two afternoons a week and the occasional evening—announcing all the dates and times beforehand on social media.

Louis Trevino (left) and Vincent Medina (right) cooking at Café Ohlone by mak'amham.
Louis Trevino (left) and Vincent Medina (right) cooking at Café Ohlone by mak'amham. (Emily Wilson)

Trevino and Medina are among a number of Indigenous chefs around the country working to preserve and celebrate their heritage in hopes of keeping their culture alive and vital.

“For both of us, the café is bringing something to our people we’ve been lacking for too long,” Medina said of Café Ohlone. “Growing up, both Louis and I wanted to go to a place outside of our homes and see our culture, especially in our homeland. The café space is helping repair damages from colonization.”

Grounding the Work in the Ohlone Culture

Trevino and Medina met at the University of California, Berkeley, at a conference for Breath of Life, an organization that works with California Indians to strengthen and revive their languages. Reading old documents from their tribes, they found stories, history, and jokes—as well as loving descriptions of the foods their ancestors ate, such as venison and acorns.

Ohlone territory covers about 120 miles—from Vallejo in the east to Big Sur to the southwest, roughly—and Medina guesses the tribe has about 6,000 members. While many remember stories from their families or old dances, Medina said, the Ohlone people were hit hard by colonization—with the Spanish coming first, followed by the Mexicans and Americans—so they couldn’t keep their culture intact.

Before opening the café, Medina and Trevino held an event for their families and other Ohlone. For two nights, they camped out in a secluded area in the East Bay hills, where they practiced language lessons, traditional gaming, and tribal bingo. They had books printed for everyone there with old stories translated to Chochenyo and English, as well as family histories and tribal heroes to make their culture more accessible.

Then they shared stories around the fire and had a feast of traditional foods—venison, mushrooms, native berries, acorn soup, and acorn brownies. The next morning, they served acorn flour pancakes with honey, blackberries, and hazelnut butter.

Because of the cultural loss due to colonization, tasting foods of their tribes meant a lot to participants. “Whether an elder or a young person, when they ate the acorn for the first time, there was this look people had: of feeling proud, of being able to eat that and to know it was something familiar, even if it was their first taste of it,” Medina said.

A sign at Café Ohlone by Mak’amham reads “Ohlone Land”
A sign at Café Ohlone by Mak’amham reads “Ohlone Land” (Emily Wilson)

The goal, he added, was to “center the work on returning our food and our culture back to ourselves and our families and recognize the sacrifices of people before us” with the eventual hope of “making sure the future is brighter for [Ohlone] people to come.”

Dispelling Stereotypes with Conversation

Trevino and Medina forage in the hills of the East Bay for ingredients for their café—gathering herbs, seeds, and tea in the same place Medina’s ancestors did. During the meals, they talk with their guests about their Ohlone history and culture.

“We’re making people responsible for what they know and where they live and what they’re implicated in by their presence here,” Trevino said. “We’re dispelling stereotypes, and it’s a very powerful way to do it—in conversation.”

One of the most persistent stereotypes is that the Ohlone no longer exist. Sita Bhaumik, who was eating at Café Ohlone on a recent afternoon, says the food reminds her to think of Indigenous people in the present and future tense, rather than in the past.

A co-founder of the People’s Kitchen Collective, Bhaumik teaches a class, “A Taste of Resistance,” at California College of the Arts; Trevino and Medina have spoken to her students about their work. She’s been inspired by the thought-provoking way the two speak about the food they’re serving.

“In their presentation, [they say that] flavor is really active—you can’t say, ‘This is what Ohlone people were like, if you’re tasting food in your mouth at that moment,” she said. “That is something colonialism has really done over time—to say either, ‘These people don’t exist,’ or ‘They were here,’ in the past tense.”

Passing Forgotten Traditions to the Younger Generation

Elsewhere in the Bay Area, Crystal Wahpehpah runs a catering business, Wahpehpah’s Kitchen, at which she cooks traditional Kickapoo food from her ancestors in Oklahoma. Like Medina and Trevino, Wahpehpah loves cooking her native foods; it connects her to her family and their traditions, as well as knowledge and experience she wants to pass on to the younger generation.

Chef Crystal Wahpepah’s Kickapoo Chili.
Chef Crystal Wahpepah’s Kickapoo Chili. (Civil Eats)

While Wahpepah grew up in Oakland, she’d go every summer to Oklahoma, where she and her aunts and grandma would cook foods traditional to their Kickapoo tribe, like sweet corn.

“It was one of the special moments I had with my grandmother and aunties of harvesting sweet corn and drying it and having it in winter,” she said. “We would go back in the summertime and harvest it and have family dinners. I thought that was the most beautiful thing, and when we’d come back to the city, I always wondered why we never had indigenous food at a restaurant.”

The first Native American chef to be featured on Food Network’s “Chopped” TV show, Wahpepah started her own catering business, Wahpepah’s Kitchen, in 2012, cooking those foods.

At the time, Wahpepah was attending Cordon Bleu, a cooking school in San Francisco, when a friend told her about La Cocina, the San Francisco-based organization that helps low-income people, mostly women, start food businesses. La Cocina supported her in building her brand, Wahpepah said.

When she first started, Wahpepah went to the Oakland library to read about Indigenous food. Now she travels all over the country meeting Indigenous chefs and talking about reviving the cuisine. In the fall, Wahpepah appeared at an event at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, “Keeping the Seed,” along with Trevino and Medina, where she served her food and discussed her mission to make people aware of Native American cuisines as a means of cultural preservation.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t get to see Indigenous chefs or our food in stores,” Wahpepah said. “I take pride in knowing I’m building the foundation for youth to see our foods all over.”

Wahpepah wants to keep meeting other Indigenous chefs and one day, to have her own restaurant and write a combination cookbook and memoir. Like Medina and Trevino, she wants everyone to know Indigenous people and their culture are still alive.

Eating Indigenous food opens people up to hearing about the culture, Trevino says. “The foods are just inherently delicious—it’s completely inarguable—and as they’re eating these delicious things, and we talk about our truths, they’re extremely receptive,” he said. “They’re walking away with a really strong memory.”

“It’s true,” Medina added. “How could people who create such delicious foods be lying about anything?”

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This article originally appeared on Civil Eats.

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