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Indian Gifts

Loretta Barrett Oden
A Watched Potawatomi: Santa Fe chef Loretta Barrett Oden stirs up some delicious mischief using Native American ingredients and a flair for history.

The foods we associate with harvest time in New England come from the dazzling diversity of the Americas, and the Native Americans who nurtured that bounty

By Christina Waters

'MEGWETCH," whispered Loretta Barrett Oden, as a full moon rose over San Francisco and a hush fell over the room. Oden, who had prepared a Native American meal that night for 60 guests of an ecology conference, began giving thanks for the harvest that filled her kitchen. But she was giving thanks in the language of her Potawatomi Nation, an Algonquin dialect that sounded like wind rushing through cornfields. Part benediction, part spell, Oden's words filled the room with magic, and humility. No one breathed until she had finished.

During a dinner that began with grilled wild mushroom corn cakes and sweet potato crisps, then continued with marinated bean salad, roasted corn and golden tomato pasta and ended with crawfish stew over quinoa, we all felt the full force of her words. Finished off by platters of chocolate and a sorbet of serrano-spiked mangos, the meal was a sumptuous showcase for the bounty of the New World, created by a chef/entrepreneur whose educational agenda is fueled by culinary expertise.


A few Native American recipes, courtesy of
Loretta Barrett Oden.

Also, the real history of Thanksgiving.


"It's always an uphill battle," says the beautiful Oden, whose Corn Dance Cafe is housed within the Hotel Santa Fe--"the only Indian-owned hotel in Santa Fe." Oden, whose contemporary revivals of New World culinary concepts and ingredients have been featured on Good Morning America and in the New York Times and scores of glossy magazines, relishes her role as a Native American Julia Child. "There are just so many misconceptions about Indian food," she sighs. "Everybody just thinks of fry bread and jerky."

Worse, she notes, other cultures fail to give credit where it's due. "Pozole isn't Hispanic; it's a dish from the American Southwest." And the reason why her crawfish stew tasted so reminiscent of Creole cooking is equally obvious. "The Choctaw and Cherokee peoples had been cooking with tomatoes--another gift from the New World--long before the French arrived. They used sassafras and seafoods in their cooking. Then they began hiding the slaves in their villages, and the slaves had brought over okra seeds from Africa. So there you've got the makings of some great gumbo."

The Powhatans in Virginia borrowed pigs from the Spanish and started feeding them peanuts brought by African slaves. Then they smoked the pigs--"and you've got ham," Oden points out. "And of course we had nuts--hazelnuts and piñons and acorns, which are still used today in native cooking, and they made wonderful flours and cakes. The whole piñon thing is very big in the Southwest," she continues. "I do this incredible sage piñon pesto, and I use it with corn and quinoa pasta made for my restaurant."

Oden grew up on a reservation in Shawnee, Okla., and recently spent three years visiting and cooking on reservations all over the country, doing research for her menu at the Corn Dance.

"I tried to get backing for my restaurant idea, and finally, I just opened it myself," she says. "The fantastic reception the food has gotten has overwhelmed even me." Admitting that she's got an educational mission, Oden works tirelessly to enlighten American diners as to the real origins of foods they take for granted: "There was so much crisscrossing between North and South American. So many things--potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate, squashes--came here from the Southern Hemisphere."

When Europeans arrived on the eastern coast of America, they referred to the ubiquitous native grain, zea mays, as "Indian corn" because "corn" was the European term for any grain--oats, barley, wheat. Corn was the sacred center of all New World food, the mainstay, baked into breads, ground into flour, and formed into cakes filled with berries and nuts that Oden calls "the first carry-out." Succotash, which the Pilgrims quickly adopted, was a mix of corn and cranberry beans whose name comes from a Narragansett word that means "ear of corn."

"In the northeast, where colonists first encountered the Indians," Oden says, "native peoples had tomatoes and maize, and to this day they still do what we refer to as clambakes." Native origins run deep in our everyday cooking. "They would take beans and put them in a clay pot in a pit. They'd add wild mustard seeds, some wild onions and maple syrup, and build a fire around the whole thing, come back three days later and--voilà!--Boston baked beans."

Cranberries, squash, pumpkins, corn, turkeys, chocolate, tomatoes, potatoes and chiles all originated in the Americas. No wonder the Pilgrims--subsisting on beer, cheese and porridge--felt thankful.

"Unfortunately," Oden observes, "white food is the norm among today's Native Americans, especially for the tribes who were relocated."

In the Southwest, Oden notes, "we still have many of our traditional foods, because the land of the Zuni, Hopi and Navaho has been occupied for thousands of years." Oden's own Potawatomi people originally occupied the Great Lakes northern woodlands regions. "We got relocated into Oklahoma along with about 50 other groups. When I was a little girl we would go out and gather wild plums, my grandmother and my mother and I, and we would make wonderful jelly. But women from other tribes who lived near us would make something else from those same plums. The wild grapes that we would make into jelly," Oden recalls, "would become grape dumplings for cooks of the Creek people."

Oden is concerned that not only are contemporary Native Americans becoming unhealthy--"diabetes is rampant because of the white man's diet"--but also they're neglecting their own heritage. She's working on something that makes a healthy appeal to fast-food fashion: a baked, not fried, hybrid of fry bread and pizza that she calls Little Big Pies. And she's well into negotiations with several groups that want to market the idea.

"I'm also working very hard to bring my restaurant to California," she says. "After all, we've got every other kind of ethnic restaurant in this country. Native American is the only ethnic cuisine that hasn't been tapped. " Oden is campaigning hard to have Corn Dance Cafe chosen for the Smithsonian's new Museum of Native American Culture. "Food really is the way to reach people. It is the key to a culture. I want to take this all over the world," says the woman who'll talk your ear off about the healthful properties of buffalo.

"I have no patience with my brothers and sisters who carry a chip on their shoulder. We live in a white man's world," she acknowledges without bitterness. "We have to work with that." Oden knows she "walks two roads" but adds, "I'll be damned if I'm going to give up." Megwetch.

Indian Center Harvests Good Will
Marilyn Umtuch of the American Indian Center of Santa Clara Valley needs to fill more than 350 food baskets this time of year for elders of the South Bay's Native American population. Now in its 27th year, the Indian Center is a nonprofit cultural resource offering job training, counseling and referral, as well as sponsorship of art and craft events. "We have an extensive library that is open to the public," Umtuch says, "and we can arrange for storytelling and for school classes to visit." Serving a population from many nations, including Ohlone, Navaho, Apache and Sioux, the Indian Center welcomes donations and volunteer help. Call 971-9622 for details about food contributions and about the Veteran's Pow Wow with native music and dancing on Nov. 16 at Independence High School. The American Indian Center is located at 919 The Alameda in Santa Clara.

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From the November 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro

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