A Restaurant’s Quest to Preserve Indigenous Food

A Restaurant’s Quest to Preserve Indigenous Food

The yearlong pandemic closed down many restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area, but one of the most heavily mourned of these closings was Cafe Ohlone, the world’s only restaurant serving the cuisine of the Ohlone people native to Northern California. Thankfully, the closure of the restaurant’s operating space in Berkeley didn’t stop the founders, Vincent Medina (Chochenyo Ohlone of the East Bay area) and Louis Trevino (Rumsen Ohlone of the Monterey area), from continuing their work, as they shifted their focus into curated dinner boxes that allow diners to enjoy the cultural experience of Cafe Ohlone at home.

I had the pleasure of enjoying one of these meals last November, arranged in a wooden box with meticulously packed ingredients and detailed instructions on how to prepare and enjoy the meal. The exquisite, gathered ingredients featured in the box felt familiar, as if I was tasting the Northern California that I’ve lived and breathed in for the past four years—it felt like what a hike in the redwoods or the rocky ocean coastline would taste like. This was eating locally in the most literal sense. There were chanterelle mushrooms roasted in walnut oil, a salad of wild greens and berries with blackberry and bay laurel dressing, and black acorn soup, all seasoned with salt made right in the East Bay.

But this experience also reminded me of eating Korean food in Korea. As a person who is indigenous to the Korean Peninsula, eating from ingredients that are hyperlocal, seasonal, and can be gathered in the wild is an entirely different experience from eating as a nonindigenous person and, in my case, an immigrant to the United States. My impression of US food culture—until eating at this restaurant—was that it tended to be separated from the local land and history. Gathering wild greens for food in the United States is a relatively niche activity, whereas knowledge of wild greens and seasonal seeds is relatively commonplace for Koreans in Korea.

Eager to learn more about this culture and land, I reached out to Vincent and Louis to find out about their goals for the restaurant, the evolving history of Ohlone cuisine, and their hopes for the future.

How did Cafe Ohlone begin? Were there any challenges you faced when building the restaurant, and with your switch to takeout boxes recently with changes due to COVID (which I loved)?

Vincent: Both Louis and I come from very old families, meaning our families have lived in these areas forever. There are these beautiful, unbroken relationships we have to these places we come from. For my family, it’s in the East Bay, and for Louis’s family, it’s in Carmel Valley. At home, we would see our culture viewed respectfully and carried on—we would learn from our elders about these traditions that go all the way back to those ancient days. They had so much love for all these old ways and inspired us to carry on our cultures, to make sure that our language, our aesthetics, our basketry—all those things grow stronger.

But outside of our homes, the public knew very little about us as Ohlone people and our culture. Our food wasn’t consumed outside of our homes. It was hard to not see a lot of that visibility. I felt like we were invisible within our own homeland.

One of the things I learned in the East Bay is how food can connect people to culture, even if you’re not necessarily from that culture. I had a lot of friends from different ethnic backgrounds. They would take me to their cultural restaurants, the restaurants that reflect where they come from. And it was always exciting, because you would learn about who and where they come from through food. You get to see the cultural aesthetics on the walls; you get to hear a language as you eat those foods. You walk away with a better understanding of that culture, and you also walk away happy, you know, by eating this delicious food.

I wondered why our food wasn’t reflected outside of our homes in that way. Why couldn’t Ohlone people go and bring our friends to an Ohlone restaurant? When I started to ask questions, I learned that’s tied into our history and how heavily our traditional foods, as well as every other aspect of our traditional culture, were suppressed.

Now, when we don’t have physical spaces that reflect our achievements, our prides, our joys, and our foods, of course, it creates a void. That’s a void within our homeland. It’s especially hard when it’s in an area that you know your family has been living in forever, that you’re still living in. So we created Cafe Ohlone, because we wanted to provide that physical space for Ohlone people to be able to see our culture and pride reflected, in a public way, not just in the homes of our families.

Louis: When Vince speaks of that visibility for our people and our people feeling seen, that is so important. For so long, our families were frequently neglected or put down. To see now that the world is, in some ways, different than it was before, there is an opportunity to reverse that harm.

There are elders who experienced things that they should have never had to experience. Our elders, who are still with us today, had extreme racism and hate directed at them just because of who they were. For them, there was this constant threat from outside of our community.

Today we are presented with the opportunity to be as vocal as we can be—about who we are, about the value of these ways, about the value of our people—the things that we’ve always known were true. It’s a really healing thing to be able to do this, to some of those elders. They did what they could to record their elders. They thought, after that, that would kind of be it. I know an elder who lives in Woodland, a relative named Lydia. She thought that after her generation, the people around us would just forget that we were ever here. Now they know that’s not going to happen. We’re not going to let that happen. So this work with Cafe Ohlone, it’s all part of that justice. That justice is also carried out by educating the public.

It must be a lot of pressure for you that it might be the first time, and maybe the only time, a lot of people are exposed to Ohlone cuisine.

Vincent: It makes it so that everything at the restaurant has to be as perfect as it can be, because it’s a reflection of our culture. But strict standards are already a part of our food culture. These traditional foods our ancestors ate are so fine. They’re so sophisticated. I can’t stress this word enough. If you look at those ingredients that are traditional to this area, they’re considered luxury ingredients today. Things like local mussels and clams and chanterelle mushrooms and California hazelnut flour. And these gourmet berries, like gooseberries and local blackberries and California strawberries. All of these foods that are so rooted and seasonal. They’re constantly changing based on what the land is providing us at whatever season that we’re in.

Our elders’ standards are extremely high. So we can’t be sloppy with anything, and we can’t cut any corners. It’s not like we’re doing that for the public. That’s how we’re taught at home. For example, you make your acorn flour fine enough to fit in the weave of a basket. If not, then you have to do it again, because that’s lazy. Or if you make something that’s not something you would eat yourself, you make it again. It has to always reflect those elders’ taste and their very high standards.

For the public who are not Ohlone and may be exposed to this culture and cuisine for the first time, what would be the best mindset to approach dining at Cafe Ohlone? What guidance or thoughts do you have for people trying food at Cafe Ohlone for the first time? 

Vincent: We want people to understand that we’re part of a very living identity. We prepare all our foods with those core ingredients that the generations before in our family would recognize. But that also means that, sometimes, there are things that our family, over time, adapted into our diet. For an example, in our next box, we’re going to have venison barbacoa, acorn flour tamales, and chanterelle mushrooms for those who are vegan. Tamales are a comfort food in our family today, even though it wasn’t here 200 years ago. They were introduced to our family during the Mission days and colonization, a very painful time. But also, in that time, certain foods were adopted. Things like moles, these slow chilies, were adopted into our foods.

Often what would happen is that the generations before, they would Ohlone-ize these dishes that were brought here. For example, there’s the stew called albondigas, which is a meatball stew that also came during the Mission times. In Louis’s families, indigenous to Carmel, there’s a very clear recording from the 1920s about how, whenever there would be deer meat, venison, an older Ohlone woman would make albondigas. But she would make it with venison instead of the typical cow meat, which is beef. So we look to that as the idea of presenting that as an Ohlone albondigas. We serve ground venison bound with amaranth seeds, which are native, with ground porcini and really wonderful seasonal greens, like watercress or blanched dandelion and yellowfoot mushrooms and chanterelles. So this dish has the basis of something that was brought here during the Mission times, but the ingredients changed to reflect our taste and flavors.

Another example of this are the acorn flour brownies that Louis so masterfully makes. We started to make these about four years ago because, in the midst of this food revival work, there were our elders, who remember eating these foods growing up and are teaching us how to prepare them, how to serve them, what those standards are, all those things. But some of the recent generations of our family, such as some of the kids from five, four years ago, they might have only read about acorn. They knew it was a special food, but they might have not had the chance to eat it. Often, acorn flour is inaccessible because so much of our land is urbanized, and it is hard to go out and gather enough acorns to feed everybody in our community. So we wanted to reintroduce acorn back to those younger people.

We thought a brownie would be such a good vehicle for that. We thought we could, over time, remove the chocolate, but that first bite they had would have the chocolate, which everybody loves. It’s also very clear, in those old archives from the 1920s, that when chocolate was introduced here during the Mission days, it was one of the things that wasn’t rejected. So that gave us the idea of acorn flour brownies, but again, Ohlone-izing them with acorn flour. The chocolate is handmade in small batches from a small Zapotec pueblo in southern Mexico, by a woman named Doña Margarita who makes the chocolate in the traditional way from her region. Then we add salt that we gather from the Bay shore on top of those brownies.

We thought over time what we would do is phase out those brownies and just get to the pure acorn flour, but then our elders fell so much in love with the brownies, they said, don’t get rid of them, keep them around. So we keep them. It reminds us you don’t have to take out something modern in order to have something traditional. They could both coexist.

Yeah, absolutely. I think that was another question I wanted to ask you: about how you balance tradition versus evolution or adaptation of modern ingredients into Ohlone cuisine. Those are awesome examples that you shared.

 Louis: I think Vincent said that really beautifully. Before this pandemic, we had our dinners in person at Cafe Ohlone. Part of those dinners was that the head of our table, which was a long communal redwood table, was always reserved for family and community. So they were always at every meal. We had members of the community and our family present. Part of keeping those standards up was also to make sure that they felt as looked after as we want them to, which is as much as possible, to make sure that all of those dishes were perfect and suited their tastes. And, in some cases, to suit the memory of their taste, for those elders who had certain food when they were very young and now get to have them again. There’s something about when you’re preparing the food, to know that those family members, they’re coming, and you get to prepare the food in anticipation of their arrival. That really added something to it.

Switching gears a little bit, what was your comfort food growing up?

Vincent: There are a few different things. In the ranchería days, that is, the 1840s going up until about 1930, there were a lot of foods from the Mission times that were imposed by the Spanish and adapted by our family. Our family still kept making them, even when I was a child. So a lot of the older Ohlone foods, the ones the older generation of our family remembered eating and craved up until the revival, were these older Mexican-Spanish recipes that came here from the Mission days. But they perfected them, made them so well.

One of the things that I really liked as a kid were these slow-cooked chilies, like moles. Another dish that comes to mind—my grandmother would make chilaquiles for breakfast all the time. She would make the chili sauce this old way she learned from the older generation of our family. It’s just such a comfort food for me, even nowadays.

I just really love that dish, and it reminds me a lot of my grandparents. I know it’s not necessarily a traditional Ohlone dish, but the dish still has a place in our history.

Louis: Yeah, I think I would say something very similar. When I was young, I spent almost all of my summer with my grandparents. My grandmother Marylou Yamas and her family had a restaurant in Southern California. It was all recipes of her parents—so my great-grandparents—especially those of my great-grandma Connie. All of those foods were in that same vein that Vince was just describing, these slow-cooked dishes that are older Mexican dishes from California. I mean, they’re all just so good. I have so many memories of so much food.

The way they’re prepared was very particular. When they opened the restaurant, my great-grandparents lived upstairs, and everything was prepared by my great-grandmother. She would get up at three or four in the morning and go downstairs and start all the sauces. The way that those dishes are made today is still in exactly the same way as then. There are little things my grandma does, and she may not know why she’s doing a particular thing. But it’s the way that her mother or her grandma did it, so she does it that way. It always comes out exactly the same.

There’s a dish she calls red chili, so chili colorado, that she makes that is really slow-cooked chili sauce with meat in it that’s been cooked to perfect tenderness. And that, with some homemade flour tortillas—that’s good stuff.

What would you think the future generations of the Ohlone people, what would their comfort food be?

Vincent: You know, I have a feeling it’s going to be things like these acorn flour tamales and acorn flour brownies, but also acorn soup and smoked venison and mussels and shellfish. But I think it’s going to be all of these things.

One reason that we’ve been adamant about incorporating foods that might not always have been here 200 years ago, but that have been part of our history, is because we know that these foods also have a place in our story, too. I wouldn’t ever disrespect my grandmother’s chilaquiles, just like how I know that Louis would never disrespect his grandma’s chili colorado. So it’s important that we make room for those ingredients, but doing it on our terms. Not just having it be something that was imposed on us, but understanding that these are things that our family embraced over time.

When we first opened Cafe Ohlone, we were a little bit more hesitant about doing that to the degree that we’re doing it right now. COVID has got us all thinking more right now, because we’ve been having more discussions specifically about these foods that were introduced and their role in our community. We don’t want to erase them. We want to find a way to keep that knowledge of how they’ve been adapted but also how traditional flavors were incorporated into them, so that we can still have both.

I know that Ohlone children right now, they’re growing up so empowered. It’s such a cool thing to see how many children nowadays are getting named in Ohlone languages, how many kids are growing up right now speaking Chochenyo and Rumson languages, the languages that Louis and I have been able to relearn and the older generation of our family grew up hearing. They’re growing up seeing our baskets, knowing our religion, the land stewardship practices of this place, the gathering traditions. They’re all out there when we go gather together, and you see how proud they are.

When all those things are carried on together, that’s what real healing looks like. The generation that came before us did the same things that we’re working on for this younger generation. They did everything that they could to make sure that we knew who we come from, where we come from. Some things might not have been passed down, when our culture was literally criminalized by the American, the Spanish, and the Mexican governments. During the 1850s to the early 1900s, if you practiced these ways outwardly, you could be killed. You can imagine how hard it would be to transmit culture in these circumstances.

But looking at what’s been carried on, we know there’s a reason our family always reminded us to be proud of these ways. Why that generation back in the 1920s recorded thousands of pages of archives, so that one day we would be able to again connect and see that healing happen. That gives us that motivation and a really beautiful feeling, of obligation to make sure that all those sacrifices from the generations weren’t in vain, that we make sure to live up to what was expected of us. We expect the same things of the next generation, too—it’s not over, because colonization isn’t over.

Louis: I agree completely. I think you’ll find that anybody who takes the time to ask and maybe think about these things will find that we are part of a very real community with real experiences, some of them extremely hard. Even in those hard things, we’re always finding a way to do things with beauty and with very serious ethics. So that’s what we carry, this very strong visual as well as culinary aesthetic, a very strong sense of ethics, and wanting to do things beautifully. We make sure that those hard times were never in vain, and those sacrifices that were made to keep family safe, to keep these things known, even if it meant scribbling it down somewhere—that those things are not just let go of.

Scallion Oil Noodles

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