Native American chef shares native cooking traditions


A member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma, Loretta Barrett Oden’s earliest memories revolve around being in the kitchen.

Yet she came to professional cooking later in life, long after raising a family and her children were on their own. An empty nest traveling in California and the Southwest, she struggled to find Native American dishes.

The more she looked, the less she saw. It became his turning point.

Working with her son Clay in the early 1990s, she opened the Corn Dance Cafe in Santa Fe, NM. It was the first restaurant in the country to focus on foods native to the Americas. Her son died at 38 and after almost a decade the cafe closed. Oden emerged with an even stronger commitment to preserving indigenous foods and traditions.

Gathering recipes through oral histories and travels, the 72-year-old has made it her mission to find recipes, track trade routes and spread knowledge about indigenous foods across the Americas. Sharing Native American history through cooking, Oden considers food to be his most powerful educational tool.

“The food history of the Americas is my all-consuming passion,” says Oden. “When people have their mouths full of food, they listen.”

QWhat set you on the path to pursuing Native American food stories and indigenous foods?

A. I got married, raised my kids in Oklahoma, but not on the reservation. Towards the end of life, there was a change in circumstances. After my two boys went to college and grew up…I embarked on a great adventure.

I’ve traveled and noticed everywhere I go, I don’t see anything that represents Native American eating habits – except for fried bread and tacos, of course. This put me on the path to investigation. What did we eat and what food history do we have?

QWhat were you most surprised to learn?

A. When I started to dive deep into it, I was blown away. One of the books I read that kind of set me on this path was a book called “Indian Givers” by Jack Weatherford at Macalester College in Minnesota. I was so taken with the food story and the political ramifications. Of course, I went into food thinking it was the least political thing, but it turned out to be very different.

Think about how many of the foods we eat around the world today are indigenous somewhere in the Americas. Whoa… So I really started to investigate, going from reservation to reservation. I was looking at cooking methods. Then it occurred to me that our food in its regionality is as diverse as we are as Indians.

QWhat differences have you noticed at the regional level?

A. We think Indians are Indians. Well no. We are very distinct ethnic groups, and in every region of our homelands was this very unique food that the creator put there for our sustenance. Think ferns and salmon from the Northwest, corn from Mexico…

QWhat drives you to keep looking for stories and recipes?

A. I don’t want to go to my grave as an Indian chef who cooked fried bread. Many tribes and our people groups do. I don’t want our cuisine to be defined by fried bread.

It’s such rich, delicious and varied cuisine that rivals anything from France, Italy or anywhere else on the planet. There really is a Native American cuisine. The cuisine doesn’t match people’s ideas, but we have a very distinct native cuisine.

QWhat can we learn from the history of these Native American foods?

A. What I try to do with my food is to highlight the diversity of foods native to the Americas. With this food, I hope to enlighten people or raise awareness about indigenous people.

It’s as different as a German from Italian, different languages, everything different. This is something that I think needs to be taught a little more seriously in our schools. I have six grandchildren. We still have land reenactments and children dress up as Indians and Pilgrims in elementary school like I did when I was in school.

Sharing the food, sharing the table is the best way to get to know a people. My food is a sweeter, gentler way to educate people.

QHow do you determine which recipes to pursue? How do you create a native menu?

A. Read and travel. We are talking about 500 nations in North America alone. My ingredient list extends all the way to Tierra del Fuego. I consider everything that was there before contact (with Western Europeans) to be fodder for my menus.

I’ve done a lot of mixes and matches, I can take quinoa from Bolivia and Peru and mix it with wild rice from Ojibwe. It’s a huge challenge. That’s why you don’t see a lot of cookbooks. It’s certainly open to interpretation, because we were and pretty much are, and still are, a people of oral tradition.

QHow do you define indigenous foods?

A. My own definition, created with my son Clay, who worked alongside me for all the years in Santa Fe before he passed, we would literally choose one ingredient.

Say I wanted to do something with ginger. We ask, is it indigenous? Ginger root is not native, but there is a substitute, a wild option called different things by different tribes, snake root.

QFried bread is not indigenous despite most people’s association with Native American cuisine?

A. He is by no means indigenous. It’s a product of the government’s commodity program when they moved people from their home countries…

We have huge debates today about fried bread in Indian country. It’s traditional only in the sense that maybe traditions are built over time. But mostly some of the young chefs and locals I work with consider it a survival food, and it absolutely was.

It was all many people had to eat at that time. You would pick up your produce and you would get a 50 pound bag of white wheat flour, a piece of lard, maybe a few beans, but there is very little in the program even today that has nutritional value .

Fried bread is what women have been creative enough to come up with to fill hungry bellies. Fried bread has traveled the powwow circuit and has become ubiquitous.

QWhat foods might we see on the dinner menu at Dream Dance?

A. We start with the quintessential Native American snack: popcorn. An amuse-bouche of a popcorn spiced with sage, chilli, a taste with a very small shot of very good tequila, smoked wild salmon with snake root…and a mixed grilled fillet of bison with juniper berries and sage, quail, sautéed autumn cholla buds and Jerusalem artichoke puree. It’s gonna be fun.

Chef at the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino event

Marking Native American Heritage Month, on November 11, Loretta Barrett Oden will prepare a dinner of native dishes at the Dream Dance Steak Restaurant at the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino.

Dinner, which includes a reception beginning at 5 p.m. followed by dinner at 5:30 p.m., will cost $85 per person.

For reservations, call (414) 847-7883.


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