Thirty Nine Restaurant, located within the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City, serves up dishes filled with Indigenous ingredients.
When chef and food historian Loretta Barrett Oden founded the Corn Dance Café in Santa Fe in 1993, it was heralded as the first restaurant in the United States to showcase the Indigenous cuisine of America. At the time, “you could go to any city in this country and find Mongolian barbecue, Italian, French, everything,” said Oden, a member of the Citizen Band Potawatomi Nation and chef consultant for Thirty Nine Restaurant at the First Americans Museum (FAM) in Oklahoma City. “But there was nothing that really represented Native American food,” Oden said, “except perhaps a fry-bread house.”
Chef and food historian Loretta Barrett Oden is on a mission to use food to retell the stories of Indigenous culture in America.
Today, three decades later, Indigenous chefs, restaurants, and food producers are flourishing and their numbers are multiplying. One measure of their rising profile is the fact that Owamni, a Minneapolis-based restaurant owned by chef Sean Sherman, who is Oglala Lakota Sioux, was named the best new restaurant of 2022 by the James Beard Foundation. For many chefs, including Oden and Sherman, founder of a nonprofit organization and a training center for Indigenous food enterprises, their purpose goes beyond preparing meals. It’s an opportunity to share the mostly unknown history of Indigenous food culture and its intersection with American history.
Take fry bread, for example, which, Oden pointed out, is what most people think of first if they think of Native cuisine, but “is not really Native at all.” Although she admires the creativity of the Indigenous cooks who made something delicious out of common ingredients, “it’s not exactly the healthiest fare,” she said. Fry bread was “a product of the government commodities program when we were in desperate need for food. And its ingredients — white flour, sugar — are not good for us.”
‘The Three Sisters’
Oden, who grew up in Shawnee, Oklahoma, is descended from one of the bands of Potawatomi people who were forcibly removed by the federal government from the Great Lakes region into Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, in the 19th century. “I grew up in the kitchen, listening to the stories and out foraging and planting with my grandmother, my great-grandmothers, my aunties, and my mom,” said Oden, who is 80. But even Oden was unaware of the diversity or global impact of Indigenous cuisine until she encountered the work of cultural anthropologist Jack Weatherford, who wrote about topics including how many of the foods first cultivated by Indigenous communities in the Americas, where gardening has a 10,000-year-long history, have made their way into the world.
“Everyone thinks of Irish potatoes or Dutch chocolate,” but potatoes were first cultivated in the Andes, and chocolate came from the Mayan and the Aztecs, Oden said. “So many of the foods eaten around the world today left these shores and impacted the cuisines of the world. I mean, what would Chinese or Thai food be without the heat of the chili peppers? There were no chili peppers anywhere else in the world but here in the Americas. The same with corn and beans and squash, and the list goes on and on. People are not aware of that.”
Oden opened the Corn Dance Café after visiting tribes in North America and collecting recipes that reflected the range and diversity of Indigenous ingredients, including bison, salmon, and the “Three Sisters” — squash, corn, and beans. “People were so taken with what we were doing,” Oden recalled. “It got me on the ‘Today’ show and ‘Good Morning America’ and The Food Network, which was just starting out then.” It also led to a PBS series, “Seasoned With Spirit: A Native Cook’s Journey,” which Oden wrote and hosted, and for which she won an Emmy.