A Different Dinner: Bay Area Indigenous Restaurants

“The land is sacred. These words are at the core of your being.  The land is our mother, the rivers our blood.  Take our land away and we die.  That is, the Indian in us dies.” –Mary Brave Bird, Lakota

Thanksgiving celebrations have a rich, conflicting, and confusing history that include two different historical sites.

The first event, the well-known and beloved Plymouth Colony harvest celebration, took place in the fall of 1621 in Massachusetts, after more than half of the original English settlers had perished.  The second event is the less famous and decidedly more violent 1565 feast held by General Pedro Menendez de Aviles following a battle that left scores of French Huguenot soldiers dead on Matanzas Beach and the surrounding St. Augustine, Florida, area. Both of these events took place with Europeans sharing food and festivities with the Native Americans who lived in each respective area.

Over the years, the meaning and menus have changed from what originally was a celebration to give thanks to God for survival, to a four day holiday devoted to football, extravagant parades, family gatherings, and a calorie-laden menu that threatens everyone’s A1C.  Ultimately, the colonization of North America between 1492 and 1700 led to a decimation of indigenous people and their way of life, an appropriation of land, and the introduction of laws intended to impose a new order upon the native people.

Although the European colonists never intended to introduce diseases that took the lives of 90% of the native population, and changed their way of life forever, the effect was the same.  And this happened incrementally over time in all areas of the United States.  Many descendants of the devastated tribes naturally feel that Thanksgiving is a time of mourning and protest since the holiday honors the arrival of European settlers, an end of an era and the beginning of a period of annihilation and oppression.

Indigenous Tamale on wood table

Perhaps this year might be an opportunity to consider revisiting what the European settlers and Native Americans might actually have shared.

indigenous meat balls

You might be surprised to learn that mashed potatoes and turkey with stuffing were not on the menu.  The potato was introduced to North America in the 1700s, and not cultivated commercially at first.  Instead, attendees at the first Thanksgiving enjoyed game animals like deer and elk.  And although fowl was eaten at the 1621 Thanksgiving celebration, ducks and geese were probably eaten rather than turkey. Also, these birds were stuffed with onions, herbs and nuts rather than a toasted bread stuffing that we eat today.   Shellfish, eels and other seafood also graced the first Thanksgiving table. Likewise, in 1565 Florida, the Thanksgiving feast included dried beans, dried fruits, spices, wine and oil from barrels brought from Spain and other places, and local fresh greens, vegetables, fruit and available seafood.  The Spanish had chickens that they brought from Spain as well.

There are very few restaurants nationally that focus on indigenous food in the U.S. , but here in the Bay Area we are fortunate enough to have TWO such establishments.

They are Wahpepah’s Kitchen in Oakland and Café Ohlone, scheduled to open full time on the UC Berkeley campus, outside the Hearst Museum of Anthropology.  Café Ohlone originally was located at the back of the University Press Bookstore on campus, but closed during the first year of the pandemic out of a sense of responsibility to keep the community safe.  The new version of Café Ohlone is open on a limited basis and offers some lunchtime tastings, brunches, and tea tastings.  Local fresh food items like black oak acorn bread, soft boiled quail eggs, venison stews, offer a unique view of what the Ohlone people enjoy. Imaginative herbal tea blends and desserts that include seed cakes, chia pudding and tan oak acorn flour brownies round out the menu. Reservations can be made at reservations@makamham.com.

Wahpepah’s Kitchen, located in the Fruitvale section of Oakland, is run by Chef Crystal Wahpepah, a registered member of the Kickapoo tribe of Oklahoma.  As a small child, Chef Crystal was fascinated with the preparation and sharing of the distinct dishes that were native to her background.  Prior to opening her restaurant, Crystal catered for twelve years, offering natural Native American food that included locally sourced vegetables and fruits.  She also uses food products such as meats, fish, spices and corn meal from Native American or indigenous producers.  Chef Crystal, a graduate of San Francisco’s La Cocina food incubator program, has three main objectives: first, to acknowledge that we live on stolen land; second, how that acknowledgement connects to the reclamation of Native food ways (food sovereignty); and third, to educate communities and organizations on the health benefits of Native food ways.

Indigenous charcuterie board
indigenous meal on colorful blanket
Indigenous meal prep in bowl

The menu at Wahpepah’s Kitchen changes with the seasons, and each season offers its own tasty specialties, such as summer berries or seasonal mushrooms. 

A surprising variety of meat and fish is available each season.  Currently, braised rabbit tamales, sticks of seasoned and cooked buffalo or deer meat , and smoked salmon salad are offered, as well as  Chef Crystal’s  grandmother’s Kickapoo bison chili. Iced prickly pear limeade and wild mint iced tea provide delicious and natural refreshment.

So perhaps this is the year you try a different approach to celebrating Thanksgiving, treat yourself to an unparalleled dining experience, and eat as our Native American brothers have eaten all along. Who knows?  This might start a new family tradition for you!

Photos courtesy of Wahpepah’s Kitchen and Cafe Ohlone