Native Cuisine

By Brown, Margaret L. | Southwest Art, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Native Cuisine


Brown, Margaret L., Southwest Art


Chef Loretta Oden makes inventive use of indigenous ingredients at Santa Fe's Corn Dance Cafe

Visitors from all over the world come to Santa Fe in search of its Native American culture-- buying pottery and jewelry from vendors outside the Palace of the Governors; driving to nearby Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, and other pueblos to attend ceremonial dances; and strolling through the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, the Institute of American Indian Arts, and other institutions filled with a wealth of history. With such an abundance of Native American cultural offerings, it is perhaps surprising that just one restaurant in town is devoted to American Indian food. But this restaurant, the Corn Dance Cafe, has almost singlehandedly brought contemporary Native cuisine to the fore, enticing a wide and loyal following with its re-interpretations of traditional dishes and its inventive use of indigenous ingredients.

The Corn Dance Cafe is the creation of Executive Chef Loretta Barrett Oden, a member of the Potawatomi Citizen Nation who was raised near the reservation in Shawnee, OK. Oden grew up in a joyful kitchen, watching her mother, aunts, and grandmother as they cooked, canned, and sang together. She married in her teens and logged her own share of time in the kitchen as she raised her family. But when her youngest child turned 21, Oden left Oklahoma and began a journey that she describes as a late-in-life vision quest. "I wanted to go to places I'd never been," she says, "so I just started driving west."

She traveled all the way to California and fell in love with the coast after having been landlocked in Oklahoma her entire life. Then she headed up to Washington to visit a cousin and was completely transformed by discovering the Native cultures of the Northwest Coast. "The log houses, the totems, the woodcarving, the salmon, the fiddle-head ferns-it was all so different from what I had grown up with," she says. Oden was fascinated by the diverse cultures of the region and particularly interested in learning about their food histories. "I began listening to the elders, to the grandmas," she says. "They told stories about how they prayed and sang and danced with the planting, tending, and growing and how they worked their lives around the seasons and the foods available in those seasons."

Thus Oden became what she describes as "an accidental ethnobotanist and an accidental food historian," researching the origins and conveyance of indigenous ingredients and dishes from Mexico into the Southwest and around the world. She learned that such foodstuffs as potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate, chile peppers, and vanilla originated in the Americas and that many of the dishes she had grown up eating were not simply invented by her mother or grandmother but had a cultural integrity rooted in the traditions of her ancestors.

As Oden discovered more and more about these food traditions, she became a passionate advocate for the principles inherent in them-namely, using locally grown, seasonal produce. "For us to get healthy and help the earth get healthy again, we must start eating out of our own back yards," she says. In the culinary history of Native Americans, Oden found a source of both great wisdom and great pride, and she set her sights on sharing this history with her own people and the rest of the world. …

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