“Why can you get any kind of food from any different part of the world in the Bay Area, but you can’t get the food of this place anywhere?”
Vincent Medina, a member of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe and the co-founder of a new Ohlone-run café in Berkeley, grew up in San Lorenzo, on the very land his ancestors have always lived on. Although his family represented the earliest people of the East Bay, he wondered why he never saw his culture reflected in the community at large.
“It can be very isolating when you’re Ohlone,” said Medina. “You don’t see tangible evidence about your culture anywhere even though you’re right in your home.”
As a kid, Medina didn’t know anything about traditional Ohlone foods. What he grew up eating and what he associated as native fare — like mole, tortillas and chiles — were ingredients that had been imposed on his ancestors during colonization, from the earliest days on Spanish missions and later, at the turn of the century, living in Indian villages on rancherias. Medina didn’t make the connection until years later when he taught himself to speak Chochenyo, the oldest language of the East Bay.
Medina first became interested in learning Chochenyo as a teenager, when his tribe started a language program, but by then, no living Ohlone people spoke the language. It wasn’t until Medina was in his early 20s that he made a breakthrough. Delving through wax cylinder recordings made in the 1920s and ‘30s of the last fluent Chochenyo speakers, Medina realized there was enough documentation to fully reconstruct the language. After seven years of in-depth work with linguists at UC Berkeley and indigenous speakers of languages from neighboring tribes, Medina became conversationally fluent in Chochenyo. It was through reconnecting with his native tongue that he reconnected with Ohlone food.
The recordings had memorialized more than just the language, but every aspect of Ohlone culture, including religion, art, music and value systems. And, Medina noticed, there was a lot about food. Along with recipes, gathering practices and locations of ingredients, the Ohlone people who were recorded shared stories about the injustices they suffered after colonization. They spoke about how their traditional foods and gathering practices were taken away or forbidden as a means of suppression. And they spoke longingly about how much they loved these foods and missed them.
With the help of the larger Ohlone community, and especially in conjunction with Louis Trevino, another indigenous activist who is doing similar work revitalizing the Rumsen Ohlone language from Carmel Valley, Medina became actively interested in reviving the traditional Ohlone diet as a means of cultural revival.
Medina started eating a mostly Ohlone diet, removing foods like corn, wheat flours, soy, dairy, white sugar, sodas and anything processed or with added sweeteners. When he took these foods out of his diet, he said felt energized, more athletically active and with a clearer mind.
“Dairy, things like corn, they were never something that was good for our people,” he said. “When we take out these foods that don’t mesh with our system, then we can actually improve our community’s health collectively. It makes us more capable of fighting injustice.”
Last August, Medina and Trevino helped host a large feast, where many in the community got their first taste of Ohlone food.
“It was the first time in quite a long time that our community was eating acorn, venison, mushrooms, native teas. It gave me a lot of hope,” said Medina. “Just seeing the look on their faces, the responses they had from eating something so culturally significant. That gave me so much motivation to keep this going.”
A month later, Medina and Trevino started Mak-’amham (“our food” in Chochenyo), a “guerrilla restaurant” that makes contemporary Ohlone cuisine using only ingredients that their indigenous ancestors ate before contact with outside cultures. Most of the ingredients have been gathered in traditional ways on their native lands. Mak-’amham holds pop-up events and offers catering services to fund monthly events where they cook for the Ohlone community.
“When we make these foods, our elders who haven’t had these foods in 70 years or so, they get the chance to eat them a second time. It brings back so many good things we were lacking for so long,” said Medina. At these meals, the food inspires the community to talk, not only about foods they remember, but family history and larger hopes for the community’s future.
The Mak-’amham menu changes with the season, based on what’s available to be gathered in the East Bay hills and Carmel Valley. Medina said he and Trevino often gather early in the morning and late at night because he said, “it’s not always comfortable, especially as a brown person, with people looking at you as a criminal for gathering your own food.”
Other ingredients, like duck (šaakani) and quail eggs (‘attuš-heksen), can’t be gathered. These Medina and Trevino source from trusted vendors.
Many Ohlone ingredients are used in various ways in different dishes. Acorns are used to make soup (paamu) and flatbread (yuu-pitlaš). Bay laurel (sokoote) flavors roasted meats, sauces and stews. Yerba buena (čawrišim), which belongs to the mint family, is used as an herb to flavor dishes and an ingredient for tea. Medina said the repetition of ingredients has a purpose. “So much of our culture is based on pattern, repetition. This is a way that our culture become cemented and solidified in our identities.”
Medina describes the taste of Ohlone food as “subtle, but extremely pure.” The dishes are meant to be eaten together, because they “harmonize with each other,” and allow you to notice the connections between the individual ingredients and the land they come from.
At Mak-’amham events, Medina and Trevino introduce diners to the flavors and meanings of Ohlone food, using Ohlone words, explaining the ingredients’ cultural significance and telling stories associated with them. For instance, Medina recalls his great-grandmother, Mary Archuleta, whenever he speaks of purslane. It was one of her favorite foods, and he remembers she would gather it whenever she could, even in front of bus stations. And whenever he cooks duck he thinks of Susanna Nichols, the sister of his great-great-great grandmother, who was recorded in the 1920s telling a story of her grandmother who had to defend her family’s right to hunt ducks in Newark. For Medina, this story is a strong reminder of how his family has always stood up for their culture in even the most difficult times.
This summer, Medina and Trevino have been busy. Medina recently joined his tribal council, Trevino has been doing extensive work with basketry and both participated in a language conference at UC Berkeley with the focus on reviving Ohlone languages. They’ve also been leading gathering trips, cooking classes and workshops with their community, families and tribes. “We have a lot of obligations to keep our culture strong,” Medina said. And, on top of all of these projects, they are in the midst of opening a café serving Ohlone food in Berkeley, the first of its kind in California.
Café Ohlone by Mak-‘amham will be located in the outdoor patio space found in the very back of University Press Books on Bancroft Way. It will serve small bites, local coffee mixed with bay nuts and pinon nuts (and served with nut milk), native teas made with plants gathered at the beginning of each week, and smoked meats.
The café will be completely Ohlone-run, serving only pre-colonial, pre-contact foods. Each menu item will have it name listed in Chochenyo, and the person behind the counter taking orders (either Medina, Trevino or another member of the Ohlone community) will repeat that word and give a little more information about the food’s medical uses or cultural significance. The narrow and long patio space has room for a long communal table; Medina said the plan is to use reclaimed redwood as a reference to Ohlone villages which were set in the redwoods. The space will be decorated with Ohlone art and will play contemporary American Indian music. Medina said he hopes it will be a place of art and culture, but also a launching pad for gathering trips, for meaningful dialogue and for Ohlone people to see their culture outside of their home.
At this time, the space is still a work in progress, with a grand opening slated for August. Medina and Trevino are taking time and care to set up the café, because Medina said, they want to make sure it’s a sustainable venture and most importantly, that it’s filling the needs of the Ohlone community, “making sure our people are empowered by our traditional food for health and cultural reasons.”
Café Ohlone will be open three days a week, most likely 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Thursday through Saturday. Part of the reason hours will be limited is because the two founders are committed to so many other community obligations, but also because ingredients take a full two days a week to gather. Medina said they may eventually expand hours, depending on the public’s response.
Medina and Trevino will get a chance to gauge public interest in Ohlone food with a couple of upcoming events. On Wednesday, July 18, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Café Ohlone will take part in the 44th anniversary party for University Press Books and the Musical Offering Café, offering light snacks and native teas. Another event will happen the following week, but details are still to come. Medina said that although the space will not be completely set up, he hopes these events will be educational, to “let people understand what’s happening and what we’re building up to. To get little bits of information and tastes of what’s coming.”
“Food is such a good way to have intercultural dialogue,” he said. “It’s hard to disrespect a culture when you sit down and eat their food, especially when you enjoy it and you’re around the people, when you’re having a positive experience.”
“A major misconception is we’re extinct. Our community is doing quite well today. The truth is, we also come from powerful and strong people who survived this difficulty that still exists today.”
Café Ohlone by Mak-‘amham will be inside University Press Books, 2430 Bancroft Way (between Dana and Telegraph), Berkeley