First Flavors of the East Bay
Café Ohlone Offers Indigenous Foods for All to Share
By Anna Mindess | Photos by Cynthia Matzger
“Wait, I thought you were all extinct ….”
It’s a frequent comment from first-time diners at Café Ohlone, but a welcome opener nonetheless at Berkeley’s first Indigenous supper club. Since September of 2018, when Vincent Medina and his partner Louis Trevino began serving pre-contact Indigenous foods on the back patio of University Press Books, the two have been feeding their patrons’ curiosity while satisfying their appetites. Education is always on the menu.
Medina patiently explains that despite organized slavery in the Mission era, government-sponsored attempts at genocide during the Gold Rush, and boarding schools that attempted to strip away away all vestiges of Indigenous language and culture, thousands of Native Californians are very much still here. “We are proud to stand with our community as we work to bring back the things that were taken from us,” he says.
Medina and Trevino, aged 32 and 27 respectively, both identify as Ohlone, the group of 50+ tribelets that have lived for thousands of years in the Bay Area coast and hill regions from San Pablo Bay southeast as far as Soledad (see map). Trevino is a member of the Rumsen tribe, and Medina is a member of the Muwekma Ohlone. They have learned to speak Rumsen and Chochenyo, their separate-but-related languages. The two first met in 2014 at UC Berkeley, just across the street from their future café, while attending a Breath of Life Institute workshop organized by Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival.
Learning from the Ancestors
Medina and Trevino have been able to learn the languages of their long-gone ancestors thanks to recordings pressed into wax cylinders back in the 1920s and ‘30s, which preserve voices of the last, often elderly, speakers of these two languages. The recordings and their transcriptions can be used for building vocabulary and learning grammar, but as oral histories, they contain rich accounts of daily life that go back decades into the speakers’ lives to times when their people were still able to practice traditional ways. Medina and Trevino discovered descriptions of Native foods, including how to make them and where to gather the ingredients.
For example, one old recording provided a recipe for pinole (a mixed-seed cake described at right), along with comments regarding how various women on the ranchería made it, each in her own way. The speakers gossiped about whose pinole was better and who used too much salt. As Medina and Trevino listened closely to the voices for many hours, they developed feelings of connection with their ancestors. “Because we spend so much time with these people and care about what they cared about, when they describe something as being particularly delicious, you really want to try it,” Medina says. “You want to know: What did it look like, what did it feel like, what did it taste like?”
A MODERN TAKE ON PINOLE SEED CAKES
“Our name for pinole in Chochenyo is muyyen,” says Vincent Medina. “It’s one of the first foods we’ve worked to learn about. A mixture of native seeds—chia, redmaid, amaranth, tarweed, etc.—it’s loved by our people in those old days, and that continues now that our food is revived.”
Medina describes how they make modern-day pinole seed cakes with toasted chia and popped amaranth seeds, cooking the seeds until their natural oils come out, and then covering them in honey they have reduced by boiling away most of the water content.
“We roll them into cakes shaped as described in old documentation from the 1930s in Louis’ Rumsen area. I love to eat these cakes. They taste like sweet brittle with an essence of burnt popcorn. The only reason I don’t make them more is because they burn my hands often!”
Sometimes a description recorded in the 1930s references a Native dish the speaker last ate in the 1840s or ‘50s and ends with a comment such as, “I wish we had some right now.” “These are such deeply felt memories,” says Trevino. “We talk about this all the time. When you see those food references, you want to be the person who can feed it to Isabel or Jose or Angela. You want to feed them, and you want to try it yourself too.”
“I didn’t grow up eating these foods,” says Medina, “but I always wondered what they tasted like, and I always wondered what a restaurant of our foods would look like, even when I was 14 or 15. During that time in the Bay Area you could see a lot of other cultures represented. My friends would go to these restaurants where their culture was expressed, and it felt sad that we didn’t have something like that. It’s good to think of how that can change now. Now young people growing up have a place they can show their friends and kind of show off. That’s a good thing to be able to do.”
Before any meal begins, the two always set aside a plate to honor their ancestors. “This is so that they are eating with us,” explains Medina. “We are grateful to them for their strength that kept us alive. We are East Bay people. We’ve been here since the start. My family has never left this place. We’ve always found a way to stay right here where our ancestors have always lived. That didn’t come without a lot of sacrifices from my ancestors. They wanted our ways to continue, our culture, our identity and, of course, our foods to be alive in the future so that everyone in our tribe could celebrate these meaningful ways.”
Longtime Berkeley resident Malcolm Margolin, founder of Heyday Books and author of the seminal book The Ohlone Way, is a beloved friend of Trevino and Medina. Seeing their determined spirits and tasting their dishes, Margolin notes, “These people were supposed to be extinct and extinction is a one-way street. But they are not museum objects. They are a living culture with contemporary, fun, sexy food that you want to eat.”
What’s for Lunch?
At a late-fall lunchtime “tasting,” Trevino sprinkles roasted hazelnuts, golden nasturtium petals, and tiny purple huckleberries over a large salad of watercress, sorrel, and pickleweed. He finishes with a shower of salt crystals that he, Medina, and members of their community collected from the East Bay shoreline.
Medina carefully fills a display shelf with acorns, abalone shells, a winnowing basket, a brush made of soap root, and wooden sticks used for a traditional gambling game. When he adds a small basket of wrinkled reddish-brown dried fruit, he says, “We call these sokóote. [They’re] from the bay laurel trees in the East Bay hills where my family is from.” Then he adds with a smile, “They contain caffeine and make really good truffles.”
Medina stirs a large pot of venison stew with chanterelle and porcini mushrooms, also collected from locations nearby for this meal. In fact, most of the ingredients were gathered on East Bay ancestral lands that have been tended by Ohlone people, who say they have done this “since the great Coyote created the world.”
Hunting and Gathering through the Seasons
Traditionally, the Ohlone hunted the region’s prodigious wildlife (fish, fowl, and game) and gathered the abundant acorns, nuts, seeds, berries, and greens native to Northern California. This is an aspect of their culture that the two young men maintain. They gather as many of the elements that go into their menus as possible, and prefer the word “gather” over “forage” for these activities.
“The definition of ‘foraging’ is a person or animal searching widely for food or provisions,” Medina explains. “When our people gather these foods, like in the past, we are not searching for foods, but interacting with our homeland and areas that we nurture and tend to. And when we are in those old spaces gathering our foods, we are connecting with the landscape where our ancestors have always lived.”
Naturally, what they gather changes with the seasons. In winter and early spring they find porcini and chanterelle mushrooms, herbs (such as yerba buena and hummingbird sage) for medicinal teas, green clover, Indian lettuce, watercress, and sorrel. Spring is also a good time for gathering bitter greens such as dandelion, which Medina advises is good for cleansing the body after winter. Late spring brings blackberries and wild strawberries.
In spring and early summer, they collect tule, cattail, and other bulbs in the marshes. Ohlone people traditionally go out with baskets and beaters for buckwheat and chia seeds to make porridge and pinole.
Fall is the time to gather acorns, bay nuts, huckleberries, black walnuts, and hazelnuts.
During winter, the Ohlone tradition is to use the dried and smoked foods they have prepared throughout the year, such as dried berries and smoked fish, plus fresh game. This is also the season when they collect seaweed. In late winter, they gather mushrooms and the seasons start again.
“We gather as much as we can when it’s available,” says Medina. “But because of the urbanization here in the East Bay, it becomes difficult to gather all we need if we have a lot of people to feed daily. So we have to find ways to keep these foods on the table and also be respectful to the land that we come from, and make sure we are good stewards and do not over-gather. Our villages are literally up here in the East Bay hills. That means we have an obligation to be good to the place, just like the place has always been good to us.”
He gives hazelnuts as an example. The nuts are a seasonal food, but it would be disrespectful to gather every last hazelnut. “That hazelnut also needs to survive, and those groves need to replenish themselves,” says Medina. “Also, we are not the only ones here. There are animals who need to eat the hazelnuts, too.”
To avoid over-gathering, Medina and Trevino’s preference is to work with other Native people from California to source these foods. If that is not possible, knowing that their ancestors ate a certain kind of hazelnut that grows in California and Oregon, they may order it online. “But when we get the food,” says Medina, “whether we order it commercially or gather it in the hills, the same gratitude has to be given to it. You have to tell that plant why you are using it, what it’s going to be used for, and who you are in relation to it.” The hazelnuts, he says, whether from a grove or a commercial establishment, came from a living plant. “We believe that life is valuable, and there is life in those hazelnuts. When foods nourish us, they need to be given proper gratitude.”
Acorns are the staple food of the Ohlone. After being dried, crushed, and leached of their bitter tannins, they are often made into a golden-hued soup. One of Café Ohlone’s most popular dishes, acorn brownies, exemplifies the mix of traditional and modern that Medina and Trevino strive for. With chocolate and coconut oil as added ingredients, the dense, nutty brownie is, according to Trevino, their, “gateway food,” the perfect way to make sure that a Native kid’s first bite of acorn is a good one. “Little by little, we can remove the chocolate,” he adds.
Creating an Indigenous Restaurant
Don’t expect Café Ohlone to fit the mold of a conventional restaurant. It currently serves lunchtime tastings and evening dinners with storytelling or panel discussions several times a month on a changing schedule. The best way to keep up is to follow their social media channels under the name @makamham.
“It’s not going to be a standard restaurant with rigid hours,” says Medina. “We are creating something brand new, but it’s also not new because it is rooted in something very traditional.”
One reason Medina and Trevino can’t commit to a regular schedule is that they each have other roles and responsibilities in their communities that take their time. For example, Medina presently serves on the Muwekma Ohlone Tribal Council. And sometimes other events intercede, such as the Camp Fire or meetings of Intertribal associations. They recently added Grace Ruano, another Muwekma Ohlone tribal member, to their team. Ultimately, they hope to train more tribal members to share the work and make Café Ohlone a place of economic tribal sovereignty.
Serving Dual Desires
Café Ohlone performs a gentle balancing act as it serves two different groups: Native people, who have never before had a place to eat their traditional foods outside of the home, and non-Native diners eager for a new experience and/or to support the Native cause. “During our soft opening,” says Trevino, “we had a number of hours just with our people before we opened it up. They helped us hang some of the bay laurel. And even when the space is open to the public, they still know that they are our focus.”
With every plate of acorn bread, venison stew, and chia pudding that Medina and Trevino serve, not only do they prove that the first inhabitants of Northern California are not gone, they exemplify the way to appreciate the gifts that the land has always offered. After sharing a meal of traditional Ohlone food, Medina encourages his diners to go out and dispel any misinformation they hear about California Indians. “Keep them out of the past tense, into the present, and on to the future.” ♦
Anna Mindess writes about food, culture, travel, and immigrants’ stories for AFAR, Fodor’s, KQED Bay Area Bites, Berkeleyside, and Oakland Magazine. She was awarded the 2018 AFJ award for Best Food Essay for her story about Berkeley’s refugee-run 1951 Coffee Company. She also works as a sign language interpreter. See her visual take on the world on Instagram @annamindess. You can find her stories at annamindess.contently.com.
Cynthia Matzger is a freelance photographer based in San Francisco. She has worked as a television and film director and is a member of the Directors Guild of America. Her feature-length documentary about a Yurok elder is housed at the Smithsonian Museum. She’s passionate about photographing Indigenous issues and is a proud member of the Yurok Tribe. cynthiamatzger.com