All of my stories are about trips I’ve taken myself. Today is different.
I’d like to tell you about someone else’s journey — and the wonderful experience I had of it.
This traveler is Loretta Barrett Oden, a Native American, Oklahoman native, chef, historian, ethnobotanist, and educator.
She was born in Shawnee and raised in two worlds. His mother was Potawatomi, and his father was the only child of a rather well-to-do tanker.
Although there was no animosity, the two sides of his family did not mix.
She said she was raised by both families. She had two sets of grandparents, two sets of great-grandparents, two Thanksgivings and two Christmases.
“I didn’t realize until I was 10 or 11 that I was Indian,” she says. “I spent a lot of time with my Potawatomi cousins and my aunts, but somehow I didn’t think about it. When I found it, I thought it was cool, but at the time, it wasn’t.
“My grandma on my dad’s side did everything in her power to make me as white as possible, and so did my mom, hoping to make life easier than she had. Because about my appearance—light skin and blue eyes—I did what colored people did back then.
“I ‘made it’ until I was a teenager and started to learn more about who I was and how fascinating my family was on both sides. He was a colonizer and a native. I am always at war with myself.
Loretta married young, raised a family, and lived the life of a suburban housewife, involved with her two boys, Clay and Craig, and was active in the community.
“The happiest years of my life were when I was raising my boys,” she said.
The boys grew up and life changed. Loretta embarked on a journey of self-discovery. It started in Los Angeles and worked its way to the Pacific Northwest.
Along the way, in remote areas, she discovered native tribes who lived fairly traditional lives within their culture with centuries-old eating habits.
In Oklahoma, the many tribes forcibly displaced here had lost touch with their homelands and the variety of foods they could gather, grow, or hunt.
Instead, they were forced to subsist on unfamiliar and unhealthy products: white flour, lard and dairy products, which had never been part of their diet.
Discovering the connection of tribes like the Yurok, Hoopa and Karuk to the fresh, whole foods provided by nature was an enlightening moment.
She remembered as a child that her grandmother Potawatomi often suggested life paths to her family members.
“[Grandma Peltier] would look at my brother and say, ‘Honey, you should lead our tribe someday,'” she said. “She looked at me and just shook her head. The trips have really opened my eyes.
One of the results of his travels was the production of a 2006 PBS series, “Seasoned with Spirit.”
Back in Los Angeles, Loretta planned to open a Native American restaurant, but real estate prices were prohibitive.
In 1993, she and her son, Clay, opened the Corn Dance Café in Santa Fe. The immediate popularity came as a shock, as the place was flooded with customers, including a number of A-list stars.
An article about coffee in the New York Times alerted The Today Show. As Thanksgiving approached, they decided that a Native American chef preparing a meal for the program would be a good idea.
Her appearance brought a request from Good Morning America the following year. The Corn Dance Café flourished; Loretta has opened a second location. Santa Fe was home for almost 10 years.
After the hotel where one of her restaurants was located decided to emphasize Native American cuisine over European cuisine, Loretta was ready to move back to Oklahoma.
His brother, John “Rocky” Barrett, following the path led by his grandmother, had become the President of the Citizen Potawatomi Tribal Nation.
In Shawnee, Loretta opened a new Corn Dance Café on tribal property. Unfortunately for Shawnee, the attempt was short-lived.
Luckily for Loretta, her stardom had spread and she was in demand nationally and internationally for other opportunities.
She has worked with Mondavi Vineyards in California and COPIA, an American center for wine, food and the arts.
She has also been a consultant for Crystal Cruise Lines and has participated in many slow food events in Turin, Italy.
She continues to work with Turtle Island USA, the Native American slow food organization.
She is particularly involved in improving nutrition education among indigenous peoples.
One of his biggest challenges has been working with the First Americans Museum, helping design the kitchen for their gourmet restaurant, creating the menu, and remaining as consulting chef.
This is where my journey begins. The FAM, if you haven’t visited, is located near the intersection of Interstates 35 and 40, destined to become one of Oklahoma’s top tourist attractions.
The institution has just received a Phoenix Award from the Society of American Travel Writers for excellence in preservation, curation, environmental concern, and the outstanding collections and programs provided.
Restaurant 39, located in the museum, is the highlight of any visit. Currently, it is only open for lunch Wednesday through Friday and for brunch on Saturdays and Sundays.
The menu is a brilliant fusion of contemporary cuisine and ancient ingredients.
Wild rice, a staple of the Potawatomi people before their expulsion from their homeland, is purchased from the Ojibwa Indians who still collect the wild grass by hand. Quinoa is attributed to the ancient Incas.
You will also find its botanical cousin, amaranth, in certain dishes.
One of Loretta’s coolest (and tastiest) adaptations is her Crème Brûlée Popcorn created in collaboration with chef Brad Harris.
Due to the natives’ intolerance to dairy products, she eliminated cream, replacing infused milk with popcorn. The crisp caramelized sugar crust is topped with blueberry lavender puree, candied pecans and pepita granola.
The bison burger is juicy and delicious, I ordered it twice, but a friend recommends the Reuben shaved turkey pastrami. The red bits in the dressing are sumac.
Consult the menu on thirtyninerestaurant.com.
In addition to her association with the FAM, Loretta has a book, “The Corn Dance Café Cookbook”, coming out in late spring.
I love Loretta’s story and her food philosophy. and I love that we have such a travel treasure so close to home.