The Cultural Conservancy - “Traditional Foodways of Native America – Oral Histories of Native Food Revitalization” Audio Recording Project
Loretta Barret Oden
Loretta Barret Oden began her passionate relationship with food as a small child at the side of her mother, grandmothers, and aunts in Oklahoma. She spent most of her adult years raising her family, cooking, studying, teaching and adapting recipes to preserve the culinary legacy of her upbringing. In the 1990s, she and her son, the late chef Clayton Oden, opened the Corn Dance Cafe, the first restaurant to showcase the amazing bounty of food indigenous to the Americas. She has been featured on Good Morning America, The Today Show, In Food Today and Cooking Live, and in the following publications, The New York Times, Prevention Magazine, Sunset, Veranda, Food Arts, and National Geographic Traveler. She also served as a guest chef in the Robert Mondavi Great Chefs series and the 2006 Taste3 Celebration in Napa and on Barbara Pool Fenzl’s PBS series, Savor the Southwest. Loretta is the host of the new 5-part PBS series, Seasoned with Spirit, a culinary celebration of America's bounty combining Native American history and culture with delicious, healthy recipes inspired by indigenous foods.
My name is Loretta Barrett Oden. I am a proud woman of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. We are reservationed in Shawnee, Oklahoma, but we are originally a Great Lakes tribe, a Northern Woodlands Tribe of the Algonquin language group, closely related to the Ojibwe, Chippewa, Odawa, Kickapoo, Sac and Fox. We were one of the groups that were asked to take a hike down to Indian territories. So that’s where I was born and raised in what is now Oklahoma, that I refer to as kind of the melting pot of Indian country, because there are tribes there from virtually all over North America. And so I had, you know, was around a very diverse group of Native peoples growing up.
My absolute, all-consuming, pun intended passion, and it’s the relationship between food and culture. I mean, there’s just no way to separate one from the other. I started noticing the food is different, wherever you go. It’s the food, the food, the food. And so much of the song, so much of the dance, so much tradition revolves around the acquisition of, the preparation of, the giving thanks for food. Even like here at TOCA, at this wonderful celebration of basketry, the baskets are an integral part of the gathering and the preparation, the storing of food. So I thought, gosh, what an interesting way to maybe heighten people’s awareness about the amazing diversity of Native American peoples and culture is through the diversity of the foods across the country. I’ve a little bit of a militant background in the ‘70s, and in my later years, maybe this is a kinder, gentler way of heightening people’s awareness of, you know, go at them through their bellies this time. And so that began the journey.
I ended up in Santa Fe New Mexico, and opened a wonderful little restaurant in partnership with my eldest son, Clayton, both of us knowing nothing about the restaurant business, but with our love of cooking, created this wonderful little Corn Dance Café that I guess it was the Creator looking over us, it was the right place at the right time. But it just went boom. And it was amazingly successful, and with his creativity and our shared research and knowledge that we gleaned from trying to use nothing but the indigenous foods of the Americas.
And that began, you know, I call it “the second leg of my journey,” I guess, you know. And, again, I’m traveling a lot. And I’m working with various tribal entities, with certainly the incidence of diabetes and heart disease amongst our people, is it’s ravaging, it’s devastating the people. And, you know I lost my son to heart disease at age 38, which, you know, was very devastating to me and made me even more intent on just not allowing this to continue. I just absolutely refuse to continue to lose our young people to diseases that are controllable. And so that’s why the importance of doing more research on the food, and traveling to the different tribes.
And this is really about going back into the past, to find a path for a better future. If we don’t change our ways of eating on this entire planet, we are pretty much doomed. Agribusiness is going to take us out.
And that’s where, you know, we have this huge population of Native peoples in the heartland, and, wow, they’re just, you know, being devastated and wracked by the effects of the American “diet” of processed foods.
It has a very important meaning for me now, and you can’t look at the foods without looking at the tradition. And that has to be protected as well. There are certain ways of planting, certain ways of harvesting. There’s ceremony and dance that goes with all of that, that really reconnects us with the earth and grounds us. And that’s where our health and where our survival is going to come from.
Citizen Potawatomi Tribe homepage: www.potawatomi.org
PBS Documentary “Seasoned with Spirit” by Loretta Oden: visionmaker.semkhor.com/product.asp?s=visionmaker&pf_id=SWS1-06-E&dept_id=23265