While Café Ohlone, the first Indigenous restaurant in California, is currently shuttered as we shelter in place, its co-founders, Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino, take comfort in the fact that in many ways, they’ve been prepared for the current crisis. The protective measures we are all following have been practiced for many generations by their ancestors, the Ohlone natives, who were the first inhabitants of this land.
The pair (who are partners in life as well as business) opened Café Ohlone in the fall of 2018 as a pop-up Indigenous supper club on the cozy back patio of University Press Books in Berkeley. They served about three meals a week to a maximum of 30 diners at a time. Almost immediately, they won wide acclaim, not only for their unique menu of seasonal, ultra-local dishes, but for the generous sharing of their culture, too.
“The wisdom of our elders tells us that in challenging times, we rise up for the common good — to look after one another, protect one another, and treat one another with dignity.”
Medina and Trevino proactively closed Café Ohlone March 13, four days before any mandated closure of businesses and restaurants in the Bay Area. As they explained on their website: “… we feel compelled to act. Historically, as a result of colonization, our community has lived through a series of harmful viruses that spread quickly, that our people had no immunity for — measles, smallpox, influenza, and the Spanish flu in the early twentieth century. The wisdom of our elders tells us that in challenging times, we rise up for the common good — to look after one another, protect one another, and treat one another with dignity.”
In a video chat with Nosh, Trevino explained further: “In an abundance of caution, we needed to refocus our attention to make sure that our families were ready for what was coming, so that our grandparents and other family members were informed and mobilized to make sure they had enough groceries.”
“We have a very strong safety net in our community,” Medina added. “There is a shared vision of looking after each other. It was a hard decision because immediately there was a big financial impact that we felt. But we value human life over profit. Things will work out.”
Respect for ancestors is a theme that is ever-present during meals at Café Ohlone. From the plates of food they always set aside for their ancestors to the acknowledgment articulated towards the end of every meal: “We are grateful for their strength that has kept us alive.”
Stocking up on provisions is another deeply valued Ohlone cultural practice. “Because they knew the land so well, they were always prepared,” said Medina. “They had this intimate knowledge that is still with us. Our ‘Auntie Billie’ (Kimberly Stevenot, Northern Sierra Mewuk), for example, always has enough acorn on hand for three years, just in case there is a bad crop for a year or two.”
The classic way to store acorns, an Ohlone food staple, is in a granary, which many community members still have outside their homes. “Traditionally, these are beautiful and functional structures, made from thatched willow and California grapevine,” Medina explained, “like a massive upside-down basket on stilts, lined with herbs to repel the bugs and covered with brush.” Nowadays, Medina and Trevino, and many others, have a more contemporary version in their backyards.
“There is something about that preparedness,” said Trevino, “we immediately knew to kick into that mode.” The day they closed their restaurant, they prepared for their initial shopping trip to Berkeley Bowl by carefully planning out three meals a day for 14 days and stocking up on traditional foods such as quail eggs, chia seeds and venison. In keeping with Medina’s description of current Ohlone culture as being both traditional and modern, they also purchased ingredients to cook dishes from other cultures’ cuisines and some luxuries, too. “Actually, quite a few chocolate bars,” Trevino said, “paleo chocolate with coconut sugar.”
“Our homeland is occupied and that forces us to make adjustments.”
One traditional practice that is becoming harder for Indigenous people to follow in the new reality of confinement is the gathering of herbs, greens, berries, edible flowers, nuts and seeds from their ancestral lands. “We are feeling anxiety with more people walking in nature,” Medina said. “It’s getting too risky to go outside and continue that practice now, even on isolated trails. And if the East Bay Regional Park District closes access to the trails, that will limit us even more. Our homeland is occupied and that forces us to make adjustments.” So, they substitute long-lasting ingredients to achieve the same nutrients, using, for example, frozen spinach instead of freshly gathered watercress.
When Trevino and Medina cook at home, they prefer slow-cooked meals because, taking the time to make these multi-step dishes, “takes our mind away from things and gets our bodies adjusted to this slow time,” Medina said. Two recent memorable meals include soba noodles with baby bok choy, pea tendrils, ginger, fish sauce, chili and black sesame seeds and a dinner of root vegetables (Japanese sweet potato, golden beets, purple carrots) roasted in duck fat with shallots and garlic, served with toasted red rice and a spinach salad.
Two additional Ohlone cultural values that resonate with our current shelter-in-place protocols are cleanliness and personal space. “The Ohlones,” Medina said, “have always been very clean people who bathe daily with a multitude of plant-based soaps, herbs and clays for purification and cleanliness.” Although there may have been many people living together in the ancient villages, “people had a bubble of personal space,” Medina said. “But we know that when the Missions came, our people were forced to live in painfully claustrophobic conditions, and it was hard to avoid disease.”
Besides preparing slow meals and taking long walks in nature, Medina and Trevino are using this time to turn inward, to focus on a deep study of their languages, Chochenyo and Rumsen, which they are then sharing with their communities through online resources.
“We’ve been digging deep into our language documentation,” Trevino explained on his Facebook page, “even finding reference to other times our people faced illness and came together to separate ourselves from it and run sickness from the land. “kuu makk wattin xuyya, makṣič ku peččoy ša kaayṣ — we’ll not go over there, lest the epidemic strike us.”
“We look to those people from before now, as we always do,” Trevino said, “to learn how to be in this world today.”
To feed the spirits of their supporters, if not their bellies, Medina and Trevino have started to share the wisdom of their Ohlone ancestors on Instagram. They plan to put out a series of tips from the Ohlone to help people deal with the coronavirus through their website. To support Medina and Trevino’s ongoing cultural work, you can make a donation or buy a gift card for a future meal at Café Ohlone on their website.