This weekend, as I stood in line to pick up my Cafe Ohlone Sunday Supper meal kit box from a storefront in Old Oakland, I was both excited and a little nervous. I wondered how a takeout meal kit from the country’s first and only Ohlone food restaurant would convey the intentions of founders Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino. The pair of Ohlone activists have been deeply involved in efforts to revitalize their ancestors’ traditions and deepen connections with other Ohlone people, and Cafe Ohlone provided a communal space. But how much of that rich, living experience that they created at the restaurant could be boxed up in packages?
Those who had visited Cafe Ohlone in Berkeley before it temporarily closed with the coming of the pandemic (and later, permanently shuttered, when it lost its home at University Press Books), will recall that Medina and Trevino had created more than just a restaurant, but a community hub that was centered around food, but also language, music, conversation and games. Medina and Trevino are in the process of relocating Cafe Ohlone, and in the meantime, have offered these monthly seasonal, multi-course dinner kits as a pandemic-safe way to keep their mission going. Meal kits feed two, and are priced at $300 a box. The price may be out of reach for many, but consider this a special occasion experience, and note that committing to a Sunday Supper subscription brings the price down. (Monthly subscriptions are $275 a box; the best deal is the seasonal subscription, where diners pay $290 every three months.)
Arriving at the pickup spot on Eighth Street a few minutes early, I planned on cruising around the area to pass the time, but after I parked, there was already a line, at least 10 parties deep, of appropriately distanced people standing outside the entrance of the communal kitchen storefront. I got in the queue, which moved slower than most pickup lines. As I got closer to the doorway, I understood the reason for the hold-up; Medina, Trevino and other Cafe Ohlone staff members were standing near the entrance, giving everyone a personal introduction to the meal kit they’d be taking home.
Staffer Deirdre Greene checked off dinner box recipients and handed each a sturdy wooden crate filled with compostable takeout boxes, artfully stacked like Jenga pieces. Then Medina came to the door to say hello and offered a few words about this month’s offering. I appreciated having that opportunity, even if brief, to see and exchange friendly words in person with the Cafe Ohlone staff; it felt more like picking up food from a friend, and not just an impersonal transaction of goods. The charming bouquet of flowers and a handmade beeswax candle, tied up in a bundle with a lace ribbon and personally handed off, added to that congenial feeling.
While the dishes that require preparation are fairly simple, if you’re expecting to just open the box and eat, you’ll be disappointed.
Sunday Supper boxes include a combination of raw ingredients — many of them gathered on what was traditionally Ohlone land — that recipients will finish off in their own kitchen, as well as some ready-to-serve items, mainly dishes that would be more complicated to prepare. While the dishes that require preparation are fairly simple, if you’re expecting to just open the box and eat, you’ll be disappointed. When I got home, the first thing I did was open up every container to see what was inside, then read the six-page instruction pamphlet that came with the kit. I’m glad I did because I learned that I needed to set aside about two hours to prepare the meal. It was already 4 p.m., and I wanted to dine before sunset, so I needed to get started soon.
Before moving onto cooking, I watched the pre-recorded introduction video that Medina and Trevino shared with Sunday Supper diners through a password-protected weblink. The March dinner box is a celebration of the spring equinox, a time of rebirth and bounty. Medina shared that in Chochenyo, the language of his Muwekma Ohlone tribe, spring is referred to as huyyikne tiwši warép, which translates to “the Earth has begun to flower on us.” His ancestors would mark the changing season by wearing crowns made from the abundant blooming native flowers and sing, rather than speak, in daily conversation “to be in rhythm with the immense, undeniable beauty that this season brings.” The coming of spring also reminds us that the darker days of winter are behind us, and ‘ewweh ṭuuxi huyyuwiš, or brighter days are ahead.
In the video, Medina and Trevino explained the individual components inside the box, translating each ingredient into Chochenyo or Rumsen, and adding interesting details and tips along the way. Knowing some might be unfamiliar with fiddleheads, Medina explained that the green, furled fronds — that look like vegetal lollipops — are reminiscent in flavor to asparagus. He advised us to take a moment to admire the beauty of the soft-boiled quail eggs before peeling them, and to dip the seared venison backstrap into the acorn soup, as it’s traditionally eaten. Trevino explained that the chocolate in his chia seed brownies is made with Zapotec chocolate, sourced from an Indigenous elder in southern Mexico, who prepares the chocolate by hand, in the traditional way.
Eating what you’ve cooked yourself gives you an appreciation for food in a deeper way than just tucking into a meal prepared by someone else. As the cook, you know every component of the dish, you know the quality of the ingredients and you know the process that went into making the completed dish. The fiddleheads, for example, had to be cleaned — a process that involved carefully removing the small, black fibers from the delicate, curled spirals without breaking them. (I admit, in addition to reading the included instructions a few times, I watched a Youtube tutorial to ensure I wasn’t doing it wrong.)
The box also contained long, thin-skinned Russian fingerling banana potatoes, an heirloom variety that stands in for the Ohlone-favored brodiaea potatoes. These were parboiled with salt gathered from local marshes and fragrant bay laurel leaves before I coated them in walnut oil and more East Bay salt, and roasted them in the oven. After an hour at 450F, their jackets got deliciously wrinkled and crispy, and their interiors wonderfully creamy. Roasted for 45 minutes at the same temperature with the same local salt and walnut oil, the meaty oyster mushrooms shrunk down and caramelized, bringing out their earthy, umami notes and creating satisfying crunchy edges.
Having never cooked it before, I was most excited — and nervous — about preparing the main dish, venison backstrap. After letting the meat come to room temperature, I coated the thick, nearly maroon-red loin cuts in walnut oil, and salted them generously before searing them in a pre-heated cast iron pan. Just a few minutes in the screaming hot pan, a flip and then a few more minutes in the oven (with another turn halfway into cooking) was all it took. While the meat rested, I set the other dishes on the table; in five minutes I returned to slice the venison, happy to see the desired, slightly pink center. Having only eaten deer a handful of times in the past, I had come to think of venison as a lean, dry cut, but this was juicy and rich, with a similar mineral flavor to lamb. (Vegetarian and vegan diners can request meal kits with a meat-free substitute).
I plated each of the prepared items — the subtly sweet black acorn soup, biscuits made from California hazelnut flour, Ohlone salad, soft-boiled valley quail eggs, the walnut-studded brownies and hazelnut hatole — arranging them as well as I could, believing that taking the extra care to make sure they looked their best would also make them taste their best. The beautiful Ohlone salad — made with a bed of watercress, dotted with a few edible nasturtium flowers, and chock full of nuts (hazelnuts, pinons, walnuts ) and bright, ripe berries (gooseberries, blackberries and dried strawberries) — was prettier and definitely more delicious than a floral arrangement.
The hazelnut flour biscuits were a surprising dish. They looked like small, dry scones, speckled with scallions pieces. I expected them to be crumbly, but the interiors were dense, moist and slightly chewy, and the flavor intensely savory and oniony. They were a favorite of the prepared items. I also enjoyed the hazelnut hatole, a soupy dessert made from ground hazelnuts, flavored with vanilla and sweetened with agave syrup.
Taking advantage of the extra hours of daylight, and as a nod to Cafe Ohlone’s former outdoor patio setting, my partner and I enjoyed our meal outside. I lit the beeswax candle and cued up the link to the soundtrack provided with the meal — a mix of soul-stirring oldies by Durand Jones & the Indications, the Supremes, Nina Simone, Sam Cooke and other greats, followed by songs by contemporary artists like Khruangbin, Eanan and Tanokumbia to wrap up the evening repast. As the sun went down and the air turned chilly, we sipped on our herbal elderflower and stinging nettle tea, and agreed the dinner was something we were so happy to enjoy and share together — it was a treat that might not stand-in for the former Cafe Ohlone experience, but it was unique and special in its own right.
We look forward to visiting Cafe Ohlone when it eventually reopens in its new location. ‘Ewweh ṭuuxi huyyuwiš — brighter days are ahead.
Cafe Ohlone is currently taking orders for its April 18 and May 16 Sunday Supper boxes, as well as monthly and seasonal subscriptions. Cafe Ohlone staff will share the menu (diners can request substitutions, due to dietary restrictions) and pickup location a few days in advance.