On Sept. 1, after two and half years of anticipation, a brilliant blue sky shone over Cafe Ohlone’s first public meal in its new home on the patio of the Phoebe Hearst Museum at UC Berkeley. Blazing sunshine warmed custom-made redwood tables and sparkled off new drinking glasses emblazoned with the image of an acorn between a crow and a quail, the two animals that respectively represent the spirits of co-owners Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino. (These were a gift from Chez Panisse. The earth-toned dishes were a gift from Heath ceramics).
For former diners at the first Ohlone restaurant in the world, accustomed to a picturesque mélange of gathered greens, wild mushrooms, acorn soup and grilled venison, the most surprising element of the meal may have been the plate of sliced Acme bread set center stage on each table. Medina acknowledged this modern local addition, saying “some people might say, ‘why do Ohlones have Acme bread on their plates?’ Because the Ohlones want Acme bread on their plates! This is part of our living culture.” He later commented, “Previously, we might have been locking ourselves into the past. But now, we are fully embracing all our lived experiences.”
Strolling between the tables of 25 diners, Medina recounted the opening of Cafe Ohlone’s first iteration exactly four years ago, across the street from the new restaurant and on the back patio of University Press Books. Their goal at the time, he said, “was to provide representation, so that Ohlone people could feel seen, and so that we Ohlone people could see ourselves reflected in every element.”
“That goal,” he added, “has been carried through in this new space, where every feature is full of intention. From the plants that are growing, to the foods that are served to the materials that are used. Every bit of this is specific to the East Bay, to our culture, to right here.”
Butterflies and dragonflies dropped by to enjoy the garden filled with native plants, such as manzanita, yarrow and yerba buena. The sound system surrounded diners with an unexpected mix of local birdsong, classic songs beloved by the owners’ grandparents (e.g., “Angel Baby“) and remarks in the Chochenyo language from Ohlone speakers of all ages.
Thanks to the scattered placement of the audio speakers, it felt like one was seated in the midst of a conversation. Again, to the point that Medina and Trevino wish to make: it’s a living culture. And after generations of hiding the language or being punished for speaking it, Chochenyo is once again flourishing, with one online class for speakers of all ages now in its 105th week.
As diners enter the space for future meals, they will notice a new word added to the restaurant’s name: ‘oṭṭoy, which means to heal or to repair in Chochenyo. Medina addressed the elephant on the patio, saying that “We know there’s a lot of healing that we have to do with this university.”
“We acknowledge that [the remains of] 4,500 of our ancestors are still held in this museum right here,” Medina said. “That this university is part of our family’s loss of recognition as a sovereign tribe. But we also know that our family has always found a way to transcend hardships, to continue to have a permanent presence here in the East Bay, to continue to have the language, the foods, and pass on the identity to each generation. This is not something associated with loss or defeat.”
The cafe that Medina calls “a love song to Ohlone culture” is still developing. It will have murals, and nighttime meals will be a layered, multi-sensory experience. Most important, this is not a romanticized, rebuilt Indian village from the past, but instead, the joyous celebration of an active and resilient culture.
Medina reminded us that Cafe Ohlone serves two purposes: acquainting the general public with Ohlone culture, cuisine and history, but perhaps even more importantly, it offers a space for Ohlones to gather together again. The family dinner that initiated the cafe the previous week, he reported, was a triumph.
Aunt Dottie, 92, is the matriarch of the family, and the voice that diners hear reciting a recorded blessing before each meal. “When she was here last week,” Medina recounted, “she recognized the plants in the garden as well as the aroma of the black walnut cake that Louis created. She said she was so happy to have a place of togetherness where our culture is practiced out in the world again that her buttons were popping with pride.”
The first meal for the public included a classic Ohlone salad of watercress, pickleweed and purslane, dotted with seeds, nuts, berries and edible flowers, soft-boiled quail eggs, oyster mushrooms and smoked trout. A new addition was watercress soup that Medina said is a family favorite. For dessert, Louis Trevino outdid himself with moist, almost mystical, chia seed flour chocolate brownies.
Before lunch was over, Medina acknowledged that none of this would have been possible without the strength of the elders. “Once again, those elders who keep it all going strong for us, they are the heroes in this story. Our ancestors survived hardships, genocide and the missions, and they have continued to persevere so that we could continue to be here in our home.”
As he bid goodbye to the first diners at the new cafe, Medina urged them to remember the Ohlones as a people of “strength and triumph, not loss and defeat.”
“We want this space to be a celebration of all the things that are indigenous to this area,” he said. “We want to welcome the public into a space where we can teach our story. That is change happening in front of our eyes. Change doesn’t have to be adversarial or scary, change can be fun and delicious and beautiful.”
Featured image: A dish from Cafe Ohlone’s first public meal in its new space. Credit: Anna Mindess