In observation of the current worker strike at U.C. Berkeley and as it follows the school’s holiday calendar, Cafe Ohlone is currently closed, and will reopen in Jan. 2023. Its online reservation system will reopen on Dec. 15.

No meal at Cafe Ohlone begins without an expression of gratitude to the elders who have endured times of great hardship but kept their culture alive to pass on to succeeding generations. Although Vincent Medina’s heartfelt words usually refer to his Ohlone ancestors, on a recent Friday, they also applied to Cafe Ohlone’s honored guests, a dozen diners from two East Bay organizations that serve Korean seniors.

Three languages intertwined during the evening’s program, with Medina greeting the assembled group in Chochenyo, Korean and English. Then, interpreter Jorim Rhee took over, translating his remarks into Korean. Hyunch Sung, who helped organize the event, greeted the guests as well, saying that the Korean elders “have also survived hard times, but tonight celebrate these shared cultures and new friendships to build bridges with their mutual love of good food.”

The meal began with elderberry rose petal tea (Ohlone) and buckwheat tea and Màkku, a fermented rice beer (Korean). Courses alternated between the two cuisines, and highlighted ingredients prized by both cultures, such as acorn soup (Ohlone) and dotori muk (acorn jelly, Korean). While Medina explained the sacred process of preparing the acorns, his partner, Louis Trevino, showed the group three precious, over 100-year-old baskets and demonstrated the practice of winnowing and sifting acorns before cooking them with hot stones. Nods and murmurs came from the Korean elders, who said traditionally, they followed the same winnowing procedure, using their own basket variation. 

Louis Trevino and an acorn cooking basket. Credit: Anna Mindess

Meanwhile, in the covered ramada at the end of Cafe Ohlone’s outdoor patio, five members of Medina’s family had honored seats to enjoy this cross-cultural meal. Cousin Theresa Laudani commented, “I am always delighted and surprised by Vincent and Louis.”

Another ingredient prized in both cuisines is fernbrake (an edible fern), which sometimes appears in Ohlone dishes but was served this night in yukaejang (spicy beef and vegetable stew) and also as gosari namui in the banchan assortment. A familiar item for those who have dined at Cafe Ohlone is quail eggs, which often accompany their bounteous salad. This time, the quail eggs, braised in soy sauce, nestled atop grated burdock root as another of the banchan offerings.

One elder, Yon Suk Chin, was touched by the similarities between the cultures, including the appreciation of fernbrake as well as their common painful past. With Rhee interpreting, she said that even after 18 years of living in the US, she often feels lonely and excluded, but tonight she felt young again. She rose to warmly greet the Ohlone elders who were seated in the ramada, expressing her thanks and a feeling of connection.

This event was organized by Ssi Ya Gi  (literally “Seed Story”) a group formed in 2021 with an aim to “give voice to the untold and under-told stories of Korean American elders” through food in order to “forge meaningful intergenerational connections and uncover rich narratives that would otherwise be lost to history.”

Founders Hyunch Sung, Yoon Ju Ellie Lee, Ginny Hwang, Grace Jiyun Lee and Hannah Pae collect stories from Korean seniors on the theme of food, then create zines based on these stories which they share at their own “listening suppers.” They are based both in Oakland and Los Angeles, sites of large Korean immigrant populations. Ssi Ya Gi is led by BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, female-identifying organizers and partners with people who share their “values of human-centered organizing and activism and amplifying marginalized perspectives.” 

Sung and Pae met Medina and Trevino as part of the Terremoto team of landscape designers who helped create Cafe Ohlone’s space on the UC Berkeley campus.

“We listen to our elders’ stories to build empathy and solidarity,” said Sung the night of the shared dinner.

Why specifically food stories? “If you ask the seniors about their wartime experiences, they clam up,” Pae said. “But asking about food memories seems to bring up deep issues in a non-threatening way.”

Hannah Pae and Myung Kwang Shik with the Black Bean Noodles zine. Credit: Anna Mindess

Pae is one of the artists who transforms these stories into zines that are then shared with the wider community. “Listening to their interviews, we hear journeys in their memories; it transports you,” she sayid. “Then we try and create these images so we could understand better what their experience was like. When the seniors see their memories transformed into illustrated booklets, they are grateful and overjoyed.” 

Pae illustrated a zine from the story of Myung Kwang Shik called Black Bean Noodles, in which he shared his memory tasting jjajangmyun as a child. He would let it dissolve in his mouth because the taste was so good that he didn’t want to swallow.

The zine’s illustrations feature some of the ingredients that made it such an indelible taste memory (pickled radish, onions, green onions and fermented black bean paste). At the dinner, Pae showed the zine to Shik, a retired agricultural engineering professor, for the first time. He was amazed and touched to see how she had understood and illustrated his story. 

“Ssi Ya Gi hopes to learn from Vincent and Louis,” said Sung, “about how they conduct community rituals during meals at Cafe Ohlone, sharing stories while people eat, reviving historicity into the present by eating foods with their elders, as a tactile presence.” The group’s future plans include more intentional listening suppers and other events that bring intergenerational communities together and highlight elder memories and shared culture. 

To wrap up the event, Yoon Ju Ellie Lee brought up Sangdalgosa, a Korean fall ritual intended to protect the home.   She likened this meal to that practice, saying that the evening created the feeling of a safe home for the visiting seniors.

As the evening began to get chilly, Medina and Trevino took some of the colorful serape blankets the cafe uses for seating and handed them out to the seniors as gifts to commemorate the event. The elders wrapped themselves up to keep warm, and blew kisses to thank the pair. Now, the seniors will have more than memories to cherish from this profoundly moving evening.

Joanna Selby Kim and Vincent Medina. Credit: Hyunch Sung

Featured image: Two Korean dishes from the Ssi Ya Gi event at Cafe Ohlone. Credit: Anna Mindess

Anna Mindess is a freelance writer and sign language interpreter who lives in Berkeley.