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Café Ohlone Blends Food with Language to Honor Native Ancestors

Louis Trevino (left) and Vincent Medina (right) stand in front of their Café Ohlone chalkboard menu. | Momo Chang
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In a region as urban as the San Francisco Bay Area, where some 7 million people reside, the land’s original community and people are hardly seen. The people and traditions of the Ohlone tribes are mostly invisible today even though they populated much of  the current-day Bay Area from the northern part of the San Francisco peninsula down to Big Sur along the coasts, and East toward the Diablo Hills.

"It's so easy for other people to think that we aren't here because they don't see us in public places, except in museum spaces,” says Louis Trevino, an Ohlone chef featured on the KCET series “Tending Nature.” Trevino is co-founder of mak’-amham – which means “our food” in the Chochenyo Ohlone language of his co-founder Vincent Medina’s tribe. 

The two of them — Trevino and Medina — are part of a wave of Indigenous Californians who are reclaiming and reviving native ways. Medina is from what is now known as the East Bay and from the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, while Trevino is from the Carmel Valley area and the Rumsen Ohlone community.

“European colonizers first arrived in the East Bay in the late 1700s. Spain, Mexico, and the United States claimed our homeland at different times. Each actively worked to erase us from the land,” Medina writes in Bay Nature magazine.

Every aspect of culture was suppressed, including their language, religion, names, and more. During the Gold Rush, the California American government offered bounties for Indian scalps. Food was just one way to erase Ohlone culture.

But culture finds a way to fight back. Their ancestors were able to preserve traditions. One way was through recordings with linguists and anthropologists from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. “Tribal elders Angela de los Colos, Jose Guzman, and Susana Nichols recounted everything they remembered about our language, stories, religion, dances, the land we come from, the food we ate, and much more. They also described the injustice our people experienced. These recordings are what makes revival of the old ways possible today,” Medina continues.

Louis Trevino walking on a trail with an elder during a nature walk. | Courtesy of Vincent Medina
Louis Trevino walking on a trail with an elder during a nature walk. | Courtesy of Vincent Medina

Medina and Trevino met at UC Berkeley, at a conference focusing on bringing back Indigenous languages. At this conference, Trevino realized the Rumsen language was not entirely lost. “The last known fluent speaker of Rumsen, Isabel Meadows, spent the final decade of her life being recorded by an ethnographer from the Smithsonian Institution named John P. Harrington. She spent the last five years of her life traveling with Harrington to Washington, D.C., working closely with him to record what she remembered of our language, history, foods, religion, stories, songs, and more,” Trevino writes in Bay Nature.

Though they initially connected through language, Trevino and Medina believe food and language go hand in hand. They see food as a visible, palpable way of reintroducing native culture to both their own communities, while honoring their ancestors and living elders, as well as the general public. Their passion for both aspects of their culture inspired them to start mak-’amham, an organization that brings contemporary Ohlone cuisine to Indigenous communities as well as the larger public. mak-’amham offers catering services and hosts intimate dinners, meals and events.

This fall, they expanded the vision of mak-’amham and opened Café Ohlone, housed in the backyard patio space of University Press Books, located across the street from the UC Berkeley campus. Right now, it’s operating as a supper club, with limited hours that are announced on their Instagram, in part because they are involved in other obligations and events. “There’s a constant flow of people who are coming in and that really gives us a lot of excitement to know that people are really receptive to what our message is, being able to understand the first people of the East Bay and Bay Area, and that our voices matter,” Medina says.

Their menu lists each item and ingredient in Chochenyo language, such as maarah, an Ohlone salad, and tawwa-sii ne ṭuuxi, the teas of the day, which range from rose hips to hummingbird sage.

A tasting of a meal at Cafe Ohlone includes acorn flour brownie, a native greens Ohlone salad, bitter greens bisque made with duck fat, and hazelnut flour biscuits. | Momo Chang
A tasting of a meal at Cafe Ohlone includes acorn flour brownie, a native greens Ohlone salad, bitter greens bisque made with duck fat, and hazelnut flour biscuits. | Momo Chang

At a recent lunch service, Trevino and Medina served one of their favorites: acorn flour brownies — a modern take on an Ohlone staple ingredient, since chocolate is not a part of traditional Ohlone cuisine — but is an easy way to try a dish using acorn flour, especially for kids.

Also on the menu that day was the seasonal native greens Ohlone salad, chock-full of healthy and delicious, locally sourced surprises such as roasted pinon nuts, watercress, walnuts, blackberries, and gooseberries, all dressed in a walnut and blackberry oil with locally harvest Bay salt.

Another dish was a bitter greens bisque made from dandelion greens and duck fat; there was also a flavorful vegan option. Both were just rich enough, warm, and filling. The hazelnut biscuits, slightly savory, were perfect for dipping in the soup. On other days, they might serve quail eggs (‘attuš-heksen), venison (ṭoot, pronounced “troot”), and acorn soup (paamu).

Many of the ingredients are gathered from the East Bay Hills, where they go on gathering trips with members of their Tribe, and where Muwekma Ohlone ancestral villages are located. Some of the ingredients are purchased. All of it is intentional and thoughtful. It's "gathering heritage food through modern ways," Medina notes. Their findings include yerba buena, purslane, elderberry, and bay laurel, which they make teas from.

Vincent Medina holds on to an elder during a nature walk. | Courtesy of Vincent Medina
Vincent Medina holds on to an elder during a nature walk. | Courtesy of Vincent Medina

“In The Natural World of the California Indians,” written by Robert Heizer and Albert Elsasser, they note that native Californians harvested and ate more than 500 kinds of plants and animals. The acorn flour used in Café Ohlone’s brownies, for example, is traditionally processed in a systematic way that is part of a spiritual experience, as seen on KCET documentary “Tending the Wild.”

Café Ohlone is adding to the Bay Area’s already-vibrant food scene, in a city where Alice Waters of Chez Panisse launched what’s now known as California cuisine. “Slow food, farm-to-table, has been happening for thousands of years,” notes Natale Zappia, associate professor at Whittier College, in the “Decolonizing Cuisine with Mak-‘amham” episode of “Tending Nature.”

“I think what we’re doing challenges the notion of ‘California cuisine’ as it’s known today,” Medina says, noting that what they are doing is representing the first foods of the East Bay and Carmel Valley. “We believe in reciprocity with the land. It’s different from modern day farms, who are constantly bringing food to the city.”

Ultimately, Medina and Trevino hope to include all generations, but especially focus on honoring their ancestors — who survived genocide, colonization, and the missions, and who were able to keep the traditions alive.

“With our living elders, most of them remember some of these foods from their childhoods and remember them being commonplace, and then becoming less and less common until they were no longer practiced,” Trevino says. “For those people, we know how happy they are to see them and taste them and how proud they are of what’s happening.”

“You develop a real care for those old people and when you see hopes and desires like that wish for that food, the impulse you have inside is to feed them,” Trevino says in “Tending Nature.” “And the only way to do that, because they’re long gone now, is to feed our families these old foods, to bring them to our elders who are alive today, to our children. To feed those old people, is to feed our people today.”

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