Embracing a Painful History, the World’s Only Ohlone Restaurant Finds Unlikely New Home
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen Cafe Ohlone shut its doors last summer, its owners promised they would be back before long. Now, a year later, the world’s only Ohlone restaurant is gearing up for a triumphant return: Owners Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino announced earlier this month that the restaurant will reopen in Berkeley this November.Â
The new, larger incarnation of the restaurant will be located in the outdoor courtyard of UC Berkeleyâs Hearst Museum of Anthropology. It will continue to serve the pre-colonial dishes the original Cafe Ohlone was known forâthe kind youâd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the Bay Area, like venison meatballs, chia seed bread and cold, luxuriously silky acorn soup. What will be new, however, is the introduction of dishes that evoke more recent periods in Ohlone history. And, perhaps most significantly, Medina and Trevino hope the courtyard restaurant will usher in a new era of cooperation with an institution that has, historically, inflicted great pain on the Ohlone peopleâincluding thousands of ancestral remains and sacred objects that the Hearst Museum has not yet returned to the Ohlone people.
âWe have a very complex and not necessarily positive history, up until recently, with the Hearst,â Medina says. âThey want to do the right thing, but they need to know how to do the right thing.â
A Painful History
The plan to bring Cafe Ohlone to the Hearst came about fairly quickly. The restaurant had been on indefinite hiatus when University Press Books, whose back patio it occupied, closedâa casualty of COVID-related financial pressures. Left without a home, the nationally acclaimed restaurant was forced to end its two-year run of perennially sold-out ticketed dinners, transitioning instead to a monthly meal kit takeout program that it has run for the past several months out of a commissary kitchen in Old Oakland. As Medina and Trevino looked for a new permanent home for the restaurant, they initially concentrated their search in the San Lorenzo area, where many of the East Bay Ohlones live.Â
One of Cafe Ohlone’s meal kits, packaged in a handmade wooden box. (Cafe Ohlone)
Then, Kent Lightfoot, an anthropology professor at UC Berkeley, suggested the Hearst as a possible destination for the restaurantâa possibility that, as Medina explains, felt extremely fraught. Alfred Kroeber, the museumâs longtime director from 1908 to 1946 (back when it was called the University of California Museum of Anthropology), had a direct hand in causing the Ohlones to lose federal recognition when his 1925 Handbook of the Indians of California declared them to be âculturally extinct.â Phoebe Hearst, the museumâs current namesake, lived in a mansion that she built on Ohlone land in the Amador Valley, near Pleasantonâright on the other side of the river where Medinaâs great-grandparentsâ generation lived in one-room shacks. âThe Hearst family got richer and richer as our family was disenfranchised,â Medina says.
Perhaps most painfully, once the Ohlones lost their federal recognition, the Hearst Museum went onto their land and looted the shellmounds. âThey went in and removed our ancestors from their cemeteries; they removed our cultural objects,â he says. âThey just took as much as they could without any care about the sacred.â Medina says he still vividly remembers how during the mid-â90s, when he was seven or eight years old, an Ohlone elder told him about how those remains were being kept in pink containers under the tennis courts at UC Berkeley: âIt’s always stuck with me, the anger that was there in her voice.âÂ
But Medina also notes that in more recent years, since Cafe Ohlone opened its original location near campus, the Hearst has said all the right things about wanting to repatriate those remains and sacred objects, and to promote Ohlone visibility. The hope, he says, is that working closely with the Hearst will help speed up that process. âIf we can be there to encourage greater respect of Ohlone people, then weâre going to do that,â Medina says.
In fact, Trevino and Medina felt there would be something very beautiful about hosting meals right outside the space where so many of their peopleâs relics are locatedâabout bringing Cafe Ohloneâs own modern-day Ohlone baskets and mortars and pestles into that courtyard to take their place among those older objects.
Initially, when Medina and Trevino thought about the post-pandemic future of the restaurant, theyâd imagined it as a community center of sorts, where theyâd be able to host their language and other cultural classes, and where Ohlone people across generations would be able to gather on a regular basis. Theyâd still like to create a separate place for that in the San Lorenzo area sometime in the future, but the restaurant will be a cultural center in its own way. At the university, Ohlone visitors will be able to access the actual archives where their language is documented. Theyâll be able to see, in person, the baskets woven by their ancestors, which theyâve previously only seen in photos.
Ohlone-izing the Menu
As for the meals themselves, much will remain the same: Theyâll still be pre-ticketed prix fixe affairs, held just once a week when they start in November. One thing that will be new, however, is a deeper exploration of foods that donât fit as neatly into the general publicâs understanding of âtraditionalâ native cuisinesâdishes and ingredients that arenât âpre-contact,â but are no less authentically Ohlone. âThroughout different stages of colonization and missionization,â Medina explains, âthere were ingredients that were introduced here by either the Spanish during the mission times or by Mexican folks, or later by Americans, that were embraced by our family here and âOhlone-ized.ââÂ
The pandemic gave Medina and Trevino time to really explore these more recent additions to the Ohlone table. In their May takeout box, they included venison chile colorado, a dish that combines venisonâa traditional Ohlone ingredientâwith spices and cooking techniques that developed in Mexico. Itâs a dish Medinaâs great-grandparents might have prepared on the rancheria. Cafe Ohlone customers ate the stew with chia flour tortillas and acorn bread.
âWhat we want people to know is that Ohlone folks have been there every step of the way,â Medina says. âAnd sometimes that means we embrace an ingredient thatâs not native, but thereâs this consistent way of doing it on our own terms.âÂ
An Ohlone salad, made with locally gathered ingredients. (Cafe Ohlone)
Throughout the pandemic, Cafe Ohlone has erred on the side of caution, citing the Ohlone peopleâs long history of having infectious diseases weaponized against them, particularly in the Spanish missions. And even now, as California opens up and vaccination rates creep upward, Medina says the restaurant will continue to take a conservative approach. Instead of having customers all sit together at one long communal table, theyâll be spread out on the museumâs large garden terrace, where Medina and Trevino will set up a mobile kitchen. If all goes according to plan, it will be a lovely setting for a meal, full of lush greeneryânative plants arranged to create natural buffers between the tables, allowing for socially distanced dining.
Pan-fried local halibut with a California hazelnut crust and a summertime gooseberry and tomato salsa. (Cafe Ohlone)
In the meantime, while the new restaurant space is built out, Cafe Ohlone will continue its monthly âSunday Supperâ meal kit program, with boxes currently available to be reserved for July 18 and August 8.
While COVID may have put the restaurant on ice for more than a year, Medina says heâs grateful for the time he and Trevino were able to devote to uplifting other aspects of Ohlone culture, especially within the community itself. For instance, they recently marked the 58th consecutive week of holding language classes via Zoom, focusing on both the Chochenyo and Rumsen Ohlone languages, spoken by the East Bay and Monterey/Carmel area Ohlones, respectively. Participants range from a 90-year-old auntie to literal babiesâone soon-to-be mother attended the classes all throughout her pregnancy, and then she Zoomed in from the maternity ward after giving birth.
âShe wanted the babyâs first language to be Chochenyo,â Medina says.
Near the start of the pandemic, when things were at their bleakest, Medina and Trevino shared an oration that they had composed in Chochenyo, in the classic Ohlone oratory style, as an exhortation to their community to stay home for the time being: âNow we must stay apart. / So that our elders are safe / So that our young ones are safe / So that those who are vulnerable are safe, too.â But âmakkin rootesin hemmen rocket,â the oration also promised: âWe will be together again soon.â
Now, as the restaurant gears up for its reopening, Medina says, âThis is us making good on our word.â
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