Taste the First Flavors of the Bay at Cafe Ohlone

By Alissa Greenberg

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, Grace Ruano moves along a line of outdoor tables set up behind Berkeley’s University Press Books, meticulously straightening the woven blankets draped over every chair and checking her phone continuously. Lunch service would normally be underway by now, but today the owners are running late.

“We want those of you who are here to know that we’re living, breathing
people.”

Ruano works at Cafe Ohlone, a restaurant specializing in pre-colonial cuisine that pops up a few times a week in the bookstore’s small backyard. She scatters the tables with abalone shells and acorns while nearby her colleague Alison Shiozaki arranges a variety of native-accented art pieces on a rustic shelf. Together, they hurry to sweep up the dried bay laurel leaves that have fallen to the floor from decorative bunches hung around the space.

Finally, Ruano gets a text message. Her bosses, Louis Trevino and Vincent Medina, are arriving after having spent the morning dealing with a car burglary.

Trevino and Medina stride into the space and take charge, orchestrating the finishing touches and ushering in the day’s guests. Medina begins the lunch hour—which includes both meal service and an educational presentation—by reviewing the menu, filled with recipes pulled from both Bay Area anthropological archives and his and Trevino’s own Ohlone family traditions. It features, among other dishes, soft boiled California quail eggs; hazelnut flour biscuits with dried porcini mushrooms; fiddleheads in walnut oil; three types of herbal tea; and two types of chia pudding.

Long ago, Ohlone message runners drank a chia seed beverage to refuel after difficult journeys. Today, Medina says, his family often breakfasts on chocolate or vanilla chia, flavors that arrived much later to the Bay Area. Serving the pudding this way, he notes, adds a contemporary twist to a traditional food, and that’s intentional.

“We want those of you who are here to know that we’re living, breathing people,” he tells the guests.

This push and pull between the traditional and the contemporary is essential to his and Trevino’s shared vision for mak-‘amham (which means “our food”), a culinary project whose work incorporates community organizing, cultural education, catering, and the cafe. Through mak-‘amham, Trevino and Medina hope to disrupt frozen-in-the-past stereotypes about native culture, while using newly revitalized traditions to help their community heal. It’s a delicate balance to strive for: bringing Ohlone food, culture, and tradition back to the Bay Area mainstream—without giving it all away.

***

To visit Cafe Ohlone is to step into a carefully curated world, from the acorns, shells, and powwow music to the meticulously presented food. It’s a world that plays to the strengths of both Medina (charismatic, articulate, opinionated) and Trevino (quieter, thoughtful, with a mischievous wit). Medina has significant public speaking experience from his seven years working as an educator at Mission Dolores, the San Francisco historical landmark. “I feel more comfortable being a voice, whereas [Trevino] is often more comfortable working behind the scenes,” he says.

“These are the first words of the East Bay,” Medina says. “No language has been spoken here longer than Chochenyo.”

The two met at a native language conference, introduced by a former professor Trevino worked with while studying linguistics at UC Berkeley. (He says the phonetics, syntax, and language courses he took there have been especially useful in his work revitalizing Rumsen, the Ohlone language of his native Monterey Bay.) Together, they created mak-‘amham, hoping to use food to rebuild community and reclaim history.

To shape Cafe Ohlone’s menu, Trevino and Medina spent long hours decoding historical documents from the early 20th century, when many Ohlone communities worked to record their traditions and language—even as they turned inward for survival, practicing their culture in secret. They also talked to the eldest members of their families, whose memories of the sweet taste of robin’s meat or the refreshment of iced rose hip tea often led to reminiscences about lost crafts or long-forgotten songs.

Recreating these dishes and calling them by their original names builds powerful connections to the past, Trevino says. An elderly relative named Gloria sometimes “talks about how when she hears us use the language we sound like her grandfather,” he says. “And later on she’ll hear his voice.”

Medina and Trevino add to that sense of connection by sourcing some of their ingredients from the places where Ohlone people have always lived. They recently began collecting their own salt from the Bay. To their surprise and delight, after researching the traditional Ohlone salt gathering areas, they ended up in their own neighborhood in San Lorenzo.

Medina describes with obvious love a favorite gathering spot in the San Leandro hills, where the landscape is thick with willows, yerba buena, and mugwort and visitors are surrounded by the calls of geese and the rustle of old growth bay laurel trees. “They have to be hundreds and hundreds of years old,” he says of the trees, “likely from before everything started to change.”

***

Before every meal at Cafe Ohlone, Medina and Trevino say a prayer of thanks. “These are the first words of the East Bay,” Medina reminds this afternoon’s gathering. “No language has been spoken here longer than Chochenyo.” As he concludes, guests line up for a plate, and the cafe fills with a pleasant chattering din. The greens in the salad are peppery, contrasting with the sweetness of the berries; the fiddleheads are a mix of sour, bitter, and vegetal, setting off the intense umami of the mushroom and hazelnut muffin. The inside of the quail eggshells has stained their flesh a delicate teal.

The recipes Medina and Trevino gathered are meant to be shared, as they are at Cafe Ohlone—but also protected.

Medina weaves through the space, pouring black sage tea and answering questions with patience and attentiveness. But behind his host persona, he struggles with what it means to a public native person while still attempting to heal himself in private.

It’s a question he first considered while working at Mission Dolores, where he spoke frankly with visitors about the California missionaries who enslaved and brutalized his ancestors. Even Cafe Ohlone, a place built on cultural celebration, often evokes mixed feelings. “At one point there were a hundred surviving people in our community, down from thousands and thousands of people before, back in the early 1900s,” he says. “It’s a reminder of how hard these things hit us. If you think about the people who passed away, who were murdered—those things you don’t feel happy about.”

Throughout his life, Medina has sought ways to share that history without scaring non-natives with what he calls the “stored trauma” of hundreds of years of colonization, racism, and violence. “So many of these facts can be so intense and so sad,” he says. “And I know for both the public—and maybe even more for myself—it can be really difficult to be reminded of a lot of the hardships.”

That means finding a way to tell the Ohlone story in a way that’s safe, “that’s honest but guarding ourselves,” he adds. It also means protecting his community as it reawakens some of the traditions that were lost.

These days, for example, his family and friends are relearning basketry, and he wants to give them privacy as they reconnect with that part of their culture. Similarly, “when you’re speaking your language for the first time in 70 years, you don’t want those first words uttered to be to someone outside your community,” he says. “If you’re going to make mistakes, you want to do it with your community.”

The recipes he and Trevino gathered from conversations with their elders or historical archives are meant to be shared, as they are at Cafe Ohlone—but also protected from commercialization or mass consumption. In his pre-meal talks, Medina often references Ohlone culture’s rich story tradition but only shares a few, lighter examples, leaving some tales untold. “We don’t want those stories to be known by everybody because they’re not everyone’s,” he says. “They’re ours.”

The cafe was created in part to shine a light on the Ohlone community’s survival, its pride, its joys. And it has brought joy to Trevino’s relative, Gloria. She’s old enough to remember the violent years when family members were taken away to boarding school and never came back. Her delight in the cafe has helped assure Trevino that in working to “learn as much as we can, as loudly as we can—we’re taking away that fear and false sense of shame,” he says.

***

Back at the cafe, customers finish their last cups of nettle tea and drift out the door. But Cindy Andallo, the program coordinator at UC Berkeley’s American Indian Graduate Program, hasn’t come just for the mushroom biscuits. She stays behind to ask Medina if he might be available to perform the invocation at the program’s upcoming graduation ceremony. He checks his calendar, which is filled with cultural events, press appearances, and other activist work, and smiles at her warmly. “I’ll ask someone else from my tribe to do it,” he tells her.

In the weeks before the cafe’s opening, Trevino and Medina organized a three-day campout with 60 Ohlone community members, featuring clamshell bead-making classes, traditional gaming tournaments, and sharing of folk stories. Mealtimes incorporated venison, mushrooms, berries, and acorns. “We wanted to have these foods reach our people first,” Medina says.

Outside of the cafe, he and Trevino do similar community organizing, including through mak-‘amham. Until recently, Medina sat on the Mawekma Ohlone tribal council, and he still directs outreach for Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival. Trevino is active in projects to protect sacred Rumsen sites in Carmel. And once in a while they host a free, all-Ohlone dinner at the cafe.

One day, Medina dreams of turning an empty Oakland warehouse into a community center full of traditional basketry and art, native plants, and space for events—some private, some open to interested non-natives. Like the cafe, the center would highlight the ways contemporary Ohlone culture mixes the modern and traditional. Medina’s younger brother, for example, likes to use twitter hashtags like #MIHI, which means “meene ‘išša himmen ‘išša,” or “you live one life”—the Chochenglish equivalent of YOLO.

Some years ago, Medina attended a local meditation workshop for native people, where participants were encouraged to imagine an ideal world. The vision that came to him that day was of the East Bay landscape, the home he’s known and loved for decades, suffused with Ohlone culture. Instead of churches in the hills, he saw roundhouses. Instead of street signs with English or Spanish names, he saw Chochenyo. He envisioned motifs from traditional basketry worked into building architecture, tule boats sailing the San Francisco Bay. And “acorn soup coffee shops,” he says. “Modern people, with abalone and clamshell beads and pine nuts—but unabashed.”

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Comments

———- lemme know when you’re gonna be open next …
I felt deeply moved by this article. Thank you! I am very glad that this Cafe honoring Ohlone foods and traditions exists now in Berkeley. I have read and re-read books about Ishi by Theodora Kroeber, so I know something about the tragic devastation of native peoples when thousands of Anglos arrived in California during the gold rush, and that was after the earlier devastation of native peoples by the California mission system. I highly recommend Theodora Kroeber’s books about Ishi, for anyone interested in California native peoples. I hope to be able to visit Cafe Ohlone soon. Thank you again for this article.
One of my high school teacher’s ,(@ San Jose High School) was a descendant of Dr. Saxton Pope, the doctor who cared for Ishi. Ishi, however, was not an Ohlone. There is a Valley Transportation Authority lightrail.station by my house named after the Ohlone. There is also an Ohlone burial ground adjacent to Hwy. 87 in San Jose. Unfortunately within the past few years a small solar farm.was built on the property. P.S. The K in Ursula K. LeGuin, is for KROEBER. She was the Kroeber’s daughter.

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