This is a remarkable year for Loretta Barrett Oden, an Oklahoman of American Indian descent who is a chef and a food historian. She is ecstatic, even giddy, that she has earned a Boston/New England Chapter Emmy for "Seasoned With Spirit: A Native Cook's Journey,” the five-part PBS series she wrote and hosted. The series, co-produced by Connecticut Public Television and Native American Public Telecommunications in association with Resolution Pictures, will air locally beginning Monday. For Oden, 65, who lives in Oklahoma City but travels the world for her work, the series is a dream come true. She said recently that it began with a dream she had to share the cultures and customs of native people through the foods they've relied on for generations. That dream evolved into 26 shows Oden has written. The Shawnee native and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation hopes funding for the remaining 21 scripts will come her way now that she's garnered an Emmy. Getting funding to proceed with the first five shows was a difficult feat for someone new to the world of television production and scripts, but Oden is rarely deterred by big challenges. In fact, she said, shooting the series on location in the Gulf region of Louisiana, the Pacific Northwest, in northern Minnesota, the desert of Arizona and across South Dakota happened soon after the unexpected death of her eldest son, Clay Oden, 38, who was a renowned chef on the local food scene. "Shooting this series really kind of saved me,” Oden said, "because we went into production right after Clay died. That was the single-most horrific thing that has happened in my life, losing my firstborn. The Santa Fe restaurant (Corn Dance Cafe) would never have happened without Clay. He was my sounding board. He contributed so much.” Filming with the Houmas in the Gulf region of Louisiana took place just before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, and Oden is still moved by the fact that all locations where they shot the episode were wiped out during the storm. "It's all gone now. We had a big wonderful crab boil at this old funky family store up on stilts, and the whole community came out for the shoot. But it's all gone.” During the five 30-minute shows, Oden shares fascinating American Indian legends and stories as well as age-old customs. She visits with those who are preserving the ancient ways of food preparation so important to the American Indians. Oden gives viewers a front-row seat at a typical First Rice Feast, using wild rice harvested on the lakes in northern Minnesota, and tells viewers how all parts of the buffalo were used by tribes living among the buffalo on the Great Plains of North America. "In the buffalo show, we address how the land and the buffalo and the prairie dogs create a perfect synergy that works. It makes so much sense for these animals to be where they belong, and that applies to the tallgrass prairies in Oklahoma as well as in South Dakota and Montana,” she said. In the Pacific Northwest, Oden learned to make sturgeon egg bread as has been done for generations by remote tribes, by simply mashing the sturgeon eggs — caviar — in a baking pan lined with big maple leaves. Oden said the eggs are topped with more maple leaves before being baked. Once baked, "it has the texture of a real chewy ciabatta, but it's caviar. They'll take a sturgeon from the deep, cold waters and use every part of it,” she said. "I couldn't believe I was working with thousands of dollars worth of caviar. Here are these very unique people, living traditional lifestyles and eating traditional foods, and no one knows they exist. I was amazed,” Oden said. "That's what I love about what I do, because each and every food I deal with is a story. And I think that runs through all cultures and all ethnicities. There's truly a story with all of the foods people eat. We want to know how these foods became a part of our diet.” She has been rushing to complete a cookbook to accompany the PBS series. Recipes featuring bison meat, salmon, shrimp, chokecherries, blue corn flour and many other native foods and ingredients featured in the series will fill the book. Don't look for fry bread and Indian taco recipes in the book, though. "We have to get past that stereotypical idea of what native foods are. Native foods do not include fry bread and Indian tacos. ... Fry bread is purely a product of the government's commodity program. Fry bread came about from the flour and lard given to the Indian people,” Oden said. "The women had to fill hungry bellies, and fry bread will do that. Then you look at the consequences not so many years later. I work with the Tohono community in southern Arizona, which has the highest rate of Type 2 diabetes in the world. They have 7- and 8-year-old kids weighing 150 pounds and fully 90 percent of the population suffers from diabetes.” Her concerns about preventing childhood obesity and diabetes, especially as it relates to American Indians, has Oden contemplating the idea of establishing a learning garden where young children could learn how food is grown, how to prepare and cook fresh produce and how to make better food choices through nutrition education. Progress on her cookbook is slowed by her constant traveling to share stories, cook, demonstrate and lecture about all she's learned. She recently traveled to New York City to prepare an upscale, seven-course dinner for 80 buyers and clients in New York City to attend the Fancy Food Show. She served venison, salmon with fresh blueberry sauce, bison tenderloin with a chokecherry bordelaise sauce, wild rice and what she called "old-fashioned Oklahoma barbecue, with bison brisket that was pulled and topped with a chipotle sauce and Mom's tater salad.” Back in Oklahoma City, Oden recently prepared a dinner as guest chef at Paseo Grill, featuring foods she loves to showcase, such as the bison and wild rice. Two weeks each month, Oden travels to Taos, N.M., where she works with what she calls "a little group,” the Taos County Economic Development Corp. "For the last 12 years,” Oden said, "they've had an incubator kitchen going, which allows small producers — like a woman making tortillas and tamales to someone who has a salsa recipe to a bread baker — to get their products to the marketplace. We have 40-some producers working out of this kitchen, and we give them free marketing classes, free food handling and food safety training, everything they need. This is the most fulfilling, the most exciting, thing. We've managed to get eight or nine of our producers into the Santa Fe and Taos farmers markets and into Whole Foods and Trader Joe's in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. It's just wonderful what's happening.”
While her son Craig and three young grandchildren keep Oden in her home state for now, she expressed frustration at not being able to generate much enthusiasm for her projects in Oklahoma. Her successful Corn Dance Cafe in Santa Fe, N.M., was quite popular before she closed it a few years ago, but her efforts to recreate a Corn Dance Cafe in Shawnee was not successful, and the restaurant closed within months.
Still, some of the talented people she brought to Shawnee to work in that kitchen are waiting for "Corn Mom,” as they call her, to open another restaurant. "I feel so very responsible for them, and they're so good at what they do,” she said.
"I've been tempted to move back up there (to Santa Fe), but I'm holding out hope for Oklahoma City. I'd love to stay home if I could just connect with the market here. It's very difficult. Oklahoma City is a very difficult food town; it's very fickle. It's so spread out. Santa Fe is closer, tighter, not so spread out, and competition was good for business there. Here, we have so many things going on — Bricktown, Midtown, Automobile Alley, Paseo, NW 23 and Classen, and then it jumps to Nichols Hills and on out to Memorial Road. It's huge and spread out, so it's a hard market to read.”
In recent years, Oden has become more involved with the Slow Food movement and the concept of eating locally and with the seasons, which native people have done for centuries.
"I've gotten so interested in the regional foods, the seasonal foods, what the Kerr Center is doing and what the Oklahoma Food Policy Council is doing. We can't count on our food being trucked in over thousands of miles or by air or ship if we don't have gasoline, so it's about going back to local food. It's supporting our farmers and farmers markets, and it just makes so much sense.”
Oden worries she has so much yet to learn about food and projects she wants to be involved with but she'll run out of time. She wants to film more episodes of her PBS series because "there are so many beautiful stories to tell.” She'd like to do more work to help children make healthier food choices, and eventually she'd like to establish a culinary scholarship fund in her son's memory to help American Indian youths interested in culinary careers.
"Ten or 15 years ago, I never dreamt that my life would have taken this path and I'd be doing what I'm doing,” Oden said. "Now, I just want to do more, more, more!”
"That's what I love about what I do, because each and every food I deal with is a story. And I think that runs through all cultures and all ethnicities. There's truly a story with all of the foods people eat. We want to know how these foods became a part of our diet.”
Loretta Barrett Oden
PodcastListen to Loretta Barrett Oden talk about her PBS series, "Seasoned With Spirit: A Native Cook's Journey,” on NewsOK.com.
TV schedule"Seasoned With Spirit: A Native Cook's Journey” will air on OETA-TV beginning at 10 p.m. Monday. Here is the schedule for the five 30-minute episodes: •Monday — "Gulf Coast Originals” and native influences on Cajun cooking. •Aug. 20 — "Cuisine of the Desert Southwest” including a visit with the Tohono O'odham tribe and others in Arizona. •Aug. 27 — "Return of the Buffalo” to the Great Plains. •Sept. 4 — "Bounty of the River's Edge” in the Pacific Northwest. •October (date to be announced) — "Food Upon the Water” and the Minnesota wild rice harvest.