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Loretta Barrett Oden's spirited journey on PBS

By Sharon Dowell Published: August 8, 2007
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.

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Listen to Loretta Barrett Oden talk about her PBS series, "Seasoned With Spirit: A Native Cook's Journey,” on

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.


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