Loretta Barrett Oden's spirited journey on PBS

By Sharon Dowell Published: August 8, 2007

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

Related Audio

Listen 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.

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