A Native American Chef Grapples With Thanksgiving And Tries To Create An Authentic Tasting Menu

Life Writer
11.21.18 16 Comments

Ralph Ordaz

This is being republished from 2017 because… it’s too good not to.


The pilgrims’ voyage on the Mayflower was a disaster. The self-proclaimed religious refugees hired a bad crew and had little-to-no luck on their way to Virginia. High winds and choppy seas, low supplies, months-long delays, and damage to the boat’s main beams all led to a terrible Atlantic crossing for the 130-odd people on board. By November 11th, they couldn’t take any more and anchored in Cape Cod — far north of their intended destination, the Virginia Colony.

The land they arrived at had recently been ravaged by an imported disease that killed off 95-percent of the local population. The desperate English settlers robbed graves and food stores to sustain themselves. They stayed on their ship through that first winter and severe cold temperatures and constant hunger took its toll. By the time spring rolled around only 53 of the original passengers were left alive.

By March of 1621 the English disembarked and began living in the empty houses of the decimated local village. It wasn’t a great start.


The English luck turned around when they met a Patuxet man named Squanto — who’d already experienced a lifetime’s worth of war, slavery, and worldwide adventure. Squanto and what was left of the Wampanoag bonded with the English. They traded supplies for food and taught the English the best ways to fish the bay and farm the land. By the time harvest season rolled around in autumn, things were looking up for everyone. The Wampanoag had people to work with after their European disease-fueled apocalypse, and the English pilgrims had a real settlement.

Sometime around the end of September, the pilgrims decided they were in good enough shape to host a harvest festival with their newly bonded friends and saviors. Harvest festivals, or Thanksgivings, were common practice already amongst the Spanish, French, and Virginia colonists, so the Plymouth event wasn’t anything new. It took the self-mythologizing American spirit to make it worthy of a holiday.

The 50 remaining English and about 90 Wampanoag gathered for a three day feast, to celebrate the bounty of their collective labor. The meal included wildfowl, shellfish, cod, corn, squash and pumpkin, and five whole deer. The Wampanoag and English had toiled side by side throughout the year, and this was the fruit of that union. They gathered around bonfires, hearths, and tables to celebrate what they’d accomplished together as a diversified unit of people fighting to survive in an uncertain world.



The first ten years of my life I lived in a hippy town at the end of the road, off the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. My identity was never really anything I thought about. I was a boy who watched Transformers and G.I. Joe, just like the neighbors. I went fishing with my dad in the Straits of Juan de Fuca and hunting with my family in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains. Being Indian was never anything I thought about more than to wonder whether I’d ever grow my hair long, like all the warriors I saw in the history books.

Then my dad got a promotion to run a new grocery store in another town in Washington. In 1989, we moved from a very blue county to a very red county in the southern reaches of the state. We traded the Straits of Juan de Fuca for the muddy banks of the Columbia River; from a town that had farmer’s markets and art festivals to a town that didn’t even have a library (outside of the public school). My first week of school was when I first became an “Indian.” Some older white kids encircled me and then body slammed me into the grass while doing a “war dance” around me. Then they all took turns spitting on me before walking away.

My infraction? Refusing to do the pledge of allegiance at the beginning of the day. I made the mistake of telling them as an Indian that we don’t do that.

Over the next three years, I’d try and hide the bruises and bloody lips I’d get on the playground, while groups of white kids gathered around, beat me, and yelled racial epithets. “Dirty Indian.” “Prairie Nigger.” “Salmon Fucker.” The school administration’s solution was usually to put me in detention or Saturday school. The message was clear: I was the problem. Eventually, I gave in. I started fighting kids, throwing the first punch. I figured “if they’re going to blame me for everything, I might as well land a few shots.”

When I wasn’t brawling I retreated into myself. I’d been playing the piano since I was five years old. So I dove deeper into that art. I also started cooking. I’d often watch The Great Chefs on PBS after school, and one day I tried to recreate a recipe I saw on some particularly inspiring episode. It was a bit of a disaster, but I was hooked. Cooking and piano became my dual forms of therapy. I could lose myself in the notes of Rachmaninoff and the flavors of a well made bolognese.

Eventually, things came to a head. A group of boys had been ambushing me after gym class and the principal’s solution was to suggest that we box in the basement of the high school gym. When my parents realized that I had no choice but to keep fighting or spend my life running, they pulled me out of school. I spent the last few years of my education being homeschooled (not the religious kind), playing piano, and cooking every single day.

As I grew older, I delved into the world and history of Indigenous Americans. My dad took me to powwows all over the western USA. I felt a connection to a people who shared my violent and hate-filled history. I grew my hair long and braided it like a good Indian. My parents relocated to another blue county in Washington and life moved on. Until ’92.

Being a “long-haired Indian” attracted attention. Over the course of about one month, I was stopped by the local police ten times. Every time it was the same “Where ya goin’ boy?” “The reservation’s back that way, redskin!” The pat downs and ID checks became routine. I asked my dad about it. His response was always the same, “We’re Indians, that means we live in a police state. Don’t ever forget that. You have to just do what they say, keep your mouth shut. It’s not worth gambling your life.” My dad had spent two-years collectively in jails around America for what we call “walking down the street Indian.”

I cut my hair when I was 14. I was never harassed by the cops again.

I graduated high school when I was 16 and saw two paths in front of me. I was either going to the CIA in New York to study cuisine and become a chef, or I was going to a music school to become a concert pianist. The choice was hard. Food preparation had become a coping mechanism in my life. It was my therapist, my escape, and was slowly becoming part of my identity. Conversely, I could go onto any stage across Washington State, slay some Chopin, and feel like I had a sense of worth that wasn’t attached to my race.

I chose the third way. After a year in music school, I bailed. I transferred to the American University in Washington, DC, and started pursuing a degree in Political Science. My goal was to become an FBI agent and work on Indian Reservations. I wanted to help my people. I was 17 and idealistic. The world I found on the quads of American University in the late ’90s was just as hate-filled and demeaning as what I’d grown up with. People would yell across a party for me to make them a canoe or ask where my wigwam was.

I needed new escapes and found alcohol, cocaine, mushrooms, weed, and sex. When those didn’t work, I decided to go back to what I knew best. I found a job working at a restaurant.

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