First Foods Celebration features traditional foods with contemporary style

07.12.2019 Danielle Frost Culture, Events
Tribal member Jade Unger seasons salmon, some of which was caught at Willamette Falls, during the First Foods Celebration held Saturday, June 29, at achaf-hammi. (Photo by Timothy J.Gonzalez/Smoke Signals)

By Danielle Frost

Smoke Signals staff writer

A child gazed upon the array of choices at the First Foods Celebration and made a quick decision: The fish heads were an emphatic “no,” but the fresh salmon a definite “yes.”

“I’d like the yummy part, please,” he said.

Being exposed to new foods, even if there was some hesitancy to try all of them, is a big part of Grand Ronde’s annual celebration of Native foods. Held in the cooking area outside Tribal plankhouse achaf-hammi on Saturday, June 29, conversation, cooking and laughter were in abundance.

“I loved it,” Culture Committee Chair Francene Ambrose said. “We had so many new dishes and new attendees.”

Ambrose said that events featuring food and fun are easy ways to connect people in a nonintimidating environment. She cooked venison chili and bear spaghetti, and also brought canned salmon and chokecherries to share. Chokecherries have a bitter aftertaste, but help to cleanse the palate after heavy meals, she said.

Although salmon is always a popular choice, venison stew, venison meatloaf, fry bread sliders, elk chili, walnut flour chocolate chip cookies and spaghetti with bear meatballs were also top choices among attendees.

The celebration of First Foods aims to build a connection between the community and the Tribe’s traditional foods and medicines, as well as bridge the gap between the grocery store and where the food comes from, and tell youth the story behind the food and why it is important to continue traditions.

Approximately 100 Tribal members, friends and community members attended the celebration. Tribal Council Vice Chair Chris Mercier, Secretary Jon A. George and Tribal Council members Denise Harvey, Kathleen George and Michael Langley served food to hungry attendees.

“I really love showcasing our Native foods,” Jon A. George, who serves as council liaison to the committee, said. “And the celebration of people coming together.”

His contribution to First Foods included elk heart, clam chowder and a blackberry cobbler.

“The clam chowder is definitely my favorite,” he said. “I cooked it all day for this.”

Tribal fisherman Jade Unger prepared wild salmon that he had caught from the fishing platform at Willamette Falls, while Culture Committee members Ambrose, Eric Bernando, Joanna Brisbois, Logan Kneeland, Shayla Murphy, Sarah Ross and Faye Smith prepared various meat dishes, soups, stews and salads, with the help of Elder advisers Debi Anderson and Tracie Meyer.

Anderson made the venison and barley soup.

“There are some really good feelings at the plankhouse today,” she said. “It’s a fabulous day of sharing our culture.”

Tribal Cultural Advisor Bobby Mercier led a drum song to begin the event, assisted by Unger, Jon A. George, Tribal member Brian Krehbiel, Kathleen George and Ross.

Jon A. George welcomed everyone to the plankhouse.

“What a wonderful group of people we have here today and a wonderful group of Tribal members and Elders to work with,” he said. “This is a great committee.”

George recognized 95-year-old Elder and key Restoration figure Kathryn Harrison, who came to the plankhouse for the celebration.

“We are so blessed,” he said.

After a giveaway of ribbon shirts and skirts to Culture Committee members, lunch began with deer jerky, berries and nuts, followed by tables laden with food.

Tribal youth Tasina Bluehorse, 12, and Mabel Brisbois, 16, helped serve wild grains, bear meatballs and venison meatloaf. Bluehorse also helped Smith prepare the fry bread.

“Helping out with cooking the food is my favorite,” she said.

“I like getting to see the reaction on people’s faces when they try new things,” Brisbois said. “The biscuit root is my favorite. It’s my candy.”

Ross prepared a variety of teas for the First Foods medicine table. Each had a singular purpose, from helping with relaxation to combating seasonal allergies.

“It’s impossible to say which one is my favorite because they all have roles to play,” she said. “Each plant has its own life cycle and with climate change, you really need to learn to listen to them.”

After lunch, those in attendance headed to the plankhouse to hear Ross recite a story and give a demonstration of how to traditionally cook acorn soup.

“It warms my heart to see everyone making the time to come and learn about our foods,” she said.

The soup was cooked over a fire in the plankhouse using hot stones and a variety of cooking utensils.

“There is lots of training and planning that goes into this,” Ross said.

Holding up a spruce root basket she had been gifted, Ross added, “The most important piece is the cooking basket. These can take years to create.”