Calvosa Olson grew up with a Karuk mother and an Italian father on a homestead in the Hoopa Valley Reservation, near California’s northern edge. She spent a great deal of time during those formative years outside, learning about her plant and animal relatives and eating a combination of commodity foods and the foods her parents grew, gathered, hunted, and bartered for. “Family celebrations and special foods were formative to the way I now show love and connect to my identity as a flourishing matriarch,” she writes in the introduction to Chími Nu’am.
“We are all colonized, our palates are colonized. And it’s kind of impossible to raise children who don’t love Fruit Snacks and other processed foods.”
Although Calvosa Olson moved to the Bay Area, she stayed in touch with the Karuk community and continued to nurture the food traditions with which she was raised. She writes:
“When I had children of my own, I wanted to connect my sons to these family recipes and to being Karuk, as we were living away from Karuk community and traditional lands. By intentionally establishing this connection, I discovered a love for developing new and colorful recipes based on our old family recipes and traditions. Gathering wild foods, sharing, teaching, cooking, and tending have all been an opportunity to grow and heal in the nurturing way I didn’t know I needed.”
Chími Nu’am, which translates to “Let’s eat!” in the Karuk language, is in many ways a record of that process in addition to a compendium of recipes. Organized by season, the book guides its readers in gathering, processing, and cooking with Indigenous foods in hopes of helping us begin to integrate more traditional ingredients into our oversimplified modern palates.
Its recipes range from creative takes on familiar foods—blackberry-braised smoked salmon and elk chili beans—to dishes that will be entirely new to many readers, such as nettle tortillas, miner’s lettuce salad, and spruce-tip syrup. And it includes recipes for nearly a dozen foods made with acorns, including crackers, muffins, crepes, and hand pies, as well as a rustic acorn bread that calls for one cup of acorn flour and two cups of wheat flour.
Calvosa Olson has written a book that will speak to multiple audiences. But whether she’s guiding Indigenous readers to embrace more of their cultural foods or making recommendations for non-Indigenous readers interested in decolonizing their diets in an ethical way (hint: it’s about reciprocity), her voice and philosophy come through clearly on the page.
Civil Eats spoke to Calvosa Olson recently about the book, how she hopes it will reach those very different audiences, and her urgent call to all of us to begin reconnecting to the natural world through food.
How did the recipes in the book take shape, and how did you decide what to include and what to leave out to protect or preserve specific cultural foods and traditions?
I think we can all agree that Native people have lost so much, and so much has been taken, appropriated, and diluted. There are still some cultural foodways that are very similar to the foodways that we have always eaten. And because there are so few, I didn’t feel like it would be appropriate to put those in a book for everybody. Even in the work that I do for my own family, there’s a difference between what is for us in ceremony and what is for us to incorporate in our everyday lives or to maintain our connection to our stewardship.
We are all colonized, our palates are colonized. And it’s kind of impossible to raise children who don’t love Fruit Snacks and other processed foods. But I really wanted them to develop a love for foods that are bitter or fishy—those types of things that we shy away from in Western culture.
“We are all suffering from diet-related diseases. It’s terrible. And it’s so difficult to right that ship for many reasons.”
Different audiences will experience this book differently, but as a non-Indigenous reader, I felt invited in—invited to take part and understand more of the cultural experience behind these foods rather than merely follow recipes. That said, gathering and preparing these ingredients is also going to be a learning curve for some readers.
We all need to develop relationships with our foodways, and our lifeways, and what’s going on around us. Nobody can turn on the news and disagree with that. We need to at least develop some relationships with the rhythms of the world around us right now. So, I want the book to be a warm welcome in to do that.
But also, how you do that is very important. And I love that people are asking: How do I do it ethically? You have this opportunity to go forward intentionally and choose the lens that you want to view this work through, and you can center Indigenous people, and our traditional knowledge and our relationship-building and community-centered lifeways, as you go forward. Which means that you are also building relationship and building community with Indigenous people and we’re all working together.
And how do you interact with Native people who have been deliberately othered in the state, and deliberately made invisible? Growing up in the U.S., we don’t hear from Indigenous people, and that’s what causes a lot of the mystic Indian tropes. And you can see that in the [U.S.] education system, which ignores Native people, and refers to us in the past. But we are still here, and we are safeguarding so much of the world’s biodiversity.
We’re also at the forefront of environmental science; we have incredibly sophisticated people working in our environmental departments. We have climate action plans, we have stewardship plans, we have everything we could possibly need to go forward to rehabilitate the land except power and influence. Even if I only reach one person at a time, and they went about things in a different way and began to understand the value of [traditional ecological knowledge and Indigenous foodways] in a new way, that would be a success.
You recommend that non-Native folks contact their local tribal representatives when they want to learn how to gather acorns and other Indigenous ingredients. What do you say to people who worry that they’d be bothering them in asking for their services?
There are non-Native people out there who run foraging classes and you have the choice to either pay them or you can call or email tribal peoples or tribal entities and say, “Listen, I’m interested in learning more about this. And I can pay non-Native foragers, but I would prefer to put my resources with you. I want to center your knowledge. Do you offer any classes to the public for gathering or know of anybody willing to show us how to gather?”
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Author: Twilight Greenaway