Since it opened in the fall of 2018, Berkeley’s Cafe Ohlone has been the Bay Area’s only restaurant dedicated to preserving and spotlighting the traditional foods of the Ohlones, the native people indigenous to Northern California. In fact, it’s the only Ohlone restaurant in the world — a one-of-a-kind place where dinner guests feast on dishes like boiled quail eggs, chia seed bread, venison patties, and acorn soup, all made exclusively with pre-colonial ingredients. It’s as much a cultural and educational institution as it is a restaurant, and founders Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino are activists and researchers as much as they are chefs.
So, when COVID-19 hit the Bay Area, Medina and Trevino didn’t see it as a new or unprecedented disaster. They thought instead of this country’s long colonialist history of weaponizing the spread of disease to native peoples, and about what Trevino calls the “real existential threats” the Ohlone people have faced here in the Bay Area over the past 250 years with the introduction of the measles, smallpox, and influenza in the Spanish missions — diseases that, for instance, helped wipe out 90 percent of the Ohlone people in the Carmel area, where Trevino’s ancestors lived.
For Medina and Trevino, then, the threat of a new virus didn’t just represent a threat to their ability to do business — it posed a threat to the very survival of their community. “It means that we have an understanding of diseases that might be different from other people out there,” Medina says.
That long view of history is part of the reason why Medina and Trevino decided early on to close Cafe Ohlone, several days before the shelter-in-place order shut down dining rooms all over the Bay Area. And it’s why they never really considered pivoting to takeout the way that so many other restaurants have — not given the small size of the cafe space, on the back patio of a bookstore, and the fact that many of their customers are quite elderly. “We started to think about our grandparents, and also about this shared responsibility that we have to look after the collective, not just ourselves,” Medina says.
But Medina and Trevino say looking at the Ohlones’ painful history with disease has also affirmed their belief in their people’s resilience and ability to survive, if they take the proper precautions. “It gives us the knowledge that this will pass. And we will be okay,” Medina says. He and Trevino considered the written records of what their ancestors did in the face of infectious diseases that had been introduced by colonizers — how they would leave the urban centers and turn inward to protect their own communities. “You know, they call it ‘social distancing’ now, but our people knew how infectious diseases worked,” Trevino says. “They knew how if we separate ourselves, we can cut it off at the pass.”
As Medina puts it, “We don’t have a technical linguistic term [in the Ohlone language] for ‘flattening the curve.’ But that’s what we’re doing.”
The partners have sent the past several weeks tending to their own community, particularly their elders and other vulnerable people, instead of running the restaurant — though that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped cooking. A couple of weeks ago, Medino and Trevino went out into the marshes of the San Lorenzo bayshore, near where much of the East Bay Ohlone community lives, to gather rose hips that they used to make a traditional tea — known for its remarkably high vitamin C content — that the elders in their community are fond of. They’ve also been making teas from stinging nettles (for respiratory health) and sage (for its calming effect), and cooking with the acorn flour that they’ve stored up, made from acorns they gathered around the Bay. “All these foods, they’re comforting,” Medina says. “In a time of a lot of chaos, they just make us feel good.”
In some ways, the stakes for a restaurant like Cafe Ohlone during the coronavirus shutdown are even greater than for your average restaurant. As Medina points out, it is quite literally the only place in the world where people can experience this food, outside of being invited into an Ohlone family’s home. But he stresses that they plan to exercise an abundance of caution to make sure it’s really safe to reopen the restaurant. That might mean that they host a series of webinars on Ohlone food and culture before properly opening their doors — or, perhaps, limiting the number of dinner guests but broadcasting the events to the general public. It might mean that they’re only open on the weekend to start. Still, Medina says, “No matter what, Cafe Ohlone is going to move forward.”
Indeed, Medina and Trevino have already begun to think about ways they can reach out to the broader public — to continue their life’s work of showcasing Ohlone culture and cuisine as not just an artifact of history but a living, breathing thing. In late March, as Bay Area residents settled in for what already felt like an interminable period of social isolation, Medina and Trevino took to Instagram to share a classical Ohlone oration that they’d written in Chochenyo, one of the Ohlone languages — “a first Chochenyo language oration to COVID-19.” It’s a call to action but also a message of hope for these uncertain times: “Now we must stay apart. / So that our elders are safe / So that our young ones are safe / So that those who are vulnerable are safe, too.”
“Numma, ‘ewweh ṭuuxi huyyuwiš,” the piece ends in the original Chochenyo. “Truthfully, a brighter day is ahead.”