Seventeen-year-old Zachary Alred is an aspiring chef who attends Riverfield Country Day School in west Tulsa and until Saturday had loved Osage meat gravy but didn’t know how to make it.
“I’ve always loved meat gravy and now that I know how to make it, even better,” Alred said.
Alred was just one of 18 young Osages that attended “I Can Cook Indian Food!” A program sponsored by the Osage Nation Counseling Center GiGO program that partnered with the Wah-Zha-Zhi Cultural Center that aims to keep youth drug free.
Research within the program GiGO, which stands for Got it Going On, shows that youth who are involved in a community, have peer and adult support, and who have lots of activities, are less likely to use drugs or hurt themselves, according to a counseling center prepared release.
Meat gravy and frybread
The students, who ranged from the age of six to 17, began the class at 2 p.m. on Saturday and finish at 7 p.m. Their families were invited to stay and participate in which some of them did. The students cooked meat gray and frybread from scratch, learning how to clean the meat (cutting away all the fat), cutting it appropriately for the dish and then preparing it. They learned how to mix frybread dough, judge the right consistency of the dough, roll it out (as is the Osage custom), cut and fry it in hot grease.
Addie Thomas, a teacher at the cultural center, and Paula Stabler, interim director for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families department (TANF), taught the students how to cook the dishes. Both Thomas and Stabler have served on past Drumkeeper committees as cooks.
“We made 10 pounds of frybread, I mixed it up for the first group,” Thomas said. “They got to dig their hands in so they could feel the consistency . . . they rolled it out, cut it, did it all. They did good.”
Stabler said that there is no wrong way to cook meat gravy, since just about every family has their own way of making it.
“Everyone has their own way of cooking and how their family cooks, I have my grandmother who showed me and her grandmother that showed her,” she said. “Those kids were so fun and they were so excited, and they were really cute at dinner. They would pick up a piece of meat and say, ‘I cut this piece, I can tell by looking at it.’”
Stabler brought old photos of Osages from the early 1900’s eating at feasts and showed the class how Osages used to sit cross-legged on blankets and ate on the ground.
“A long time ago we sat just like we did at long tables but there were blankets on the ground. It was like being in a committee dinner or a long house dinner, but because of European influence that’s why we do what we do today,” Stabler said. “How we got to using ‘Indian’ dishes is the French influence; a bowl for a cup, the place settings, and I showed them an Osage place setting and how it mirrored the French.”
Stabler said that all the food prepared is spiritual. During difficult times when someone has died or someone in their family is sick, a family will go to a cook they feel has the spiritual strength and know-how to prepare the food that will help them through their hard time.
“This food is life and its medicine and it’s that spiritual,” Stabler said. “As a cook [for a Drumkeeper’s committee] you have to have those good thoughts when you’re preparing the food.”
How Osages came up with some of the more fattening dishes she attributes to the introduction of commodities, free food given to low-income Native American families by the federal government. A lot of flour and sugar helped to create chicken and dumplings, grape dumplings, meat gravy and frybread.
Osage women don’t do all the cooking, men cooks are vital to making some of the dishes during the Osage In-Lon-Schka dances. &
ldquo;The men cooks are very important,” she said. “We have to have their strength and long arms to stir the pots and kettles on the fire and they maintain that fire perfectly for each dish cooking.”
A recipe and an apron
On Saturday the participants set one long row of tables in an Osage committee dinner fashion.
“The frybread the kids made turned out delicious,” said Michelle Gray, prevention specialist with the counseling center, with a smile as the participants set plates full of frybread on the table.
Alred, who already teaches a Home Economics cooking class at his school and learned about the cooking classes from his father who works at the north Tulsa Million Dollar Elm casino, said that he didn’t think cooking either dish was necessarily hard but cleaning the meat for the meat gravy was tedious work.
“I’m going to show [my fellow students] how to make frybread and maybe later meat gravy,” Alred said. “We try to infuse cultural traditions with the class . . . I’ll keep coming back for the classes.”
Gray is planning to continue the cooking classes, maybe incorporating different cooks every time who specialize in each dish, she said. Each student that attends the class will receive a binder with the recipes they were taught and an apron, in which they will be asked to create a drug-free message the counseling center can use on their Web site.
For more information, please contact Michelle Gray, Prevention Specialist, at (918) 287-5255, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.