Pacific Northwest Magazine / Cover Story
The Joy Of Cooking: Serving tradition, tribal cooks sustain the spirit
A blue haze engulfs the tiny kitchen as Nikki Burfiend fries fresh oysters and geoduck fritters in a skillet popping with fat. Outside, steam from fuming cauldrons full of clams and oysters twines with sweet alder smoke from sockeye filets sizzling on a homemade grill.
Elk roasts pack two ovens to their doors; elk steaks and elk ribs stuff two counter-top cookers.
All around the Skokomish Indian Reservation here on the elbow of Hood Canal's long arm — at home, at the tribal-center kitchen and especially in the packed little kitchen across from the longhouse — a feast is in the making.
This dinner is in celebration of the state Board of Education's move to allow Indians to decide who shall teach their tribal language and culture in public schools. Tribal members from across Washington who worked years for this change will soon arrive to feast.
For in Indian country, if it matters — happy or sad — it's marked with a dinner prepared by tribal cooks working from recipes in their heads, able to measure ingredients between the lines of their palms.
Head cook for this dinner is Burfiend, who spends most days managing the Twin Totems convenience store on the reservation.
Burfiend arrives at the longhouse before 9 this morning, already wearing her apron as she drives up in her white Ford Taurus — the trunk packed with freshly butchered elk and live geoduck straining at rubber bands that keep them shut. Focused, 55 and more than 6 feet tall, she's strong enough to lug a case of the raw elk up the kitchen steps without breaking stride.
Her partner in marshaling tonight's dinner is Harriet Gouley, 67, a registered nurse who will cook and clean crab and make salads for 200 in between filling in at the clinic to give allergy shots.
In all, nearly a dozen tribal members will help cook this feast. It will be a crab-gutting, rib-whacking, gravy-making, fritter-frying marathon for people who have been crack cooks since they were kids.
"It's something you just grow up with, something we do hand to heart," says Anne Pavel, 72, as she peels pound after pound of potatoes. "It didn't seem like there was any beginning; you just grow up with it. I started when I was little, setting up the table and putting out the spoons and the forks, when I was 5 or 6 years old."
Though not in the kitchen tonight, Rena Pulsifer, 59, has been cooking since she was a kid, too. "By the time I was 12 or 13 I could cook a full-course meal — and that was on a woodstove."
A Chehalis Indian living at Skokomish, Pulsifer has cooked many a feast for the Shaker Church on the reservation, keeping a candle lit as she works. "It's God's light, to bless the work and the food as it is being prepared."
While from different religions and families, traditions and tribes, the cooks on the reservation have this in common: Whether they cook for a traditional longhouse ceremony, the Shaker Church or a community dinner, their service is a high honor. At this dinner, as is customary, the cooks will be the first to be thanked.
And no cook works alone: "We all have our own little crew," Pulsifer says. "People you know can work as hard as you."
Asked by the tribe or a family to cook for a feast, a cook will hardly ever refuse. "It's a way of giving," says Pulsifer. "It's not something you learn in a book.
"We were taught, when cooking, to go in there with happy thoughts because it will go into the food, and the food is medicine for those who eat it.
"I see this at every reservation I go to: The dinners are when everyone comes together. Whatever family feud that might be going on, it's put away for that day. Our community dinners are when they put away their hurt feelings, their bitterness. I keep telling myself one of these days we'll forget to pick them back up."
MUSCLING A POT of homemade geoduck chowder from her grandmother's recipe into the crowded kitchen, LaMetta LaClair, 52, says each cook, no matter how he or she fits into this dinner, plays an important spiritual role. "You have to think of all the kitchens that are part of this celebration and know that whoever is cooking, in the big picture, our hearts have to be one. That is how we are trained.
"What could be better, to grind the clams, cook the bacon, peel the onions while tears come down your eyes, when we are doing it, it's not for us. We don't know whose spirit has been so hungry for clam chowder, for geoduck chowder, how good it makes them feel. There are no words for that, and when there are, it's to thank the Creator. He didn't give us this rich culture not to share it.
"I think about how wealthy we are, not in money, but in the love that we have in people. We have a lot of obstacles, but the greatest gift we have is one another."
Outside, Gordon Nielsen, tending the grill, samples a chunk of salmon. "This," he says, lifting the scarlet meat to his mouth, "is our wealth.
"The way we believe is that when you cook for the people, how you cook, that makes a difference in how the people live. You are not just filling the bellies, but filling the spirit. You feed their spirit, you feed their hearts. That's what the joy of cooking is to me, is to be able to care for the people."
While the cooks' work has a spiritual purpose, it's no romantic idyll. Blood and sweat are definitely required. So is knowing how to make do with the tools at hand. A hatchet, it turns out, is just right for hacking apart elk ribs before braising. A fuel-oil tank cut in half makes a great barbecue grill. Leaving the kitchen door open makes a fine exhaust fan. A cinderblock is a great hot plate — it neither burns the hand nor sticks to the dish. And cooking more than 200 pounds of Dungeness crab is best done in big kettles, fired by propane, outside on the grass.
It's hard work, and not just for the cooks. Preparation for this winter feast began at least a week in advance. Tribal members caught crabs in Hood Canal, gathered clams and oysters, shot and butchered a 350-pound elk.
As the dinner hour nears, the live crabs are rousted from tanks in a fisherman's garage and hauled to the longhouse, pointy claws poking through the drainage holes of their container. Destiny awaits them in the person of Gouley, standing at the boiling pot.
Gouley, her brother, Tom, and his daughter, Margie, lift, boil, rinse and clean the crabs, icing them down in coolers as they go. After that, there are 50 dozen oysters and 80 pounds of clams to clean and steam.
By 6 p.m., it's crunch time with guests arriving in an hour. This is where community cooks show their stuff: knowing exactly how long it takes to boil 50 pounds of potatoes; roast 40 pounds of meat; barbecue 10 or 15 salmon, and make sure everything is done almost at the same time.
"This is the serious stuff," says Burfiend. Even with the pressure on, she remains unflappable. "I've been cooking with my grandma since I was a teenager. There's nothing to worry about. It all comes together. If you are upset, if you have any anxiety, you get it done before the food. You come in with a good heart, so the food comes out good."
Burfiend whips the lids off pots, checks her stew, her elk steaks and ribs and roasts, starts thickening the gravy and breading and frying more than two gallons of fresh oysters.
Margie Gouley starts frying geoduck fritters alongside Burfiend as more cooks begin arriving with special dishes, from homemade bread to elk meatballs.
Burfiend whacks with a chef's knife at 25 smoked-sockeye-salmon filets — a last-minute surprise gift from the Nooksack tribe.
Her thumb cramps just as tribal elder Sarah Peterson from the Similkameen tribe in Canada, snowy-haired and serene, arrives bearing a sack of roots and berries.
She wants a big pot and a burner.
She's an elder, she's a guest, it's a gift of Indian food, and her pot is soon bubbling with serviceberry and bitterroot, sugar and flour.
It's not yet dinnertime and already, the guests are starting to arrive: From Makah and Colville, Yakama, and Lower Elwha. Jamestown, Kalispel, Chehalis, Squaxin Island, Lummi and Tulalip, Muckleshoot, Puyallup, Quileute, Quinault and Spokane. Nineteen tribes will feast tonight.
ANY NIGHT OF the year, on any reservation in Washington, a ceremonial or community dinner may be under way. Any reason will do to "spread the table," as giving a dinner is called, from coming into a little money to getting over an illness; announcing an engagement or mourning a death.
Like a force of nature, profound, complex, entirely self-contained and timeless, this tradition survived the spiritual clear-cutting of U.S. government policy for more than 100 years. Even as the federal government outlawed tribal languages, religion and potlatches, the dinners continued, under the guise of wedding feasts, funeral ceremonies and such.
"They didn't disallow our observance of food or the ritual of food, because that wasn't considered dangerous," says Bruce Miller, a Skokomish spiritual and cultural leader. "They didn't consider our eating styles to be part of our religion, to be part of our philosophy, to be part of our self-identity."
An estimated 8,000 people feasted at the longhouse alone last year, Miller says.
Some Skokomish tribal members also gather every fall to recognize the importance of their aboriginal foods and pray for them. "We bless all the foods that the Great Spirit has given to us, and that doesn't include the foods that we can buy at the supermarket," Miller says.
They give thanks first for water. "We acknowledge that water is the root of all life," he explains. Next come the salmon: "To us the salmon is a holy food, it's considered one of the first foods given to our aboriginal people here in Puget Sound."
Then, the game: deer, elk and the mountain goat, "all the grass-eating, hooved ones." After that, the shellfish: crabs, shrimp, clams and oysters. Next the waterfowl, ducks and geese; then the roots — camas most of all — and finally the berries, "of which the huckleberry is the lord of all berries."
A traditional dinner may be planned as much as a year in advance, so the host will have time to gather each food in its season. How the food is prepared and served is as important as the food itself. The food is set out in the order of its blessing. Orderliness is important to signal a sense of calm and harmony — within each cook and among them. So is serving the food with a generous spirit, Miller says.
"It is an integral part of the hospitality of the aboriginal people of this land. As I think back to the time of the Pilgrims, the first things the colonialists were offered by the Indians was food. It says we will share survival with you. Food represented the open arm of friendship.
"Our Puget Salish aboriginal indigenous food remains sacred to us."
BUILT BY MILLER'S family and named for his mother, the House of Sle'nay is the setting for tonight's dinner. A simple A-frame with weathered cedar siding and a metal roof, the longhouse is a spiritual home for traditional gatherings. Inside, tiered cedar risers line the two long walls; a woodstove blazes at either end.
It smells good in here, of cedar, wood smoke and the earthen floor. Mixed with sand from the beach, the earth floor is raked smooth daily, so it is fresh and unmarked before each use.
Bunches of dried roots hang atop each entry to purify the feelings of those who pass through. Cedar branches in the four corners represent eternal life of the soul, and the teachings of the cedar: generosity, hospitality, flexibility and patience.
The skulls of elks hang from the rafters, honoring the game animals. Eagle feathers hang from the antlers, honoring the birds. Paintings along two walls signify the teachings of the wolf: the importance of order; of hierarchy; of unity; and that only the strong survive.
"We are still here," says guest Theron Parker, the Makah tribal member who in 1999 harpooned his tribe's first gray whale in 70 years. "Our way is not in the past. It's never really been dead. It's just tucked away.
"We are still here and getting stronger every day."
As night falls, the guests begin to arrive to the welcoming fires of the longhouse, amid drumming and singing by their Skokomish hosts. No mealy Muzak here.
Everyone eyes the spread of food on their way in.
It takes tables laid end to end to hold it all: Elk meatballs. Slices of roast elk. Baked beans. Elk stew with gravy. Pan-sautéed elk steaks. Braised elk ribs. Boiled red potatoes. Potato salad. Green salad with tiny shrimp. Geoduck chowder. Geoduck fritters. Fried oysters. Clam chowder. Barbecued salmon. Smoked salmon. Dungeness crab. Steamed clams and oysters. Fry bread. Flat bread. And atop each woodstove, a pot of wild cranberry-leaf tea — swamp tea, to those who know it.
Across the room is the dessert table: Peterson's late-arriving roots and berries cooked to a sweet and tangy sauce, and cakes, one frosted with Cool Whip and pineapple.
Elders and honored guests are served first at tables in the center of the room. Teens ferry the plates of food dished up and passed to them by Burfiend and Gouley. More guests wait on the packed cedar risers, eager to line up at those loaded tables. They serve themselves until their paper plates buckle.
It's the moment these cooks have worked for, all of them, as their guests bend to the feast. Their plates are full, the fires blazing, the singers belting it out, the doors and windows thrown open to the night sky.
After everyone is served, after bulging Ziploc bags of extra crab, clams and oysters are distributed to the elders (good cooks always make more than enough), after 12 hours on their feet, Gouley and Burfiend finally sit down.