Cafe brings Indigenous ‘comfort food’ to elders

Eddie Chuculate

A Minneapolis restaurant is delivering meals to dozens of Native seniors during the pandemic

Eddie Chuculate

Special to Indian Country Today

MINNEAPOLIS  Rabbit stew, venison, walleye, wild rice: These are just some of the ingredients a Minnesota restaurant is using to bring Indigenous “comfort food” to homebound Native elders.

Gatherings Café, an Indigenous-themed and staffed eatery at the Minneapolis American Indian Center, has been delivering meals to seniors in two Native housing complexes in the city since Gov. Tim Walz issued a stay-at-home order in March. The order has since been extended until May 4.

“We didn’t want our elders getting out and trying to get to the store,” said the center's executive director, Mary LaGarde, White Earth Nation.

The order essentially shut down the Twin Cities' restaurants and clubs, except for delivery and takeout. Gatherings Café remained open but was getting only a smattering of phone orders.

That’s when its executive chef, Benjamin Shendo, Jemez Pueblo/Cochiti Pueblo, and LaGarde sprang into action. They secured donations and volunteers, including traveling chef Brian Yazzie, Diné, to bring healthy lunches to dozens of elders five days a week.

rabbit
Vanessa Casillas skins a rabbit at the Gatherings Cafe ahead of a rabbit-stew meal prepared for elders the day after Easter. (Photo by Brian Yazzie)

The day after Easter, the café distributed 100 rabbit-stew meals to seniors at the Little Earth of United Tribes and Bii Di Gain Dash Anwebi Native housing centers.

“Some of these elders, they left the rez years ago,” Shendo said. “They haven’t been able to eat deer or rabbit in quite a while and get excited to eat wild game.”

The program started coming together after LaGarde was contacted by Yazzie, a Dennehotso, Arizona, native who now lives in St. Paul. Yazzie promotes Indigenous cuisine and creates YouTube videos under the moniker Yazzie the Chef.

His business, Intertribal Foodways, was shut down by the pandemic as well.

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Chef Brian Yazzie

“He was looking for ways to help out the center and help out elders any way he could,” LaGarde said.

LaGarde also had been alerted by Sasha Brown, Santee Sioux, of the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota of the availability of a $15,000 grant. So after a flurry of phone calls on a Sunday and a meeting the next day, by midweek the staff at the Gatherings Café, along with volunteers including Yazzie, ramped up full-time daily production, assembling 100 daily meals for lunchtime delivery Monday through Friday. They also give seniors word puzzles and sanitizing spray.

“I miss the elders (coming to the center),” Shendo, 31, said. “So once they said, ‘Cook for the elders,’ I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ They took care of us when we were little. Now we have to take care of them.”

Making comfort food healthy

Yazzie said first they depleted what inventory Gatherings had in the pantry, fridge and freezer, then turned to donations and grant money to obtain fresh vegetables, venison, the Minnesota staples of walleye and wild rice, dried and fresh fruits, sunflower, corn flour, pine nuts, recently tapped maple syrup from the reservations, agave syrup, honey, medicinal teas, and three fat farm-raised rabbits.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, through Shendo, has donated venison.

“It’s all about making comfort food healthy,” said Yazzie. “Seventy percent of the elders have diabetes.”

Yazzie, 33, has been making YouTube videos of the food preparation under the moniker Yazzie the Chef.

“Not for self-promotion or ego, but to show our supporters and contributors what we are doing, and that we are putting their donations to good use,” Yazzie said.

Yazzie also tapped into his chef connections to get donations, resulting in a load of potato hash from the Idaho Potato Commission, which he incorporated into walleye/potato burritos. He also recruited volunteer Vanessa Casillas, Ho-Chunk Nation/Chicana, for baking and desserts.

But Casillas drew a different duty on Easter.

“It was my first time butchering a rabbit,” Casillas, 39, said. “Ben (Shendo) taught me, verbally instructed me. He said it’s like taking off his clothes, push his legs through like you’re taking off his pants. That’s how it was. I kept his hide. He was a big boy, so I might turn it into some mittens or maybe jewelry.”

Casillas and staffer Shamira Caddo, White Mountain Apache, butchered and cleaned the rabbits before they were braised overnight and shredded Monday for the stew.

Other staffers and volunteers helping in the kitchen include assistant chef Linus Yellowhorse, Tohono O’Odham; Ricki Parker, White Earth; Hunter Roberts, Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians; and food deliverers George Martin, Red Lake; George Green, Colette Lawrence, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe; and John Buehlmann, Yankton Sioux.

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Linus Yellowhorse, left, and Executive Chef Benjamin Shendo of Minneapolis American Indian Center’s Gatherings Cafe. (Courtesy Linus Yellowhorse)

“We take care with the food, and put it together with love,” Casillas said. “We don’t get to see or hear the response from the elders, but we know that it’s nourishing and hope that it’s satisfying.”

Little Earth, constructed in 1973, was the first urban housing complex in the nation to have Native preference. Bii Di Gain is a newer 46-unit, 1-bedroom complex strictly for those 62-years-old and older, about a half-mile from both Little Earth and the Minneapolis American Indian Center.

Bii Di Gain, built in 2012, is where Gina Red Cloud, White Earth/Oglala Lakota, 73, had her rabbit stew Monday. It was delivered with a carrot and garbanzo bean salad with parsley, cilantro and wild rice and a housemade carrot cake for dessert. Also in the carton was a colored Easter egg.

“That’s all we ate (wild game) when I was a girl” growing up near Rice Lake, Minnesota, Red Cloud said. “It’s really good and healthy for us.”

She and others in the housing really appreciate what Gatherings Café is doing. “Otherwise, I’d just be going through my fridge trying to find something to cook.”

Yazzie
Vanessa Casillas places shredded carrots into box meals for distribution to elders at the Minneapolis American Indian Center’s Gatherings Cafe. (Photo by Brian Yazzie)

Diane Grooms, Leech Lake, is head of elder support services and housing specialist for the American Indian Community Development Corporation in Minneapolis. She said the food distribution program is much welcome during the pandemic.

“I’m not able to be there like I normally am, and just knowing that they’re getting a lunch Monday through Friday is a big relief to me,” she said. “So many of them take public transportation (for meals), and that’s a chore they don’t have to worry about.”

LaGarde, the Minneapolis American Indian Center director, said the program has funding at least until the stay-at-home order expires, and if it is prolonged, additional funding will be sought. Surprisingly, the most costly items are the to-go containers. There is talk with the St. Paul American Indian Family Center of expanding to assist that city’s senior Native community at Elders Lodge.

“We’re just coming up with ways of supporting our elder communities during this pandemic,” LaGarde said. “Getting them to stay in their houses while protecting their food security and getting them healthy meals.”

To contribute to the program contact LaGarde at 612-879-1750 or mlagarde@maicnet.org.

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Eddie Chuculate, Creek/Cherokee, is a writer based in Minneapolis. @eddie_chuculate; chuculate66@yahoo.com

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