Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

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As in other areas, Oklahoma's foodways are the product of the state's special history and its location at the convergence of geographic regions. The state's American Indian population is large and heterogeneous, composed of peoples whose ancestors have resided in the state since time immemorial and others who were forced to relocate there from homelands as diverse as New York and California. African American settlement has followed two paths. Many African Americans came to Indian Territory in the company of the Indian nations of the Southeast. Whether slaves or free citizens, these populations lived in two worlds at once, participating in their own communities and as functioning members of American Indian societies. A second wave of African American settlement began after the Civil War and continued into the early twentieth century. Both the Southeastern Indian peoples and the African Americans who settled in Oklahoma possessed food habits rooted in the Deep South of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Two Creek women making sofky

Then and there, Africans, Natives, and Europeans interacted in a complex frontier society where all three contributed features of what is today recognized as "southern" foodways. Europeans contributed items such as salt pork and flour breads to this tradition, while Africans introduced old-world dishes such as fried chicken, sweet potatoes, and okra. At the base of this new cuisine were staples long domesticated by American Indians prior to 1492 beans, squash, and most importantly, corn in a myriad of forms.

Preparing the feast at the Creek Stomp Dance, September 6, 1924

Not long after southerners of Native and African heritage began arriving in present-day Oklahoma, European Americans from the region followed them, once again crowding in on those whom they had displaced. The result of these mixings and migrations is the presence, in Oklahoma, of southern foodways, often with a highly Southeastern Indian quality. Today, when Southeastern Indian communities hold "wild onion dinners" to raise funds for their community organizations, they typically attract their non-Indian neighbors in great numbers. Diners, whatever their heritage, share a love of the foods highlighted in such events beans, greens, grape dumplings, fried pork, corn soup, cabbage, potato salad, and other dishes found throughout the south. Non-Indian Oklahomans of southern origin are also more likely than their fellows from elsewhere to understand and appreciate such Southeastern Indian dishes as sofkee and kunuhchee (a drink made from pounded hickory nuts).

While eastern Oklahoma's traditional tastes are southern, movement west across the state brings increasing influence from Anglo traditions of the Midwest and Great Plains that have more diffuse origins. Plains Indian peoples continue to appreciate the foods of their ancestors, but unlike Native easterners, these are unlikely to be known by non-Natives. The importance of ranching and its complex mixture of old Anglo and Hispanic customs have left an impact on Oklahoma foodways, most obviously in the prominence of beef. Chicken fried steak, a statewide favorite, stands as a symbol of Oklahoma's dietary heritage. The method of cooking is southern, ultimately African, in origin, while the food itself is a product of Oklahoma's western heritage. Not all foods loved by Oklahomans are self-conscious symbols, though. Few Oklahomans recognize the histories of much that they eat. The mid-twentieth century home economics movement taught Oklahomans to appreciate new foods that now seem old fashioned. Jell-O salads, widely popular on the Great Plains, provide one example.

Cherokee Night Hawk Society (Freedmen) feast, 1920s

As the twentieth century progressed, this complex historic, ethnic, and geographic picture began to be enriched further through new waves of immigration. Unlike the settlement pattern adopted by their predecessors, this more recent migration to Oklahoma has an urban focus. Among these new immigrants are people of Middle Eastern backgrounds who have introduced their ethnic foodways to Tulsa, where Lebanese falafel restaurants compete for customers who are dining out more often. In Oklahoma City a large urban district is home to a variety of communities of Southeast Asian origin. Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thai restaurants and grocery stores serve patrons from these communities and a broader clientele passionate about food and cosmopolitan in its tastes. Throughout the state, Mexican food and foodways have become pervasive as the state's Mexican American population grows rapidly. These trends and Oklahoma's embracing of varied ethnic foodways reflect national patterns, but they would have surprised the nineteenth century migrants African, Native, and European who settled Indian and Oklahoma territories and gave Oklahoma its culinary identity. The lesson to be learned from this history of eating is that change is the only constant in the ways Oklahomans eat, despite the loyalty they feel towards their favorite dishes and their grandmothers' recipes.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Jack D. Baker, comp., and Jack Gregory and Rennard Strickland, eds., Cherokee Cookbook (Fayetteville, Ark.: Indian Heritage Association, 1968). Robert T. Hall, "Savoring Africa in the New World," in Seeds of Change: A Quincentennial Commemoration, ed. Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991). Deb Bennett and Robert S. Hoffman, "Ranching in the New World," in Seeds of Change: A Quincentennial Commemoration, ed. Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991). Jason Baird Jackson, "Architecture and Hospitality: Ceremonial Ground Camps and Foodways of the Yuchi Indians," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 76 (Summer 1998). Joe Gray Taylor, "Foodways," in Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, ed. Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris (Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 1989). Gerald Wofford, "Got Kun-nah-chee?" Oklahoma Indian Times 6 (2000).

Jason Baird Jackson

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