Tilth Alliance’s take on local cuisine by Jason Vickers brought local food to the table

by Jas Keimig

On a recent drizzly Sunday afternoon, dozens of Seattleites made their way from the street to the bouncy soil of Rainier Beach’s lush urban farm and wetlands. As people sipped water infused with burnet lettuce (a herb that tastes just like cucumber) and hot tea, worshipers settled around sheltered tables outside—they came to eat, listen, and learn.

Each year, the Tilth Alliance—one of the organizations that help manage the Urban Farm and Wetlands—hosts a series of Community Kitchen Meal events, inviting the local community to eat food and learn about the food cultures of South Seattle. That afternoon was an Indigenous takeover that specifically highlights local chefs and community service in the area leading up to Thanksgiving. After a singing introduction by Jennifer Fuentes (Tejana and Tlingit) and Daniela M Nicolas (Caxcan Mixed Mexican Indigenous) of Tilth Alliance, the chef of the day was introduced – chef and community organizer Jason Vickers of Natoncks Metsu.

Left to right: Daniella M. Nichols, Clinton McCloud, Jason Vickers, Philip H. Red Eagle, Nema Faaloa, and Jennifer Fuentes made the meal possible. (Photo courtesy of Tilth Alliance.)

Born in his ancestral home of Worcester, Massachusetts, Vickers is of Italian descent and a member of the Hassanamisco Band, Nipmuc Nation. His family moved to Seattle when he was a child, and he cut his teeth at restaurants around Pike Place based on French country cuisine. After leaving the food industry to work in advocacy, Vickers says he felt “compelled and called to get back into the kitchen” and serve the community in a different way, so he started Natoncks Metsu – which means “ feeding my cousins’ – earlier this year. The business is in the business of food preparation and catering, dealing with cuisines from around the world, but he sees himself as part of a wave of local chefs in the Seattle area who are uplifting and celebrating their traditional foods.

The hungry crowd is ready to eat! (Photo courtesy of Tilth Alliance.)

“We have this growing group of local chefs from the city working together right now. Chef Jeremy Thunderbird from Native Soul, Olivia Ford from Liiv for Flavor, Chef Andre Larranang, most recently from Daybreak Star,” Vickers told the crowd that afternoon. “These people are doing a lot of work on the front lines and we’re weaving it all together. In Lakota, they call it Iktómi medicine, right? This cobweb medicine, we weave all these people together to know each other, to get along, to cross-pollinate and help raise all of us, and it works, it happens. There are more local chefs coming out of the woodwork and into the fold.”

Vickers’ ancestors, along with several Wampanoag bands, including the Mashpee, Patuxet, Aquinnah of Gay Head, and Chappaquiddick, were the ones who taught the English Pilgrims how to harvest and live off the land. This first harvest and eating is what we call Thanksgiving. And the food Vickers prepared on that recent wet November afternoon echoed the recipes and ingredients of eastern Massachusetts: vegetable hash, pastries, and venison stew.

The food was a vivid portrait of local food systems and Vickers’ heritage. The potatoes, garlic, bell pepper and kale in the spicy vegetable hash are sourced from Alvarez Organic Farms in Mabton, Washington. Johnnycakes (also called Journey Cakes, Hoe Cakes, or Shawnee Cakes) are believed to have been served on the first Thanksgiving and are traditionally made primarily with cornmeal. The ones Vickers served were delightfully crispy on the outside and chewy in the middle with bursts of cranberry throughout, a welcome nod to Rhode Island and Massachusetts food. And Vickers bought the deer in the venison stew — which had a tender, melt-in-the-mouth quality — from the family’s indigenously owned Rose Island Farm in Pierce County.

Stew, vegetarian hash and cakes made up this delicious meal. (Photo: Jas Keimig)

People ate the food with abandon, jumping up for seconds and putting the leftovers in takeout containers for later. Masses of strangers talked to each other about their lives, community, and the importance of showing up. “Now that we’ve eaten, I want you to consider this a handshake with me,” Vickers told everyone after they cleared their plates. And that’s exactly what it felt like.

As people ate their dessert of mole-scented pumpkin mousse and whipped cream, they listened to a panel of local activists and elders that included Vickers, Nicholas, midwife Nema Faaloa (Native Mexican and multi-tribal), Puyallup Tribal Assistant Cultural Director Clinton McCloud (Tribe of the Puyallup Indians) and community organizer and writer Philip H. Red Eagle (Dakota and Coast Salish). Each talks about their community, the ways in which local culture – whether it be dance, clothing or language – was completely banned until the end of the 20th century, and how they carry on their traditions and ancestors through their work.

“If you’re a gardener, one thing you can think about the next time you’re stirring the soil is that you’re building a connection with the ancestors of this land, because their bones, their blood, is in this soil. Every time you take care of it, you are taking care of the ancestors of that place,” Nicholas said. “You can do that with prayer. You can do this with kindness in your hearts and then you create a connection with the local population here. You can also meet the local people here who are still alive and still have no bones or blood in the ground. Go to local events!”

Daniella Nicholas of the Tilth Alliance has created a brochure for the 402nd anniversary of the first Thanksgiving that includes history as well as resources on how to recognize and support the Wampanoag and Indigenous food sovereignty. This booklet, along with a book of Vickers recipes prepared at Community Meal, is available on the Tilth Alliance blog.

Keimig’s suit is a writer and critic based in Seattle. They previously staffed The Stranger, covering visual art, film, music and stickers. Their work has also appeared in Crosscut, South Seattle Emerald, iD, Netflix, and The Ticket. They also co-author Unstreamable for Scarecrow Video, a column and series of screenings highlighting films you can’t find on streaming services. They won a show once.

📸 Featured image, left to right: Daniela M Nicolas, Chef Jason Vickers of Natoncks Metsu and Jason Tabasan help prepare food at Tilth Alliance’s Community Kitchen Meal. (Photo: Jenny Gallucci)

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