When Taelor Barton was younger, being one-quarter Cherokee wasn’t something she gave much thought.
She acknowledged she was different, but it wasn’t enough to make her embrace her Native American background or understand what it really meant.
“This needs to be remembered because if it’s not, it will go extinct one of these days,” she said. “We have such a beautiful, rich history. Not too many other places have ties like this. It doesn’t get represented enough.”
It wasn’t until last March, when her grandmother Edith Knight died, that Barton started to make an effort to trace her Cherokee roots and start practicing what her grandmother taught her. Barton started to go through her grandmother’s cookbooks and came across one published out of North Carolina in 1951 titled “Cherokee Cooklore.”
As a graduate from the OSU Institute of Technology’s School of Culinary Arts program in Okmulgee, Barton will use her skills to create a menu inspired by her Native American roots that she’ll prepare at The Vault, where she is the executive chef, for a special multicourse dinner in April.
“It’s a challenge to make some of them a sexier dish. So some of them, it’s like, this is what it is,” she said.
Cooking was simpler in its earlier iterations, she explained. Every ingredient was used in its entirety and each step was executed deliberately. Food was served as a means to sustain oneself, so there was little room for extras like garnish or special presentations. Dishes were also made based on the season, so many of the ingredients were foraged, including nuts and spring onions.
Barton cherishes the memories she has of her grandmother and learning how to cook at her side using traditional techniques and ingredients. Knight would even assign the children in the family to forage in nearby fields and trails for huckleberries to make dessert.
“It was a whole process to go out and forage ... I felt so validated that I helped,” Barton recalled.
To pay homage to her Cherokee roots, Barton said she hopes to take advantage of the spring bounty by foraging for as many of the menu’s ingredients as she can. She expects there will be plenty of spring onions sprouting up, which are abundant in the area.
For the special dinner, Barton said she hopes to combine the traditional recipes with some modern-day ingredients and techniques to add more depth to the dishes. There wasn’t as wide a range of ingredients available then as there are now with the help from online shopping, farmers markets and grocery stores.
Recipes including bean cakes, nut soups and other vegetable-heavy dishes are the ones she said she hopes to bring to the menu because they are special to her. Barton’s grandfather, who lives in Stilwell, is usually the first to criticize any traditional dish that’s not made properly. So it’s a good place to start to know if she’s making the dishes right. Barton’s mom, Lesa Lynn Nichols, is also helping to nudge the dinner in the proper direction.
“This is my form of carrying on the traditions over the years. This is my contribution to enriching our cultural identity and blending the two together,” Barton said.
As she prepares for the dinner, building and editing the menu, she realizes there are a lot of questions she didn’t get a chance to ask her grandmother. Barton came up with the idea for the dinner last Thanksgiving. It’s been in the works ever since.
“She would be curious to know what I was doing. She was always very supportive of my professional cooking endeavors,” Barton said of her grandmother. “I wish I could pick her brain about it.”
When you were learning how to cook, what was the one dish that you hated/disliked cooking?
I was so hungry for fried rice when I was about 13; had little or no prior experience with properly stir frying rice and the finished product was a greasy blob of gummy rice that was quite a chore to eat. Sorry sis, for making you my guinea pig that time.
If you could have brunch with any chef, past or present, who would it be?
I’m going to keep it real and local here. I love chef Teri Fermo’s cooking so much. One of the highlights of my Cherry Street Farmers Market visits. I imagine she and I would try to order the same unique wacky brunch special, decide who would get the second best choice, then have deep philosophical discussions on food science/food art/then maybe even food politics over some pomegranate-orange mimosas.
What is your favorite genre of books to read, and what was the last book you read from start to finish?
On paper, historical nonfiction. Guiltily though, I am a sucker for original graphic novels. Locke & Key, a series written by Stephen King’s son Joe Hill, is a longtime fave that I have re-read time and time again.
Spring seems to be sticking around, describe your ideal way to spend a day off from work with perfect weather.
Hopping in the Prius, hightailing it to Skiatook Lake and sitting down with my feet in the water and having long talks with my homies.
Where is your favorite place to go foraging for wild ingredients?
This is by far the easiest question — All my life, I have received so much joy and serenity picking wild onions, huckleberries, poke and nuts from the land my grandpa owns in eastern Oklahoma near Stilwell. It’s a tradition.