by Jas Keimig
On a recent drippy Sunday afternoon, dozens of Seattleites made their way from the street onto the bouncy soil of the luscious Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands. As people sipped water infused with salad burnet (an herbaceous plant that tastes exactly like cucumber) and hot tea, the congregants settled around sheltered tables outside — they came to eat, listen, and learn.
Every year, Tilth Alliance — one of the organizations that helps run the Urban Farm and Wetlands — puts on 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, specifically highlighting Indigenous chefs and community work in the area ahead of Thanksgiving. After a singing introduction by Jennifer Fuentes (Tejana and Tlingit) and Daniella M Nicholas (Caxcan mixed Mexican Indigenous) of Tilth Alliance, the day’s cook introduced himself — chef and community organizer Jason Vickers of Natoncks Metsu.
Born in his ancestral home of Worcester, Massachusetts, Vickers is of Italian heritage and an enrolled member of the Hassanamisco Band, Nipmuc Nation. His family moved out to Seattle when he was a kid, and he cut his teeth in restaurants around Pike Place, grounded in French country cuisine. After leaving the food industry to do advocacy work, Vickers says he felt “compelled and called back into the kitchen” and to serve the community in a different way, so he started Natoncks Metsu — which means “feeding my cousins” — earlier this year. The business does meal prep and catering, dabbling in cuisines from around the world, but he sees himself as part of a wave of Native chefs in the Seattle area who are uplifting and celebrating their traditional foods.
“We have this growing band of Native chefs from the town working together right now. Chef Jeremy Thunderbird from Native Soul, Olivia Ford of Liiv for Flavor, Chef Andre Laranang, very recently of the Daybreak Star,” Vickers told the crowd that afternoon. “These people do a lot of frontline work, and we’re weaving everybody together. In Lakota they call it Iktómi medicine, right? That spiderweb medicine, we weave all these people together to know each other, to cope, to cross-pollinate and help raise us all up, and it’s working, it’s happening. There’s more Indigenous chefs coming out of the woodwork and into the fold.”
Vickers’ ancestors, along with several Wampanoag bands, including the Mashpee, the Patuxet, the Aquinnah of Gay Head, and the Chappaquiddick, were the ones who taught the English pilgrims how to harvest and live off the land. That first harvest and meal is what we call Thanksgiving. And the food Vickers prepared on that recent wet November afternoon echoed the recipes and ingredients from eastern Massachusetts: vegetable hash, johnnycakes, and game meat stew.
The meal was a vibrant portrait of local food systems and Vickers’ heritage. The potatoes, garlic, bell pepper, and kale in the zesty veggie hash were sourced from Alvarez Organic Farms in Mabton, Washington. Johnnycakes (also called journey cakes, hoe cakes, or Shawnee cakes) are believed to have been served at the first Thanksgiving and are traditionally made primarily using cornmeal. The ones Vickers served were delightfully crunchy on the outside and chewy in the middle with bursts of cranberry throughout, a welcome nod to the food of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. And Vickers bought the deer in the game meat stew — which had a tender, melt-in-your-mouth quality — from the Indigenous-owned family farm Rose Island Farm, in Pierce County.
People ate the food with abandon, hopping up for seconds and putting leftovers in to-go containers for later. Tables of strangers chatted with one another about their lives, the community, and the importance of showing up. “Now that we’ve had this meal, I want you guys to consider that a handshake with me,” Vickers told everyone after they had cleared their plates. And that’s exactly what it felt like.
As people ate their dessert of mole-flavored pumpkin mousse with whip cream, they listened to a panel of Indigenous activists and elders featuring Vickers, Nicholas, midwife Nema Faalowa (Indigenous Mexican and multi-tribal), Puyallup Tribe Cultural Assistant Director Clinton McCloud (Puyallup Tribe of Indians), and community organizer and writer Philip H. Red Eagle (Dakota and Coast Salish). Each spoke about their community, the ways Native culture — whether it was dance, dress, or language — was outright outlawed until the late 20th century, and how they continue their traditions and ancestors through their work.
“If you’re a gardener, something you can think about next time you have your hands in the soil is that you are building a relationship with the ancestors of this land, because their bones, their blood, is in that soil. Every time you tend to it, you are tending to the ancestors of this place,” said Nicholas. “You can do that with prayer. You can do that with goodness in your hearts, and then you are creating a relationship with the Indigenous people here. You can also get to know Indigenous people here who are still alive and not bones or blood in the ground yet. Go to Indigenous events!”
Tilth Alliance’s Daniella Nicholas created a pamphlet about the 402nd anniversary of the first Thanksgiving that includes history as well as resources on how to acknowledge and support the Wampanoag as well as Indigenous food sovereignty. That pamphlet, along with a recipe book of Vickers’ recipes cooked at the Community Meal, is available on Tilth Alliance’s blog.
Jas Keimig is a writer and critic based in Seattle. They previously worked on staff at The Stranger, covering visual art, film, music, and stickers. Their work has also appeared in Crosscut, South Seattle Emerald, i-D, Netflix, and The Ticket. They also co-write Unstreamable for Scarecrow Video, a column and screening series highlighting films you can’t find on streaming services. They won a game show once.
📸 Featured Image, left to right: Daniella M Nicholas, Chef Jason Vickers of Natoncks Metsu, and Jason Tabasan help prepare a meal at Tilth Alliance’s Community Kitchen Meal. (Photo: Jenny Gallucci)
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