Growing up, Christina Martinez’s dinner table looked a lot like many poor Tejanas’ tables: corn or flour tortillas, rice, beans and whatever vegetables were around after working the nearby ag fields. “I grew up fascinated by the things my family did just to survive,” she says, recalling her grandmother macheting and cleaning nopales (cactus) to put into her breakfast.
Martinez, 29, grew up in Texas and worked through the restaurant industry, starting as a server, where she recalls some of its harsh realities. “People say we ‘work for tips,’ but we work to survive,” she says. “It was bittersweet that in this area that is so wealthy, we’re serving people $60 steak and $60 lobster tails – which isn’t even local.”
She eventually landed an apprenticeship at Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, working with Executive Chef Jon Cox, where she would learn the techniques of fine dining, but also local – and native – ingredients.
She doesn’t work in a restaurant now due to Covid-19, but her focus remains on local and Native American food, especially since she found out about two years ago that she is part Comanche. She dove into learning more about the Indigenous peoples who used to predominately populate the Central Coast and started up an Instagram blog (instagram.com/native_girl_chronicles_) where she explores native ingredients. A recent post shows a blue corn fry bread taco topped with bison chili.
Martinez spoke to the Weekly about our evolving narrative of food.
Weekly: How did your apprenticeship change how you saw food?
Martinez: I was part of a group that had high attention to detail in food, like 32 ingredients just for a single dish! I was able to look at food from another side, regardless of the poor side of food that I was familiar with growing up. So I began thinking about how to make local food affordable. How do we celebrate what’s here?
There’s this [mentality] here that “Western” food is better, so you need to have tomatoes from Italy. You need to have lobster. Imported foods can be good, a lot of them are. But how do you justify that when we live in an area that is so abundant? Our seafood is better and the produce grown in the Salinas Valley is great quality.
Working in that environment made me look at what we already had. I know there’s a lot of history here and a lot of people like to talk about the deep roots of Italian or Portuguese food, but this is Native land. That is the food we should be talking about and eating, and it made me want to highlight that Native food and ingredients can just be good as anything at a Michelin-quality restaurant.
There’s a narrative that food is one of those few things that can bring people together and is non-political or unproblematic. How do you feel about that?
Corporations like Tyson or Kellogg’s have made billions feeding the masses of Native Americans that are on the rez. Things like powdered eggs, white flour, coffee and sugar. None of those were our staples, it was forced on us. Food is political and the fact that some people have easier access to healthier foods while others do not is not just coincidence.
What’s difficult about running the blog?
As an Indigenous person, we don’t have records of what we ate as specific groups. It was a lot of oral history and passing traditions down.
A large part of my research, then, is researching indigenous and native ingredients. They didn’t have wheat flour, they had acorn flour. A lot of the indigenous kinds of corn, carrots or squash were drowned out by the hybridized crops. I have a seed bank of indigenous corn and other plants that I collect to make sure I have it for future generations.
How do you integrate Indigenous foods in an everyday diet?
I have two nephews and a niece and all they want to eat are things like noodles and butter, but there’s no nutritional value in that. If we add carrots we planted and that they saw growing from the garden, they are more likely to eat it.
Because we don’t really have recipes of Indigenous food, I adapt. Pancakes, steak and eggs? I made a version that was bison steak and acorn pancakes. I put a little Native twist on things.