Home Food Cherokee Chef Bradley Dry Grew Up Cooking Appalachian Food—in Oklahoma

Cherokee Chef Bradley Dry Grew Up Cooking Appalachian Food—in Oklahoma

by TopBusinessView

Mildred Raper, Dry’s grandma, grew up in Twin Oaks on land assigned to their family when the US government divided up Cherokee Nation’s treaty territory to make way for white settlers. Dry grew up with his mom in the next town over—called Little Kansas—but he spent the afternoons and summer days of his youth at his grandma’s house. Her kitchen was a kind of oasis. As a young queer person, Dry didn’t always play outside with the other kids. Instead he stayed in, watching his grandma make everything from salt pork to sweet potato pie. They walked the woods, hills, valleys, and creek beds, too, foraging wild onions, morels, watercress, and buck brush (for weaving baskets). She even showed Dry how to use birch bark to treat acne. Mildred Raper had learned to cook from her mom, and eventually Dry inherited their traditions.

One day, while showing him how to make corn cakes, Draper instructed Dry to add a little bit of sugar. He accidentally grabbed salt. When he later bit into the corn cake, he couldn’t eat it. “I looked at her and started crying,” he recounted. “She just laughed.” Like many children, Dry idealized his grandmother. What he wanted, more than anything else, was to cook like her. “That was my Mount Everest,” he told me.

Many of the foods central to Appalachia—such as corn and wild edibles like mushrooms and ramps—came directly from Cherokees. Dry’s grandmother would take green beans off the stalk, string them, and hang them around the house (a preservation technique known as shuck beans in Appalachia). She kept a vinegar starter in the family for generations. “I don’t even know how old it is,” Dry told me. She never explicitly described her cooking as Appalachian. “It’s just what she knew,” he said. “Because [the food] is Cherokee, it is automatically Appalachian. Even though we’re not in our homelands…I feel like it’s in our DNA.”

One of the diners told Dry: “I thought you were going to make something more Native.”

Today, Dry lives about an hour west of Twin Oaks in downtown Tulsa. Where some might not expect to find wild edibles, Dry has harvested hickory nuts (to make kanuchi), lion’s mane, wild carrots, sassafras root, wild onions, wild garlic, and a mushroom Cherokees call wishi. 

Over the past 11 years, Dry has worked in a number of popular Tulsa restaurants, sharing his family recipes. Even in places with a lot of Native people like Oklahoma there aren’t a lot of Native restaurants. It’s a food culture that exists mostly in the spaces of community events, church kitchens, and people’s homes. Because of this, a lot of people don’t know what to expect from Native food. Recently, Dry got a personal chef gig for a group going “glamping.” They were excited about having an Indigenous chef, and for them Dry made salad with foraged sorrel, corn cakes, and wild strawberry pie. But the food wasn’t what they expected. One of the diners told Dry: “I thought you were going to make something more Native.”

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