At Luck Reunion, Three Sisters-themed feast is stewed in Indigenous traditions
It’s a remarkably beautiful day at Luck Ranch, owned by Willie Nelson, about 30 miles northwest of Austin. Chef Crystal Wahpepah splits her attention between two large pots of Kickapoo Chili – a family dish of her tribe – one above a gas burner and the other an open fire. There is a breeze blowing and around her meat is smoking, jicama grilling and chili peppers roasting.
Chef Wahpepah, along with Chef Brit Reed and Chef Sewa Yuli, are preparing food for a four-course dinner event honoring the The Three Sisters of Indigenous American Agriculture: corn, squash and climbing beans. These crops are planted close to each other because as they grow they make one another stronger, mutualistically. Each course of the meal the chefs planned together incorporates at least one of the foods, while the fourth Wahpepah says has all three.
“I’m doing the Three Sisters cake,” she says. “Of course we have our squash that my team at Wahpepah’s Kitchen actually planted and harvested. And we have our old heirloom bean from Ramona farms that we’re going to be adding into the cake, and then also a red corn – which is a desert corn – which I find very fascinating and very pretty. And so this is where I said, ‘Hey, let’s do a Three Sisters cake for everybody to enjoy.’”
The dinner was part of the Luck Reunion festival, called Potluck, and is a fundraiser for food and agriculture-centered nonprofits Wholesome Wave, Texas Food and Wine Alliance and Farm Aid. With attendance growing every year, the dinner is a chance to shine a light on some of the ethos held at the core of the festival such as conservation, says Matt Bizer, co-founder and CEO of Luck Presents.
“A music festival is a great place for music,” he says, “but when it comes to having a real conversation or listening and hearing and having a two-way conversation, you kind of need a platform for that. And sitting down at a table is the best one we could think of.”
It’s hours before guests arrive to take their seats for dinner and Chef Sewa Yuli is sharing the aroma of blended chili peppers and spices. The symphonic scent from the earthy spices in a sauce meant for Reed’s dish is remarkable.
For Yuli, food is nostalgia and about making connections. They remember spending the summers with their grandmother on a ranch in Sonora, Mexico, as well as the delicious food eaten during this time – much like the oxtail stew Yuli is making for the evening.
“It’s Posoim. It’s a traditional Yoeme stew,” Yuli says. “And we would only have it once in a while. It was not something that we would eat like all the time. And so this stew takes me back to that feeling of her love. It’s very nurturing, it’s very warming. It has hominy, it has beans, it has green chilies, red chilies and then our staple chili, which is the mother chili chiltepin, that grows in the Sonoran Desert.”
Yuli says it’s about paying homage to their Yoeme roots.
“And so I really wanted to highlight that dish to also represent my ancestors and where I come from. And also for people to have that feeling, too,” they said.
For Dallas-raised chef Britt Reed, strengthening her own connection to her Indigenous roots through food and language is especially important. As a baby, Reed was adopted out of the tribe to non-native parents. She is unenrolled, which means she is not on any official government register as a member belonging to a specific tribe. When introducing herself in Chahta Anumpa (the Choctaw language) and English, she makes it a point to mention these two facts.
“So a part of me kind of healing and coming back has definitely involved food,” Reed said. From a very young age, my adoptive parents, they always had us in the kitchen and like, ‘hey, stir this, try this.’
I’ve also tried to incorporate some of these dishes that people are a little bit unfamiliar with. So, tonight I’ll be making Pvska Tvpvski instead of being like, ‘oh, it’s traditional fry bread’ or, you know, like ‘a hot water cake’ – being able to use that language just so that people can hear and it becomes more normalized.”
Reed, Yuli and Wahpepah have known each other for years. To come to the event at Luck Reunion post-COVID lockdown was sort of their own reunion. Reed says to share their culture and food with many non-native diners, it was important to her that it be done right.
“For us, we’re really honored to be here,” she said, “but also really hoping that being here and taking up a space just not performing in the ways I think that people usually would expect out of Native people will both help people to understand the reality of Indian Country a little bit better, even if it’s just a taste – no pun intended. And then also through eating the foods, kind of see what the food traditions have been here forever.”
The conversation is one which all three chefs are leading, but their actions are speaking just as loud. Wahpepah is a mentor in her community and an acclaimed restaurateur based out of California.
Reed and Yuli are part of the I-Collective, a group of Indigenous chefs, farmers, activists, artists and more who work to preserve and promote Indigenous knowledge. Reed has a podcast about southeastern traditional tattoo revitalization and Yuli is the executive producer of an upcoming documentary on Indigenous food sovereignty in Mesoamerica and the borderlands.
This is a topic that Yuli is especially passionate about. The food and earth traditions taught to them through their ancestors are ways to combat environmental and systematic oppression.
“I feel that food is very empowering,” Yuli said. “Food carries memory, helps us connect with those symbiotic relationships with nature and with synergy. Just like the Three Sisters, those teachings are in there. So I feel that food’s really powerful. And so that’s where I like to start – working from the inside out.”
Cooking and feeding just over 300 guests is not an easy feat. Along with a small support staff brought by each of the three main chefs, there was also local support. From Bryan, Texas, Chef Brian Light with a team from Ronin Farm & Restaurant took part. And Chef Michel Nischan, founder of Wholesome Wave, is a constant figure and resource at Potluck year after year.
And for this evening’s dinner, as attendees cheer introductory words from the three chefs, the energy and eagerness to experience this meaningful meal is palpable. Everyone is ready to dig in.
If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on texasstandard.org and KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.