My saltpork challenge
By VONNA SHULTS Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
In my 40 years on this earth, I have had the pleasure of discovering salt pork and through trial and error I am now able to prepare it at home for my family without the need to call 911. Preparing salt pork to keep your immediate family happy would satisfy most folks and they would be content preparing it for special occasions, such as a holiday or loved ones birthday, but not for me.
I wanted to know where my skills stood against those who have been cooking for the masses for decades. The only way to find out was to cook salt pork at an event where there would be lots of hungry Choctaws willing to eat what I had prepared.
The solution came to me before I finished the thought in my head where I could find willing participants: wild onion dinner.
Wild onion dinners are a staple during the springtime and are a favorite food amongst Choctaws. These tiny onions are picked by hand, individually cleaned and then prepared by sautéing with scrambled eggs. Sounds terrible, right? However, the mere mention of them in the wintertime will elicit “ooohs” and “ahhhs” from any Choctaw within earshot.
Just like salt pork, everyone has a favorite chef that can prepare wild onions better than anyone else. I was not completely convinced anyone would allow me to cook alongside him or her but one Friday afternoon an opportunity presented itself to me.
I had spent most of the day in Broken Bow learning Choctaw dances from a Mississippi group and on my way home I stopped at Sulphur Springs Methodist Church in Bennington to see one of my favorite Choctaw chefs, Lorene Blaine.
It was the night of their annual wild onion dinner and gospel singing. Unfortunately, there were many church members that had attended a funeral many miles away and they were unable to help prepare the dishes until later that day. I offered to help and Lorene allowed me to help her son, Junior, prepare the salt pork.
I felt like a Triple AAA pitcher who had just gotten “the call” for the big league.
I became very nervous and immediately worried about everything that could potentially go wrong. Junior was outside the church and had a large cast iron Dutch oven ready for us to begin our task.
We worked together for several minutes and I had expressed my trepidation of cooking salt pork for so many Choctaws. Junior assured me that everything would be just fine because they were coming for his mom’s wild onions in the first place.
Shortly, we brought the Dutch oven into the kitchen of the church, as Junior needed the flame outside to begin frying catfish.
So there I was, elbow to elbow, with one of the most respected Choctaw ladies I have had the pleasure to meet.
Lorene had worked all day preparing batch after batch of wild onions and eggs. Her daughter, Teresa, had been frying potatoes in another room for several hours as well. I continued my careful watch over the salt pork; I refused to let it burn on my watch.
I had become a little bit more comfortable knowing I had my mentor right beside me. Every so often I would peek over and watch her method of preparing wild eggs. I am positive I bothered her with my multitude of questions; however, Lorene answered each one with the true patience and grace not afforded to most folks.
As the day wore on and evening approached, many church members came by with desserts, side dishes, fry bread, vegetables, and drinks for the annual event. Other members and guests had begun to gather outside the church fellowship hall to visit.
That’s when I first noticed the amount of “FBIs” watching my every move in the kitchen. Yes, the “FBI,” otherwise known as the “Full Blood Inspector,” whom would be inspecting how good or bad I did with the preparation of the salt pork.
I could see them peering through the screen door trying to figure out who I was. They did not know this person Lorene had allowed into her kitchen. I could sense their concerns about my cooking skills without them uttering a word.
I knew then the task was either pass or fail and not only was my reputation on the line, but Lorene’s as well.
Panic had set in and I wanted to run out the back door of the kitchen and pretend I was never there in Bennington, but I could not leave my friends and family there to finish the dinner alone. So I stayed to face my critics.
Lorene knew every face that walked into the church and as they came by to say hello, she would take a minute from preparation to introduce me to them. Most people there had known my grandmother, Minerva Fobb. Several of my aunts had also came by that evening for the dinner and they were surprised to see me standing watch over the salt pork.
My level of credibility had grown a little bit, but only a little.
Time for dinner to begin and there was enough food in that kitchen to feed a small army. It never fails to amaze me the amount of hospitality and fellowship that presents itself whenever a group of Chahta come together.
I would challenge anyone to look at a room full of Chahta people and find one person who is not having a good time visiting with friends and family.
The food was placed buffet style and each person was able to make their own plate and many asked who had made the fry bread, beans, desserts and also, the salt pork.
I stood brave and admitted that I had been the one to cook salt pork that afternoon and to please let me know how I fared. I promised not to get my feelings hurt if they told me they didn’t like the way I had prepared it for them.
Finally, a man with the kindest face walked up to me, set his arm on my shoulder and said, “You cooked that meat just the way I like it. See you next year.” I asked Lorene if I passed the test and she told me to go look in the bowl that held the finished salt pork. I looked in the bowl and turned back to her and said, “It’s empty.”
She just smiled and gave me a quick nod and I knew what she meant: I had passed.