Cherokee chef Bradley Dry grew up cooking Appalachian food in Oklahoma

Mildred Raper, Dry’s grandmother, grew up in Twin Oaks on land allotted to her family when the US government partitioned the treaty territory of the Cherokee Nation to make way for white settlers. Dry grew up with her mother in the town next door to her, called Little Kansas, but she spent the summer afternoons and days of her youth at her grandmother’s house. Her kitchen was something of an oasis. As a queer youth, Dry didn’t always play outside with the other kids. Instead, she stayed home, watching her grandmother make everything from salt pork to sweet potato pie. They trekked through forests, hills, valleys, and stream beds, searching for wild onions, morels, watercress, and brushwood (for basket weaving). She even showed Dry how to use birch bark to treat acne. Mildred Raper had learned to cook from her mother, and eventually Dry inherited her traditions.

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

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

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

Over the past 11 years, Dry has worked at several popular Tulsa restaurants, sharing his family recipes. Even in places with many natives like Oklahoma, there aren’t many native restaurants. It is a food culture that exists primarily in community event spaces, church dining rooms, and people’s homes. Because of this, many people don’t know what to expect from native food. Dry recently landed a job as a personal chef for a glamping group. They were excited to have an indigenous chef, and to them Dry-Crafted Salad with Fodder Sorrel, Corn Cakes, and Wild Strawberry Shortcake. But the food was not what they expected. One of the diners told Dry: “I thought you were going to do something more native.”

There is a growing tension in native cuisine between pre-settlement food traditions and foods that stem from it, such as fried bread. Often pre-colonial food traditions are considered much healthier, devoid of processed ingredients or wheat flour. Dry feels that tension a lot when she cooks, both inside and outside of indigenous communities.