Farm. Field. Sea. digs into Wampanoag heritage

Tribal elder Kristina Leslie shares culinary tips with the Farm.Field.Sea tour. — Brittany Bowker

The cars lining the street at Orange Peel Bakery in Aquinnah last Wednesday weren’t just for Juli Vanderhoop’s weekly community pizza night. For the first time, Farm. Field. Sea. An Island Culinary Adventure teamed up with the Wampanoag Tribe for an inside look at all things food, foraged, and tribal. Nevette Previd is in her fourth season organizing these farm-to-table tours, which range from gatherings to one-day adventures, to overnight retreats. For a premium price of $200, 16 guests attended the one-day tour for an inside look at the culinary culture of the Aquinnah tribe.

Two elegant horses greeted guests with a carriage, ready to take the group up to the westernmost part of the Island. The 20-minute trip amused ongoing traffic as tour guide and Aquinnah tribe member Juli Vanderhoop waved to nearly every passerby.

“This place is physically, mentally, and spiritually my home,” Ms. Vanderhoop said. “I know every family and home out here.”

The story of the Wampanoag culture is deep, complicated, and challenging. To illustrate her point, Ms. Vanderhoop shared a story of illness, recovery, and enlightenment.

Living her dream as a pilot, she became ill, and her body was telling her to stop. A pattern of heart murmurs, anemia, and unsuccessful surgeries left her nearly immobile and in constant pain. One afternoon as she walked past her mother’s room, she heard an inner voice that said, “You can do this alone.” In that moment, she realized she wasn’t listening to the signs telling her what to do. They were telling her to stay on the Island to pass down stories, knowledge, and pride to younger generations. She listened, she stayed, and almost instantly recovered. The experience left Ms. Vanderhoop with a new sense of understanding and belonging, reminding her that she has something greater to give. Ten years ago, she built an outdoor bread oven with her bare hands, and shared it with the public as the Orange Peel Bakery. But even before business comes her commitment to listening.

“If we’re getting stressed at the bakery, we drop what we’re doing and go to the beach.” Ms. Vanderhoop said. “We have a motto: Bake, beach, repeat.”

Ms. Vanderhoop touched on the Island’s Lyme disease epidemic, and how it can be helped in especially affected areas like Aquinnah and Chilmark. “We must move backward and start using the land,” she said. “Plant with native plants, and listen to what we are taught by our ancestors.”

Between the words of Ms. Vanderhoop, the soft jolts of the carriage, and the foggy evening air, the mood was calm and the energy was set. “Moshup believes we need protection right now,” tribal elder and foraging guru Kristina Leslie said, alluding to the heavy fog. “So he’s smoking his pipe and we are protected.” The group filed into a seated circle behind the Aquinnah Cultural Center homestead.

Now 71 years old, Ms. Leslie reminisced on a lifetime of foraging food at the homestead. “We’d go out every morning, and we weren’t allowed back until our buckets were half full,” she said. With no electricity, running water, indoor bathrooms, or access to pregathered products of any sort, Ms. Leslie and her community of about 18 to 20 people were about as in tune with nature as they could be. They knew it was time to garden based on the arrival of the osprey, followed by the second full moon. “These signs in nature remind us it’s time to wake up, be alive, and plan,” Ms. Leslie said. They foraged with sticks and never shovels because “breaking the Earth is a big deal.”

Today, Ms. Leslie cooks, teaches, and applies these principles of the past to honor everything she was taught growing up. “Never take the last piece of food, only grab what you can eat, and leave everything as you found it,” she said.

So what’s on her stove? Succotash made with what she gathered that morning: corn, lima beans, celery, and wild sorrel. Halfway baked beans with molasses and brown sugar that can be eaten as either a soup or a stew. Ms. Leslie makes salad “on the lawn” with milkweed, sorrel, clove, and mustard greens. She reminded us of simple gathering principles: “If it doesn’t taste good, don’t eat it.”

Ms. Vanderhoop passed around an old box containing family letters dating back to 1906. The group then toured the Aquinnah Cultural Center before sitting down to be the first audience to watch a clip from the film “Lighthouse Keeper.”

Tribe members Michael Sellitti and Amira Madison led the group to the Gay Head Cliffs, sharing traditions, legends, symbols, and camaraderie along the way. “The Aquinnah people have such commitment to one another,” Ms. Madison said. “When you are here, we treat you like family.”

Following a path adjacent to the street, the group trekked to the lighthouse, where they met keeper Richard Skidmore. One by one, everyone spiraled up the staircase, overlooking the foggy horizon. Aquinnah was the last town in Massachusetts to receive electricity, in 1952. “Until that time, this and a candle were all there was for light after dark,” Mr. Skidmore said.

Windswept and hungry, everyone made their way back to Orange Peel Bakery, where they joined Juli’s community pizza night, complete with live music and a special array of the freshest pizza flavors: homemade ricotta and red radish; traditional margarita; Morning Glory sausage, mushroom, and red pepper; and lastly, arugula pesto with mozzarella and caramelized onions.

“What comes with food are people’s stories,” Ms. Previd said. “‘Farm. Field. Sea. connects friends, strangers, locals, and visitors alike.”

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