A crispy roasted turkey. Some kind of slow-simmered stew. Maybe a salad tossed with tart cranberries. And alongside, a beautiful blue cornbread, still warm from the oven, drizzled with thick maple cream, and scattered with indigo flowers. That’s what acclaimed Indigenous chef Crystal Wahpepah plans to set out for friends and family this November. But that cornbread is anything but an afterthought. “This dish means a lot to me,” Wahpepah said “It’s made from blue corn, and I love working with Indigenous ingredients.”
Wahpepah is a proud member of the Kickapoo nation of Oklahoma, but was born and raised on stolen Ohlone land in Oakland. Today she’s the chef and owner of Wahpepah’s Kitchen in Fruitvale, the year-old restaurant now nationally acclaimed for showcasing Indigenous foods.
In a piece first published last year, Nosh posed an important question: Is it even respectful to celebrate Thanksgiving? Wahpepah was one of several Native voices who generously shared perspectives. One of her suggestions was that if you’d like to acknowledge the painful history of the holiday and celebrate Indigenous cultures, you might respectfully prepare an Indigenous dish. This year, with that in mind, she’s offering her family’s cornbread recipe, if you’d like to hold space for it on your holiday table.
As Wahpepah explains, blue corn is an important ingredient for Indigenous peoples from the Southwest, Mexico, and as far as Peru. Depending on the type of corn, it grows in a range of hues from dusty blue gray to deep vivid purple. And it’s also nutritious, picking up that color from anthocyanins, those powerful antioxidants.
At Wahpepah’s Kitchen, blue corn appears in several different dishes, including the blue corn waffles, mush, tamales and tacos. But while Wahpepah often has special tribal sources for her ingredients, she insists that blue cornmeal isn’t hard to find. East Bay home cooks can spot it on shelves at Berkeley Bowl, there’s a blue corn guy at the Grand Lake Farmers’ Market and it’s readily available online.
Once you’ve bagged the flour, the recipe is so easy. This is no fancy chef creation, it’s definitely more of a family favorite: Eight ingredients, most already in the pantry. One bowl, ready to dump and stir. Wahpepah cuts the cornbread into squares while still fragrant and warm, releasing that nutty popcorn aroma and tender buttermilk crumb. (Although any leftovers do make a cool dessert with berries and cream.) And you’ll recall she was a caterer long before opening a restaurant, when it comes to a couple of signature finishing touches: A drizzle of maple cream, another Native ingredient as thick and sweet as a glaze. And a scattering of edible flowers, pretty enough for a party.
If you do plan on serving it for Thanksgiving, Wahpepah suggests starting with a land acknowledgement. (The Native Governance Center and National Museum of the American Indian both offer good examples.) “Acknowledge the land and what you’re eating,” Wahpepah said. “A lot of people want to eat! But how did the cornbread get here? How many Indigenous hands grew this corn?”
Although Wahpepah often attends the Alcatraz Sunrise Ceremony, this year she’ll be baking cornbread and spending quiet time with her family. “I hope everyone has a great holiday,” she warmly said.
Blue Cornbread with Maple Cream & Edible Flowers
This easy recipe showcases blue corn, an Indigenous ingredient with a rich color and history. It stars in a simple, stunning and delicious cornbread to add to any celebration this fall.
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for the pan
- 3 cups blue cornmeal
- 1⁄2 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1⁄4 tsp salt
- 1⁄4 cup agave syrup
- 2 large eggs, beaten with a fork
- 1 to 2 cups buttermilk
- Maple cream (optional, see note below)
- Edible flowers (optional)
Preheat a gas oven to 350°F or an electric oven to 375°F. Spray or brush a square baking pan (8 x 8 inches) with oil.
In a bowl, combine the blue cornmeal, all-purpose flour, baking powder and salt and whisk to combine. Add the 2 tablespoons oil, agave syrup, eggs, and 1 cup buttermilk and stir to combine. Add more buttermilk if necessary, to reach a thick but pourable texture. (The texture will depend on both the grind of the cornmeal and the thickness of the buttermilk.) Let rest until the cornmeal softens, 5 to 8 minutes.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the top and sides are golden brown, 30 to 40 minutes.
Let the cornbread cool slightly, 5 minutes, before cutting into squares while still warm. Transfer the cornbread to plates, drizzle with the maple cream, scatter with the flowers, and serve warm.
Makes 16 servings
Note: “Maple cream” is pure maple syrup that’s been brought to a boil and cooled quickly, to achieve a thick, creamy consistency. But if you can’t find a jar at the store, and don’t feel like pulling out your candy thermometer, you can also substitute a quick and easy maple glaze: just whisk together ¼ cup maple syrup and ½ cup powdered sugar.
Featured image: A piece of blue cornbread at Wahpepah’s Kitchen. Credit: Wahpepah’s Kitchen