A pilgrimage to the Osage Nation was a dream come true for our food editor.
I first learned of the National Indian Taco Championship while writing “More Than an Indian Taco,” for which I had covered nearly a millennium of history and explored the significance of fry bread (October 2013 issue). In the process, I fell head over ropers for Indian tacos — a fluffy, saddle tan-hued exterior and spongy interior as the foundation of beef, chili, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and more. I was determined to make a pilgrimage to Pawhuska, deep in Oklahoma’s Osage Nation.
And there I was in October 2016, in the middle of the town that seemed to have stumbled into modernity as the Old West came to a close, when the Osage were one of the wealthiest people in the world, thanks to the oil reserves beneath the land they had been forced onto. A “For Rent” sign-occupied storefront sits next to a Western art gallery, a flatiron building stands sentinel over the dilapidated downtown, where 86 structures are landmarked on the National Register of Historic Places. Firmly planted across from the flatiron is an expansive corner building being renovated by Pawhuska resident Ree Drummond — The Pioneer Woman — and her family. The space would house the Mercantile, a one-stop shopping destination for Pioneer Woman-curated merchandise and goods in a bakery, deli, and general store. Everywhere teased promises of a Pawhuska renaissance.
The next day, 40 food vendors lined downtown Pawhuska hawking not just Indian tacos but sticky-sweet fry bread desserts and Indian taco dogs (fry bread-wrapped franks). Salsas ranged from Pace Picante clones to nail-spiked-gauntlet hot options. Some tacos were weighed down by the Southwestern garnishes of cheese, lettuce, and tomato. Some allowed the protein — whether bison or beef — to shine. Fry bread thickness varied by vendor. Many of those were up for the blind-tasting competition component of the event, for which I was a judge, requiring me to sample 20 entries from folks who traveled from as far as Florida, Minnesota, and Spain. The tacos whipped up taste-bud twisters on my happy palate. Ultimately, Ramona Horsechief (Pawnee/Cherokee) took first place, making her the five-time champion.
Before that, though, I had the opportunity to chat with Paula Mashunkashey (Osage), who with Mike McCartney and Raymond Redbird established the NITC in 2004. Although Mashunkashey — whose twang is as generous and energetic as she is — retired from the event and now lives near her daughter in Kentucky, she makes the trek to northern Oklahoma to check in on the gathering where she says “there’s so much love, there’s so much culture, there’s so much pride.” It was about that time that the dance competition powwow caught her attention. She looked at the dancers in their brilliant regalia. She looked at me. “Oh gosh. We’ve got to do this,” she said before pointing at my voice recorder. “Turn this off. Turn this off.” She grabbed my wrist and off we went to join the circle dance. And then I understood.
This year’s National Indian Taco Championship takes place October 7, in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. For more information, visit facebook.com/nitcpaw-huska or call 918.287.1208. For more information on The Pioneer Woman Mercantile, visit themercantile.com.
From the October 2017 Taste of the West issue.