Too often around this time of year, we tend to only hear two types of stories of Native Americans: colonialist myths evoking racist stereotypes and true stories of immense historical trauma. The former continues to cause harm by dehumanizing contemporary Native peoples into caricatures. The latter is important to teach and understand, but also often fails to tell what happened to the survivors of colonial genocidal acts and their descendants. Especially in southern New England, many of those descendants continued to carry on Indigenous practices, often balancing traditional ways with the demands of living under an alien colonial government and, later, within a “modern” nation-state that formed over them. Despite the combination of economic, cultural, and political pressures that disparaged Native traditions and sought to push Native Americans into conformity with the white social hegemony, some Indigenous people were able to pass along such traditional knowledge to the next generation.
The Dovecrest Restaurant was the result of one of those Native families who managed to balance between old and new ways. Founded by Eleanor (Pretty Flower, 1918-2019) and Ferris Babcock Dove (Chief Roaring Bull, 1915-1983), both members of the Narragansett/Niantic Tribal Nation, Dovecrest was a family-operated restaurant that came to be known for its unique offering of Indigenous cuisine. From 1963 to 1984, the Doves and their extended family promoted Narragansett/Niantic culture through Native culinary arts. Eleanor herself had grown up in a family of chefs. But Dovecrest was more than just a restaurant. The main dining room of the restaurant could seat up to 90 people, and the restaurant itself became a cultural center for Narragansett/Niantic people. In the late ‘60s, the Doves invited fellow Narragansett/Niantic member Red Wing (Mary E. Congdon, 1896-1897) to live at Dovecrest. Red Wing was the co-founder and curator of the original Tomaquag Museum and an internationally known storyteller and keeper of cultural knowledge for the Narragansett/Niantic and Wampanoag Tribes. When the original Tomaquag Museum in Ashaway closed in 1969, it was relocated to Dovecrest and so well integrated into the restaurant that soon, Dovecrest and Tomaquag became effectively synonymous. Once Red Wing made the move, she and the Doves hosted several Indigenous thanksgivings at Dovecrest throughout the year. They would invite Native and non-Native peoples alike to join together to celebrate and learn more about the Indigenous culture of their area — something that almost never happened outside of powwows. The restaurant also sat adjacent to the Doves’ home, where the western part of the building was designated as the Dovecrest Trading Post: a gift shop selling “a variety of Indigenous art, clothing and jewelry from all over the United States.”
Below, we have an excerpt from the Tomaquag Museum’s blog Belongings about the Dovecrest Restaurant. Check the source below the excerpt for the link to the full blog post, which includes additional details on the Dove family, Red Wing, the thanksgiving celebrations at Dovecrest, and more. On the Belongings blog page, you will also find four special Indigenous recipes!
…Initially, when the Doves had opened Dovecrest Restaurant the menu offered “standard steakhouse fare,” which was typically considered main dishes such as beef steaks, pork chops chicken and seafood with sides of vegetables and hearty soups, stews and chowders- your typical Yankee style meat and potatoes type restaurant. (This was very much the backbone of the Dovecrest Restaurant for its entire existence.) It wasn’t until a few years after Dovecrest was in operation that patrons of the restaurant noticed that the Doves were preparing different meals for their children in the room behind the kitchen. These meals comprised of wild meats, or “game” meats. Soon, customers were asking that if instead of ordering the standard steakhouse fare, they were able to order dishes such as venison stew and creamed dried cod. Venison was of course an important staple for the Indigenous people throughout time on both the North and South American continents. Venison was essential to both survival and culture as the white tailed deer provided not only food, but clothing, adornments and tools. Ferris, in his own words, “When I was growing up in Charlestown, we depended on food like venison. We would have feasts of venison steaks, oysters we pulled from the bay, Johnnycakes and potatoes. This was 1930, and only the poor people were eating that stuff. Now it’s a delicacy. Isn’t it funny how things change?”
And things did change. Slowly, but surely the Doves began incorporating wild game and other traditional Indigenous recipes, some that Eleanor had learned from her father, Joseph Spears, Sr. (who had also been a chef at the University Club in Providence) into the menu. These wild games were then appeared on for special occasions or whenever wild game or shellfish happened to be available and/or in season. Eleanor said she tried to always keep one game dish on the menu, but it was often difficult to have a steady stock on hand. Many of the wild game was procured locally, from friends and neighbors who hunted, but for other types of game, such as bison they had to rely on private, out of state distributors such as ranch in Western Massachusetts or Iron Gate Products in Manhattan.
As the specialty wild game dishes began appearing on the menu, word traveled fast and Dovecrest started to become well known as a restaurant that was not only owned and operated by Indigenous people-at that time the only such establishment east of the Mississippi River-but Indigenous people who were also serving traditional Indigenous foods in this small, out of the way place in rural Exeter. One of the dishes which became a specialty at Dovecrest was a “briny fresh clam chowder” which were of course locally sourced from Narragansett Bay and other locations in Rhode Island and were shucked by Ferris every Friday and according to Eleanor “does it faster than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
In addition to the venison stew, creamed dried cod and briny; or Rhode Island style clam chowder, Dovecrest entrees on the menu could include bison steak and pie, quahog pie, venison steak and pie, rabbit stew, squirrel pie, racoon pie, bear, elk, succotash, Indian pudding-and what they became most famous for, Johnnycakes. Johnnycakes, or “Journey cakes” as they were known during the contact (Colonial) period, were a traditional staple of Indigenous people throughout North America and the Caribbean before the invasion of Europeans and was quickly adopted by European colonists and anglicized into what we know now as Johnnycakes. Usually (but not always) they are made out of ground white flint maize, water, milk and butter, salted with a little sugar and cooked on a griddle until deep golden brown, Johnnycakes then became a staple of European colonial life and like many of the plants and animals in the Americas slowly had their Indigenous roots erased through time. Johnnycakes were served plain, as is, or with additional local, seasonal ingredients such as maple syrup, blueberries and cranberries.
Over the years as their reputation grew, Dovecrest Restaurant was recognized in many ‘Best of” guides, winning rave reviews for their Johnnycakes as often the best in the state (and even some said New England) appearing in a New York Times article ‘Cuisine as American as Raccoon Pie’ in December 9, 1981 and even winning a 1982 Ocean Spray Cranberry Salute to American Food Award in Pittsburgh in addition to a USA Today article, ‘On The Menu Succotash and Venison.’ All of the awards and accolades were hard earned and well deserved for Dovecrest Restaurant, especially the Dove matriarch Eleanor, who was the primary chef and ran the kitchen. According to Ferris, “she’s the cook and I’m the waiter.” In addition to Ferris’ clam shucking, bartending and wait duties, Dovecrest Restaurant and Trading Post was a family operation and relied on the help of close family members such as their children, Mark, Paulla, Dawn and Lori and later granddaughters Elisabeth Dove (Manning) and Lorén Wilson (Spears) as well as Eleanor’s father Joseph Spears, Jr. and Ferris’ mother Mimi Babcock Dove as well as other extended family members and local tribal members…
See how you can support the Narragansett Food Sovereignty Initiative: http://www.narragansettfoodsovereignty.org/
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“From the Archives: Dovecrest Restaurant & Thanksgiving.” Tomaquag Museum. 26 November 2020 [Accessed 17 November 2021]. https://www.tomaquagmuseum.org/belongingsblog/2020/11/2/dovecrest-restaurant-and-thanksgiving
Here is a podcast episode for all ages about Wampanoag and Narragansett thanksgiving traditions featuring Loren M. Spears, Executive Director of the Tomaquag Museum: “Giving Thanks!” Time For Lunch podcast. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/giving-thanks/id1504928110?i=1000499993371
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