From Dovecrest to Sly Fox Den
From 1963 to 1984, there was a Native American restaurant called Dovecrest in Exeter, Rhode Island. The place was founded by Eleanor (Pretty Flower, 1918-2019) and Ferris Babcock Dove (Chief Roaring Bull, 1915-1983), both members of the Narragansett-Niantic Tribal Nation. The eatery originally served “standard steakhouse fare,” but eventually some patrons started asking to try the traditional Indigenous food the family ate in the back. Soon, Indigenous cuisine was featured on the Dovecrest menu.
But to call Dovecrest just a restaurant would be inaccurate — it was so much more than that. It was a meeting place and cultural center for many Narragansett-Niantic people in the area. It was an educational facility to spread knowledge of Narragansett-Niantic traditions, cultural practices, and of course, cuisine. And, starting in the late 1960s, Dovecrest became the home of Red Wing (Mary E. Congdon, 1896-1897), a very prominent storyteller and keeper of cultural knowledge for the Narragansett-Niantic and Wampanoag Tribes. When Red Wing moved in, she brought with her the contents of the first Tomaquag Museum, and reestablished the museum at Dovecrest. Today, the restaurant is no more, but the Tomaquag Museum is still there, at the old Dovecrest location.
Soon, southeastern Connecticut will have a local Indigenous restaurant / community space / educational facility, too. Chef Sherry Pocknett, who was featured in a Time Magazine article earlier this week (link in the sources below), is a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Nation who is currently raising funds for a new facility on the Poquetanuck Bay in Preston, Connecticut. It will be called Sly Fox Den, and the full plan involves not just a Native cuisine restaurant and bar, but also an “Indigenous Native American Living Museum and Oyster Farm” which will include traditional Wampanoag buildings and gardens, an outdoor cooking area, an oyster farm, and live demonstrations of traditional Wampanoag tradecrafts like canoe-making. While funds are being raised for the primary Connecticut site, Chef Sherry Pocknett has opened another restaurant in Charlestown, Rhode Island — Sly Fox Den Too. Perhaps remembering the Narragansett Dovecrest Restaurant of decades past, the local Narragansett community around Charlestown graciously welcomed Chef Sherry Pocknett and her Wampanoag family when she opened the restaurant in the summer of 2021.
Certainly, there is a history of immeasurable injustice committed by English colonists (and later “Americans”) to the Native peoples of this country, and it is vital that that history be shared, discussed, and addressed. But it is just as important to tell and celebrate the stories of Native resilience and accomplishments — from times past up to the present. While we eagerly wait for the opening of the primary Sly Fox Den in Connecticut, we share the following excerpt about their spiritual predecessor: Dovecrest Restaurant. To read the whole piece, find the original at the Tomaquag Museum’s blog Belongings. 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/
Donate to the Sly Fox Den project here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/sly-fox-den-restaurant-and-bar
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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
Burns-Fusaro, Nancy. “Indigenously Delicious: Sly Fox Den Too opens in Charlestown.” The Westerly Sun, 21 July 2021. https://www.thewesterlysun.com/news/charlestown/indigenously-delicious-sly-fox-den-too-opens-in-charlestown/article_5bd5e3be-e4be-11eb-8294-c7f7dce648e1.html
“Our Mission.” Sly Fox Den Restaurant. https://slyfoxdenrestaurant.com/our-mission
Waxman, Olivia B. “Her Tribe Fed the Pilgrims. Here’s What She Wants You to Know About Indigenous Food.” Time Magazine, 15 November 2022. https://time.com/6233957/indigenous-chef-thanksgiving-pilgrims/
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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