Meals and Merriment

Frank Woodman, a regular at the senior lunches offered in Orleans every day by the Karuk Tribe, tells a story to the other diners. Mary Silva concentrates on the lunch and everyone had praise for the cook. Babbie Peterson, who supervises this program and another in Happy Camp, says tribal people honored and respected elders long before there was agency funding. Photo by Malcolm Terence.

By MALCOLM TERENCE, TRT Contributing Writer

In this era when members of Congress and corporate executives try to whittle away the old people institutions of Social Security and Medicare, it’s useful to take a break at the Senior Lunch the Karuk Tribe offers five days every week.

The Karuk, like the other tribes in the area, have a culture and programs that respect and protect elders. Non-tribal observers could learn much from them.

The group of seniors who gathered for the lunch at the Panamanik Center in Orleans one day last week, seemed more focused on the weather and the quality of the cooking than on national macroeconomics.

Babbie Peterson is the senior center supervisor for the tribe and supervises lunch programs in both Orleans and Happy Camp. Happy Camp serves as many as 46 people a day, more than half of them home deliveries to house-bound elders. Orleans handles around 25, including a half dozen home delivered. She says the lunch program and several other programs are for elders, tribal or White,
The attendance that day in Orleans was much smaller, reduced by the rainy weather and by a number who had recently been moved to hospitals or other care centers. The handful who showed up were undaunted and filled the room with quiet conversation.

They praised the day’s menu: macaroni in a beef sauce, mixed vegetables, fresh baked bread, a salad bar and oatmeal cookies with milk.    Frank Woodman, an 83-year-old retired mill worker and CalTrans foreman, came to Orleans in 1961 and was ready to share memories of the 1964 flood. He talked about watching propane tanks floating down the river and then parts of houses. Large trees, roots and all, would hook on the bridges and soon nearly all the bridges were gone.

Woodman said he’d come for the lunch every day it was offered for the last 10 or 15 years. “There are cooks and there are food assemblers,” Woodman said, reviewing the lunches over the years in his mind. “We have the best cook right now.”

Cook Joanne Rosenbach, recognizing that she was getting as buttered up as the steamed vegetable, smiled at the compliment.

Woodman said the lunch program had had different homes in the past but was now housed in the Panamanik Center, a multi-purpose facility tucked in among tribal housing on a side road just off Highway 96.

Panámniik was the name of an old traditional village in what is now Orleans and there is also a Panamanik Building operated in a former grocery store by the Mid Klamath Watershed Council.

Besides the senior lunchroom and its kitchen, the Panamanik Center also holds a computer center and a library with space for tutoring students.

Babbie Peterson said that one former home for the lunch program was the Karuk Meeting Hall about two miles up river, but that the lunch space was sometimes supplanted by events like a big funeral.

She explained that the funding roots for many of the programs began with the Older Americans Act in 1965 and with subsequent revisions that targeted native populations. By the early 1970s tribes began to complain that they were not getting their funding and by 1979 the Karuk Tribe launched it elders’ program which included assistance with transportation, home visits, shopping, chore services and medical visits—everything but meals.

The meals element began in 2000 and that’s when Peterson began her post. To learn what she needed to do, and what to avoid, she started visiting neighboring tribes to see their programs and started attending conferences. For the last three years, she has been a trainer at conferences across the country.

She said the tribal council had long been supportive of the programs and even opened much of it, including the lunch program, to non-Indians. Two council members—Alvis “Bud” Johnson and the late Florence Conrad even joined her at national conferences to add their political muscle to her efforts.

Like many tribal programs, funding comes from a patchwork of agencies and other grants. She shared a lesson for newer organizers and program leaders: You can offer all the programs you want but they only work when people supply grassroots support.

So there is a large quilting group that meets at the center the first Saturday of every month. An acupuncture group meets every Wednesday at 5 p.m. with two local providers and as many as 25 attendees.

A smaller Karuk language group is ongoing and so is a caregiver support program. An Alcoholics Anonymous group used to meet but the group leader moved away. A community garden effort that seemed very popular has failed to get off the ground.

Traditionally, Peterson said, elders lived with their families or their family members would visit them frequently to support them. “They were honored and you always showed respect when they spoke, even if you didn’t always follow their advice.”

Elders told her that this system has started to fall apart and they cite the decision at Happy Camp High to allow only students at school dances as symptomatic. Before that, elders would go to the dances with everyone else. After the shift, they claim there was more alcohol and drug use linked to the dances.

Another culprit has been television culture where everybody sits and nobody talks, the elders tell Peterson. When they were young, they took care of elders,  but there is less of that now that they are older.

Many of the Senior Lunch recipes were developed by Lorraine Hillman, the cook for years, and the program still keeps them handy in a large binder. Their days may be limited because the agencies are asking for cutbacks of red meat, cheese, eggs and salt in the menus.

This is sure to impact the dish that the senior diners said was their favorite, Cheesie Egg Casserole, a dish much like a quiche but without crust and with a less hightone name.

Rosenbach could reel off the ingredients from memory: two dozen eggs, 2 ½ pounds cheddar cheese, 2 ½ pounds cottage cheese, two cubes of butter, a cup of flour and a big can of mushrooms. Cook it all for an hour at 350 degrees.

Then she pondered whether that was too much for most households and divided everything by four, starting with six eggs and so on.

The lunches are free to all comers at the age of 60 or over (although agencies allow tribal members at age 57). She said one person dropping in was no problem. For larger parties, she requested they call her in advance at 530-627-3056 so she can have enough food prepared.

Back in the lunch room, Frank Woodman finished his lunch, complimented the cook one more time and cracked another joke. Gesturing to his wife Mariann sitting next to him, he said, “We’ve been married 52 years but it only seems like 112.”

His wife, who gets around in a wheel chair, still has a strong right arm and she used it to hammer Frank in the shoulder. He winced and she smiled to the other diners as they departed.

1 to “Meals and Merriment”


  1. brad gibbons says:

    very nice. nice detail / history. the first sentence is spectacular.



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