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Tim Giago

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How a Grouchy Gourmet Broke Down Racial Barriers

Posted: 05/25/2012 8:14 pm

Oftentimes an idea is born out of necessity; and that is the way a weekly column called, "The Grouchy Gourmet" was born.

The column first appeared in my weekly newspaper Indian Country Today in the late 1980s. It came about because the newspaper had received several calls and letters from Native American readers explaining how shabbily they were treated in some of the local eating establishments.

For example, a Native American family enters a white-owned restaurant and they are seated. While they are waiting to be served several white families also enter the restaurant and they are seated and a server immediately comes to their table and takes their order. In the meantime the Indian family sits and waits and sits and waits. When a waiter or waitress finally comes to their table they are unsmiling and quite often openly rude.

There are many African Americans who can appreciate what I am writing here because they went through the same treatment a few years ago and like Native Americans, there were many places where they weren't even allowed to eat. This led to the "sit-ins" in the South in the 1960s.

In fact, in the late 1960s a friend of mine, Steve Valandra, from the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and I, tested the waters of segregation by going to an exclusive club in Rapid City that also had a restaurant. We took a table and waited to be served. The manager finally came out and asked us to leave. We refused. After a heated discussion with his staff, the manager disappeared into a back room and a waiter miraculously appeared at our table and took our order. We could hardly believe what happened so we came back the next day and we were served without a whimper.

After hearing complaints about the shoddy treatment many Indian received at local eateries, I met with my staff in the newsroom and we came up with the idea of picking different staff writers to go to the different restaurants in town and test the waters. One of us would become the "Grouchy Gourmet," every week. We would, as they say, "tell it like it is" in the column. We tried to make the column enjoyable and not just one that did nothing but complain. Oh, there were times when that is all we could do but complain.

We really did develop some extraordinary gourmets. One of our all-time favorites was a former school teacher named Dottie Potter. Unfortunately, several years after she started to write for my newspaper she developed lung cancer and passed away.

But while she lived, Dottie was the consummate Grouchy Gourmet. She would begin her column by describing the décor, the lighting and the attire of the waiters and waitresses. And when it came to the meal, no one could literally dissect a meal like Dottie. If she was treated with respect, she praised the restaurant for it even though the meal may not have been so good. One time she took umbrage at not only the way she was treated, but at the terrible meal and she didn't pull any punches when she wrote about it that week. When the paper came out we got a call from the manager of the restaurant. He screamed, "Who in the hell is this Grouchy Gourmet? Well, you can tell him that I am coming to your newspaper and punching him in the face."

She wrote such a glowing review of a restaurant called "The Mongolian Grill" that if you go there, even to this day, you will see her column in a wooden frame hanging on the wall behind the cash register.

No one in town knew who the Grouchy Gourmet was; they only knew that it was an Indian who wrote for a newspaper called Indian Country Today and if she leveled a blast at your establishment, the business would suffer. As a matter of fact, all of the Native Americans who read the newspaper often went to the Grouchy Gourmet column the first thing. And if Dottie or another Grouchy was mistreated at any restaurant, they would automatically boycott it.

Grouchy often complained about the fact that few if any local restaurants had Native American employees. And if Grouchy went into an establishment that had a Native American working there, that employee and the restaurant was praised to the high heavens. Gradually things started to change in Rapid City. Today, if you go to almost any eating establishment in town, from McDonald's to Minerva's, a Grade A restaurant, you will find Native Americans employed there.

And so a weekly columned dreamed up because of racial prejudice, not only led to better service and treatment of Native Americans, but it also opened up job opportunities for them. Dottie Potter would have been so proud to know that while she was gadding about town dining here and there and enjoying the meals, for the most part, she also had a hand in changing the face of Rapid City.

When I spoke at her funeral I said, "Dottie Potter was not only one of the best writers I every hired, she was also the best Grouchy Gourmet this newspaper ever had."

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born and educated on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was founder of the Native American Journalists Association and of Indian Country Today newspaper. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991

 

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