Cold Shoulder: An Indigenous Road Trip to Eskimo Joe’s in Stillwater
8:25 AM EST on November 16, 2020
I have to admit I’ve never been to Stillwater’s somewhat famous Eskimo Joe’s, a college-town eatery best known for their burgers, their cheese-fries and, especially, their wholly damaging mascot, a caricature of a snowbound Indigenous man that has given many mindful Oklahomans second-thoughts about wearing that ever-popular shirt.
Since my article about the Indigenous slur that makes up the restaurant’s name was published last July, I’ve grown curious about the food and, as it turns out, so did fist-raising activist Tati Hayton, the filmmaker behind Dear Esk*mo Joe’s, We Are Not Your Mascots as well as the mastermind behind the trouble-causing petition asking Joe’s to change their name.
(Of course, they declined.)
In Oklahoma City for a few weeks from her current home-base of Atlanta, I gave her a call and asked if she’d like to accompany me to give Joe’s a more-than-fair shake. An Oklahoman for most of her life, when living here she had done a good-enough job of avoiding the place, one of the few teenagers in a hundred-mile radius to rightfully do so.
As we drove to Stillwater, we talked about the raucous life of this pro-Indigenous endeavor, from how friends began to treat her to the time Kelly Ogle made her the subject of one his My Two Cents rants. As she told me about her own fears of eating at Joe’s—all valid, I might add—I told her that I knew what I was going to write if it was bad and I knew what I was going to write if it was good.
Unfortunately, I had never planned for the third option, if it was just…meh.
As we walked under the weathered wooden sign featuring the minstrel-like Joe hanging over the door—shades of the infamous restaurant chains of America’s racist past—the host seated us upstairs in the slim restaurant, the superstore next door obviously taking up most of the place.
Our server was wearing a facemask featuring the red-handed logo dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous women. While I wasn’t sure if it was a silent protest of sorts, to be honest, I was just glad someone was wearing it and supporting the cause within these wooden walls. After ordering, I walked around for a few minutes to get a historical feel for the place.
Usually, when I write about a restaurant, I’ll make a snide note if they have a so-called “wooden Injun” propped up somewhere, a hateful reminder that is pretty typical living and eating in Oklahoma. But I feel Joe’s goes one step further with this, the offensive distortion and his mile-wide smile plastered every place you turn and, even worse, normalized to the point of state-wide fame.
I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t nearly taint the food I was about to sample.
We started off with, of course, Joe’s supposedly-addictive Cheese Fries ($6.99). The server reassured me they were freshly hand-cut with a variety of melted cheeses on top and that’s why people like them so much. And perhaps they do, but today it was a bit of soggy overkill, the limp fries and hard cheese coming together to leave me wondering what the fuss is all about.
But, to be fair, the bowl of Joe’s Homemade Chili ($4.49)—loaded with a comical amount of sliced jalapeños and diced onions, per my request—reminded me of my father’s homemade chili he would make in the winter when I was growing up, a meaty mixture that he professionally seasoned with a well-known Williams silver-packet or two.
Tati and I both laughed about how so many angry people accused us of “trying to destroy Stillwater’s history” as our burgers arrived on the scene, hers the Sweet Peppered Bacon and Cheddar while, keeping with my theme, I took in a single-patty Joe’s Classic ($9.49).
She immediately set hers down, a look of absolute displeasure coming across her face; “I can’t tell if it’s too salty or too sweet…” she whispered to me. And while I didn’t have that visceral a reaction to my classic, the dry meat hanging over the sweet bun brought someplace canned like a Friday’s or Chili’s to mind more than a lifelong Oklahoma legend.
As we were waiting for the check, Tati summarized it best, saying that it’s a “great place if you’re a college kid tired of eating ramen all week,” which is an honest critique I can get behind and can justly agree with.
Before we headed out the door however, we stopped by the gift shop for a look inside the true testament of Joe’s, a tribute to Oklahoma’s willingness to not only buy clothing that celebrated over 500 years of oppression against Natives, but also holding up high some of the most routine burgers and fries in the state and bragging about it to the whole Goddamn world.
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