Chef Lois Ellen Frank demystifies new Native American cuisine
On Nov. 12, in observation of Native American Heritage month, Chef Peter Gebauer of Potawatomi Bingo Casino held the second of what he hopes will be annual dinners at Dream Dance Steak.
The dinner, featuring Southwestern chef Lois Ellen Frank, was a celebration of Native American culture and cuisine. It included Native ingredients like choke cherries, pau pau fruit, corn and heirloom Tipperary beans, and – in just five courses – brought diners a taste of both traditional and modern Native culture, along with a lesson in rediscovering the past.
"New Native American Cuisine is an emerging trend," Gebauer says. "But, it's not solitary work. It's a collaboration. We have to do it together. We call it 'indigenous partnerships' – it's all ethnic groups working together where the indigenous agenda is the priority."
What does he mean? One needn't look further than his guest chef to find the answers.
When it comes to cultural crossroads, few know the terrain like Chef Frank, co-owner of Santa Fe's Red Mesa Cuisine catering company.
Frank's mother was born into the Koiwa nation, a Native American tribe that was relocated to a reservation in what is now the state of Oklahoma in the mid-19th century. Her father is a Sephardic Jew, with European roots.
Frank herself has worn many hats.
In the 1980s she contemplated culinary school, but decided the path wasn't for her.
"Women didn't cross the gender line until the mid-'80s," she recollects. "So, I could be a pastry chef or I could be trained to work under a man."
However, despite her misgivings, during the late '70s and early '80s, Frank began working in restaurants to make a living while she attended the prestigious Brooks Institute Santa Barbara, where she majored in photography. During this time, she took a job working as a professional cook at the first Good Earth restaurant in the area.
The mission at Good Earth, she tells me, was to overtake the fast food industry and fill people up with fresh, nourishing local foods.
"We were a bit ahead of our time," she remarks with a smile.
After graduation, Frank gave up her culinary aspirations for a career in the advertising industry, shooting food for the industry in Los Angeles. Frank's photography was used to promote corporate giants including Evian Water, Taco Bell and the International House of Pancakes. But, one day, she had a moment of reckoning.
"I met this Native Elder, Ernst Haas, and he urged me to explore my Native American roots," she recalls. "Then he asked me if the work I was doing was one of the poetic elements from within me."
That thought gave her great pause. "I was making food that I wouldn't even eat look beautiful," she says, "And then promoting others to eat it."
So, she took stock. And, in 1991, she proposed a book on Native American cuisine to publishers in New York.
"They told me that Native people didn't have a cuisine," she says. "And that I didn't have the credentials to write any such book."
Rather than allowing this news to discourage her, Frank decided to go back to school. She earned her Master of Arts in Cultural Anthropology from University of New Mexico in May 1999 where she focused on the importance of corn as a common thread to all indigenous tribes throughout the Americas.
"At the time," she explains, "They were teaching that American cuisine was made up of immigrant populations. The traditions of Native kitchens were largely overlooked."
Frank subsequently earned her Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico in Culinary Anthropology with a dissertation that focused on the culture and practice of Native chefs in the Southwest. And she has now spent over 20 years documenting traditions and foodways of Native American tribes from that same area.
During her travels, she meticulously collected recipes from elders of the Ute nation of Southern Colorado, many Pueblos in New Mexico and other tribes of the Southwest, preserving and presenting foods that have been largely overlooked by today's chefs. And the recipes she curated helped her to launch an award winning cookbook just over 10 years after she was told that such a thing wasn't even possible.
In 2003, Frank won a James Beard Award for her book "Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations," a food-based history of Southwestern Indian Nations which features her photography side-by-side with Native recipes, creating a unique bridge between historical recipes and modern creations using traditional ingredients.
Today, Frank's work revolves around the notion that Native American culinary history can be broken down into four categories – pre-contact (the 10,000-plus years before the Spanish arrived on the continental U.S.); first contact (the foods that the Spanish brought that were incorporated into Native cuisine); government-issue (foods created based on government rations for Native Americans on reservations) and new Native American cuisine (the current age, when Native cuisine is being reintroduced and appreciated).
"New American cuisine…." Frank muses. "We're developing it. We're weaving it into fine dining. It goes beyond tradition; it's ancestral heritage."
Each stage of cuisine, Frank posits, is based around a sociological term known as TEK – traditional ecological knowledge – the innate science that informed Native people regarding how to use natural elements, including food products like mushrooms, rice and corn.
She attributes complex trade routes in North America for the introduction of foods like quinoa, bison, abalone, wild rice, salmon and chocolate. These foods, she asserts, are important to Native American culture.
"Native people weren't locavores," she explains. "They were tradeavores. And that extended into their relationships with the Europeans after 1491."
The "Columbian Exchange" was prompted by Christopher Columbus' visit to the Americas, and resulted in the introduction of European foods like pork, beef, sheep, goat, wheat, cabbage, watermelon and apples. In exchange, Native peoples traded items like corn, beans, squash, chiles, tomatoes and cocoa – which had never before been used in European cuisine.
Products like dairy became commonplace in the Native American diet. Likewise, staples like tomatoes and corn traveled far and wide and became staple foods for peoples in Italy, Spain and Eastern Europe.
"Ingredients became ingrained into the cultures," she goes on. "We ended up with cultural identifiers in cuisine – the Irish potato, the Italian tomato, the Navajo sheep … but all of these stemmed back to the trade between America and Europe."
The 1800s bred a new type of innovation. Native peoples were relocated onto reservations, and the government began issuing foods to the tribes.
"The government issued them basically flour and lard," Frank explains. "They made fry bread – which is, from a culinary standpoint, pretty creative. But in the case of Native people … because they had lost their hunting and agricultural lands, these foods became their diet."
In turn, health problems associated with dietary changes began to cripple Native communities.
So, part of what Frank hopes to reclaim is the health of Native people.
"Food was medicine," she says. "Food is still medicine. We just need to remember. And unless we revitalize the cuisine and keep it going, it can disappear in less than a generation."
For Frank, it's about getting back to the foods that Native tribes depended upon centuries ago.
"For instance, choke cherry for my tribe is very important. So, I planted almost two acres of choke cherries," she says. "I brought some along for dinner tonight at Dream Dance. So, the trade routes – in a sense – are still happening. In a contemporary sense, we're reinvigorating what was instituted by the ancestors."
Frank says the food and the culture for Native people are inseparable.
"When you revitalize the food, you revitalize the culture," she says. "After all, how do you harvest wild rice? In a canoe, with a paddle, in the Great Lakes. The food, the recipe, the agricultural practice, the ritual – it's all happening in tandem."
Dinners like the one at Dream Dance Steak are just the beginning, says Frank.
"Chef Wolter and I work a lot in Native communities teaching people what and how to eat. We do very simple, low cost, easy to make foods. We call it food for life – healthy Native American Cooking.
In a sense she's back to the place she was while working her way through photography school – bringing Native people healthy alternatives in a world of fast food/fry bread culture.
"It's a win-win," she says. "When you're exposed to information and you acquire knowledge, you can't undo that. You may choose not to act upon it, but you have a consciousness of it."
And that, she says, is what New Native American cuisine is all about.
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