Savoring the Native-foods legacy: Chef Lois Ellen Frank at the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta

Published in Indian Country Today in December 2007.

The recipes were modern, but their ingredients were ancient — legacies of the millennia-old cultures of the Americas. “Pre-Contact” and “First Contact” were the terms the chef, Lois Ellen Frank, Kiowa, shown right, used to describe the corn, squash, chiles, buffalo, cherries and other foodstuffs she dished up during her Native-foods lecture-demonstration at the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, in New Mexico.

These were the foods that indigenous people hunted, gathered and grew before and shortly after they encountered Europeans, Frank explained. However, she told her audience at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, she did not include a third category of fare: the U.S. government-issued provisions that appeared more recently in Native people’s larders. “The government commodity foods included white flour and sugar, lard, canned meat and other such items. I decided to spare you,” Frank joked.

Santa Fe’s annual Wine & Chile Fiesta showcases the area’s noted chefs and restaurants, along with the nation’s top wineries. From September 26th to 30th, about 5,000 members of the public shuttled among lavish luncheons and dinners, seminars, lecture-demonstrations and culinary tours. At wine auctions, they bid as much as thousands of dollars on fine wine. Some 150 exhibitors offered samples of their best work to a crowd of 3,000 at the culminating event: the convivial Grand Food and Wine Tasting at the Santa Fe Opera in the juniper-studded hills above the city.

Seated around tables in the Santa Fe School of Cooking’s sunny demonstration kitchen, the attendees at Frank’s presentation watched her prepare a three-course Native-foods meal with the help of the school’s sous chef Noe Cano, Santa Fe Community College lead culinary instructor Michelle Roetzer and Pointe South Mountain Resort banquet chef Orson Patterson, Navajo.

Working assembly-line fashion behind a counter, Frank and her colleagues dipped goat-cheese-stuffed squash blossoms in batter, deep-fried them and arranged them with tomato-and-green-chile salsa on plates that waiters doled out to the crowd. A strategically placed mirror above the counter gave every viewer the experience of being in a front-row seat.

As Frank worked, she lectured on the history and health benefits of the original foods of the Americas. A spirited and knowledgeable speaker, Frank is a candidate for a doctorate in culinary anthropology at the University of New Mexico and a proprietor, along with chef Walter Whitewater, Navajo, of Red Mesa Cuisine, an indigenous-foods catering company.

The primarily mainstream audience appeared to digest Frank’s message along with her menu. Most Americans have traveled far from their food roots, and they appeared to be captivated by the story of a galaxy of foods that were both delicious (the proof was on their plates) and sustaining, as evidenced by the Native people—Frank and Patterson—who stood before them. Finally, the ingredients were local and seasonal, thus physically and economically tailored to the needs of those who gathered and prepared them.

The four chefs moved on to the entrée. They draped seared, coriander-cured buffalo tenderloins over mounds of garlicky rough-mashed potatoes, then spooned onto the plates a dried-cherry sauce that had been infused with Chipotle, which is a smoke-dried jalapeño chile. The mix of sweet, smoky and spicy flavors was the perfect foil for both the rich, butter-soft meat, a product of the Picuris Pueblo Bison Program, and the smooth, fruity 2004 Cosentino Cabernet Sauvignon that accompanied the course.

The meal came to a delectable close with a flourless chocolate-piñon nut torte that managed to be both opulent and light. Frank told us that cakes she’d sampled on the feast days of the nearby Pueblos had inspired her recipe.

After the event, diners lined up to have Frank and her colleagues autograph copies of her handsomely photographed cookbook, Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations (Ten Speed Press, 2002), winner of a 2003 James Beard Foundation Award, the culinary world’s equivalent to an Oscar. Sated—with both food and information—audience members congratulated Frank and her team. A few popped into the cooking school’s adjoining store to find the ingredients they needed to execute the recipes themselves.

To order Frank’s cookbook, go to amazon.com or tenspeed.com. For Red Mesa Cuisine, Information on the Intertribal Bison Cooperative and the Picuris Pueblo Bison Program is at itbcbison.com. The festival website is santafewineandchile.org. At santafeschoolofcooking.com, find classes and gourmet Southwestern food and cooking equipment. 

c. Stephanie Woodard; photos by Stephanie Woodard.

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