Chewing the fat: An interview with the founder of the Native American Culinary Association

Published in Indian Country Today in 2006. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle...

he recent transformation of indigenous family and community cooking into Native-inspired restaurant cuisine meant that when chef Nephi Craig, White Mountain Apache/Navajo, founded the Native American Culinary Association in 2003, the group soon had about 100 members logging onto its website,, and swapping information about their growing field. Indian Country Today talked with Craig, shown center with his cooking team, about the trend.

Indian Country Today: When indigenous products — bison, corn, squash — make the transition to a high-caliber restaurant, do they change?
Nephi Craig: When an ingredient travels from a reservation farmer to the fine-dining establishment, it is altered. The dish that’s created is a reflection of the chef who’s running the kitchen. His or her life experience — including knowledge of food, culture and human beings — and the care with which he or she does the job all play a part. The transformation is then experienced by the diner. This process is what makes Native food, and cuisine in general, so interesting.

ICT: Heirloom foods have distinctive flavors and textures. Do chefs appreciate this as much as diners?
NC: Absolutely. Creativity, which depends in large part on the availability of unique flavors, is a huge driving force in the culinary industry.

Has restaurant interest in Native food products had an economic effect on tribal producers?
NC: The pebble has been dropped into the pond, but we don’t know how far it will ripple. Top restaurants have begun seeking reservation sources in just the past five years. We’ll have to see how it evolves economically.

ICT: What about cultural repercussions?
NC: We chefs have to leave our reservations if we want to cook in a four-star manner. We’re celebrating our food, but at the expense of being separated from our people. And elders are asking what happens when a community’s food is taken from its humble roots — its spiritual context — and becomes mass-produced. We don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see.

ICT: Is there a traditional dish that means home to you?
NC: I am Navajo and Apache, so there are two. My Apache favorite is acorn stew and ash bread. It’s simple and wholesome. From Navajo comes steam corn stew with fry bread. Both have four ingredients: water, meat, corn or acorn, and flour for the bread. They’re pure reflections of their cultures. I’d never tamper with them. They’re perfect the way they are.

ICT: What will you cook during your upcoming lecture-demonstration at Sherman Indian High School?
NC: First, I’ll pass around samples of these very dishes — acorn stew and steam corn stew. Something to tie the students to home. I know there are a number of Apache kids there. Then I’ll take the culinary-arts students who’ll be participating through a slide lecture in which I encourage them to think outside the boundaries of classic European cuisine and incorporate inspiration from their own cultural traditions. If they continue as professionals, this will help them develop their own philosophy of Native American cuisine. Then I’ll produce upscale, modern dishes that acts as proof of this approach. The ingredients, many of which are simple food staples, will be seasonal and familiar — teary beans, cholla buds, acorn flour, blue and white corn from Navajoland and Indian tea — but presented in new interpretations that can be considered serious cuisine.

ICT: Tell me about cooking at Mary Elaine’s.
NC: It was like graduate school for me. I expected to find culinary gods in the kitchen of such an upscale restaurant, but they were real people — who happened to be very intelligent, talented, dedicated and hardworking. I was also amazed to see their reaction to certain products. They’d look at high-priced soon-ground cornmeal and remark on how unusual and wonderful it was. Then I would take a look, and it was what I see on the rez everyday. But they were not used to the hand-processed food that is the norm in Indian communities.

ICT: How does these foods’ healthiness figure in?
NC: The Native food movement may include a cuisine element, but it also comes out of healing our people through food. We’re just coming out of what I call the Great Interruption in the evolution of culture and cuisine. We suffered a violent clash of cultures that lasted five hundred years and ended with the imposition of the reservation system and a new diet of cheap, high-fat, high-carbohydrate commodity foods — sugar, lard, refined flour, and so on — distributed by the U.S. government. They in turn produced diabetes, heart disease and obesity — killers that are running rampant in all Native communities.
Food relates to every aspect of human life — health, spirituality, ceremony, family and culture. Much was lost during the Interruption, particularly for tribes that were relocated, but the traditions are powerful and much remains. We will use this culinary and cultural heritage to build the future of Native American cuisine and public health. 

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs courtesy Nephi Craig.

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