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Interview: Native American Chef and Culinary Anthropologist Lois Ellen Frank

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We talk foodways, Thanksgiving, and her important life’s work.

head shot Lois Ellen Frank chef and Native American food historian
Photo courtesy Lois Ellen Frank, by Daphne Hougard

In the space of a 45-minute call with Lois Ellen Frank, Ph.D. last month, I learned more about Native American food traditions and history than I had learned in my entire life. This seems especially important as we celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday founded in remembrance of how the Wampanoag tribe enabled the Plymouth, Massachusetts pilgrims to survive the winter of 1620.

Santa Fe, New Mexico-based chef, author, Native foods historian and photographer Lois Ellen Frank was born in New York City and raised on Long Island, New York. She is from the Kiowa Nation on her mother’s side and Sephardic on her father’s side.

Dr. Frank has spent over 25 years documenting foods and life ways of Native American tribes from the Southwest, culminating in her James Beard Award-winning book, Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations, the first Native American book to win the award. Lois Ellen Frank has worked with world-renowned chefs, scientists, and academics in multiple capacities. She is a leading expert on using traditional foods to foster health among Native American communities.

lois ellen frank profile native american food corn and grain
Photo courtesy Lois Ellen Frank/Red Mesa Cuisine

Lois received her Ph.D. in 2011. Her dissertation, “The Discourse and Practice of Native American Cuisine: Native American Chefs and Native American Cooks in Contemporary Southwest Kitchens,” will be one of her next books, tentatively titled The Turquoise Plate. She received her M.A. in Cultural Anthropology in May 1999, where she focused on the importance of corn as a common thread to all Indigenous tribes throughout the Americas.

She currently is owner and chef at Red Mesa Cuisine, a catering company focused on Native cuisine with a modern, and educational, twist.

Below, we talk about her background, losing her mother, how to understand Native American cuisine, and more.

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wooden dish with native american wild rice salad with sweet potato corn and mushrooms

Interview: Native American chef and food historian Lois Ellen Frank

This interview took place in October 2020. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Lisa Ruland: You were not raised in a Native American tradition. Yet you have developed such a deep and important relationship to your Native American ancestry. Can you talk about how that developed?

Lois Ellen Frank: My mom (who is Kiowa) always instilled in us who we were and was very liberal and open. She read Rachel Carson in the 1950s and really believed in everything being connected, and that’s from her native heritage. So she made sure that she instilled that in us. She always had a garden as was using eggshells and fish bones in it. For lack of a better way to say it, we grew up knowing who we were.  

I am sorry to hear of her passing. When did you lose your mother?

She died in May 2017. She was diagnosed with dementia in 2011. As the three of us started thinking back in the timeline, there were other warning signs that she may have had problems earlier than that.

Eventually, I became her caregiver, which was really interesting and full circle because she was always closer to my sister. My mom pushed a little and I was always so independent, and we just weren’t as close. So the full circle was that I became the caregiver and I got to give her the same love that she gave us. She was the most wonderful gift in the world. So as she began to decline, she always knew who I was.

One of her favorite things to do was just go out and drive and look at the mountains. And her second favorite was chocolate ice cream at Baskin Robbins, and we would go every week. She would always say, “Chocolate is good for the soul. Chocolate makes you feel good.” Even in her demented state, she was right.

I was there the night she passed. There was a ritual — my experience with her is so complete. After she passed, I went to grief counseling and learned about the four stages of grief. At that time a lot of other stuff was going on, too. Your body gets jolted. At first you’re in shock. And once the shock sets in, then you can do the grieving.

Grief is physical. You feel sick.

You are sick. It’s the mind-body connection and they don’t always meet.

Native American cuisine is not monolithic, but very diverse and reflective of many different traditions, evolutions, and regional ingredients. Native American foodways have evolved over centuries, for environmental reasons, societal reasons, survival reasons. That said, how can you explain “Native American cuisine” to someone? Are there common threads? You talk about the 4 periods of Native American cuisine.

Native American cuisine is made up of four historic periods: pre-contact, first contact, government issue, and new Native.

The first is the pre-contact period — for which we can go back in my research 10,000 years. You can go back to when fire was first introduced, and then all the foods that native people ate, and you also have to bring into that equation trade routes.

So here in New Mexico, we have Chaco Canyon, where archaeologists found theobromine which was 1,000 years old. Theobromine is the marker for chocolate. So we know that chocolate was in Chaco Canyon over 1,000 years ago, and that tells us that chocolate, which originated in Mesoamerica (now Mexico) had its own trade routes, and those beans were dried and powdered and shared.

And they’ve also found at other sites, like in North Dakota, quinoa that is over 2,000 years old. Quinoa does not grow natively in North Dakota. This was brought north and traded, and probably used for planting. So the trade routes are much more extensive, making the diet much more diverse than originally thought.

shucked ears of corn on wood

This period also included the “Magic Eight.” These are the eight plants that Native Americans gave to the world: potatoes, tomatoes, corn, beans, squash, chili, cacao, and vanilla. All of these have origins in America. So this means that up to 1492, these ingredients never existed in what was labeled in the “old world.”

Think about what that means: no potatoes in Ireland or Russia, no vanilla or cacao in any French usage, no tomatoes in Italy. In a sense, it’s fascinating that we aren’t really taught that history.

Next is first contact. It’s going to vary demographically where you are in the United States. So for example, I’m speaking to you in English language. So we can say that the English had a profound effect on the United States. And we can look south and say that the Spanish had a profound effect on the south, in Mexico and South America, and so on.

And so where you were demographically, it was those first contacts that changed the essence and foodways to everywhere and probably the biggest thing was domestication of animals for eating. And you can’t milk a wild elk or a wild deer or bison. There was no dairy, no cheese, no butter, no yogurt. Those all came with Europeans, so we delineate this by saying “first contact.” So the tomato is first contact Italian. The Navajo sheep is first-contact European.

And then things get even more ugly. We can go from 1492, and by the early 1600s we have Plymouth Rock, which has its 400th year this fall, and then Pilgrims, and then the 13 colonies, and then the 1700s and the Revolutionary War, and then the Civil War and industrialization. Throughout this, we see more and more immigration.

Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1862), U.S. Capitol Building

So by the time my grandparents on my father’s side immigrated to America, there were 3,000 immigrants a day being processed through Ellis Island. That is millions and millions a year, and the U.S. government encouraged people to move westward. The government offered “free land” — which sounds great as an immigrant or on the east coast, but if I’m a native person, this feels like an invasion, or an encroachment.

Native Americans are now are forced off of their ancestral homeland. So every time you’re uprooted and moved to another location, you lose your tradition. The land I live in here in New Mexico is so different than that land you live in on the east coast that I don’t even know how to even live in a moist environment, let alone find food — the foods I knew and how to plant and how to harvest and how to fish — and so I have to learn this entirely new ecosystem.

If you were even allowed to do this.

Right. So what the U.S. government did was dole out commodity food in the form of rations in the lard, sugar, flour, and coffee, and if you were lucky, small cans of army-issued meat. The movie Woman Walks Ahead shows these rations and how a woman who doesn’t mean to do any harm at all, does.

Which raises the issue of “traditional” Native American foods like fry bread, probably one of the best-known or most commonly-associated Native American foods. But the root of this bread is not a good one.

So the third period is the government issue period. Out of necessity, Native American people developed fry bread, to cook from their commodity rations since they were no longer able to farm their own native land. Which, if you eat fry bread once in a while is ok, but it can make people unhealthy because of the lard the bread is fried in.

And where we are now in the fourth period: New Native. New Native cuisine is where native peoples get to decide what they want in their diet. There is a movement to go back and eat from those first two periods. So it’s really about going back to the past to be healthy in the future.

In doing research before this interview, I learned more about how complicated the American Thanksgiving holiday is among Native Americans. What is your take?

Thanksgiving is a problematic holiday. However, my own perspective is that if we can have one day and we’re together with family and eat together, then it’s a good day. But I think we need to be more accurate about why that holiday evolved and its history. It just wasn’t a happy time when the Native Americans provided food to the pilgrims for their survival.

Do you celebrate Thanksgiving? What are some traditional Thanksgiving dishes on your table?

I have Thanksgiving. This year’s going to be different because of Covid, but it’s a time when I have people over and is a time to acknowledge the native food contribution to the foods we eat everyday, so I approach it that way.

So certainly, squash and corn and beans (the three sisters), and I might do a stuffed quail with cornbread and sage stuffing, maybe wild rice to honor a different native food from another part of the country, and corn soup and really whatever is available during the harvest. I am very farm to table and what is available to celebrate the harvest at the time.

I focus on our food’s health benefits, and how native foods tie into traditional medicine and maintaining a healthy diet in general. This seems particularly important because Native Americans suffer disproportionately from metabolic diseases.

Ed. Note: Chef Lois has published more than 15 culinary posters, more than 18 cookbooks, and, in collaboration with Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nationally-distributed video and recipe booklet titled “Power to Heal Diabetes: Food for Life in Indian Country.”

Food is our medicine. A lot of the teachings that I do and work I do in native communities is a return to the ancestral diet for health and wellness, and defining what that is depending on which community we work with.

The U.S.D.A’s current MyPlate guide to eating, which does not align with a traditional, healthy Native American diet.
A better and healthier model of eating, promoted by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine as part of its Native American resources.

The ancestral diet was lots of plants: vegetables, legumes, grains, and lots of water. So if we take the My Plate the U.S. government recommends now, we see this little glass of milk on the side. Well, that’s not Native. For Native Americans, that would be wild game. How was that used? Well, as native people we did not have that every day we weren’t going to Denny’s every day. So we have to adjust. I promote a “Nativore” diet. A lot of plants.

What is a culinary anthropologist? What can you tell about a Native American culture — or any culture — from its food?

I call myself a culinary anthropologist. And the reason I embarked on my Ph.D. was because when I wanted to do a book on Native American cuisine, publishers in New York told me 1) Native Americans don’t have a cuisine, and 2) with a B.A. in an art, I wasn’t qualified to write a book like this.

“Cuisine” means food from a particular region prepared on a regular basis. So using that as a definition, native people in fact do have a cuisine. And that cuisine might be different from a Euro-centric perspective, but this style or method of cooking specific to a particular region is definitely equal to its European counterparts. Every culture in the world has a cuisine. That cuisine might not be as palatable. None is more or less, just different. Irish cuisine is not better than aboriginal, and so on.

Talk about the mission of Red Mesa Cuisine. It’s not just a regular catering company, that’s for sure.

Ed. Note: Red Mesa’s mission is to bring Native American cuisine into the contemporary Southwest kitchen, to help sustain traditional Native American foods and agricultural practices, and to keep alive ancestral culinary techniques from Native communities all over the Americas.

No, the driver of what we do is education. Doing a talk or a presentation on the history of the ingredients and letting people eat their way through that food and have an experience around that.

How has Covid affected you and your work?

I haven’t done a live culinary event since March. So we’ve been switching to virtual working with the New Mexico department of health, and working to produce videos, virtual consulting, virtual cooking classes. A lot of virtual.

One of the things that’s happened with Covid that I’ve become a lot more local. When the pandemic hit, I had a lot of food, and it was too much for myself and [Red Mesa Cuisine partner] Chef Walter. So we began to look at neighbors. And I have a neighbor who can’t cook, and another neighbor we began giving food to. So any time we cooked we would package it up and shoot a text and whoever replied, we would deliver it at no cost to those neighbors. So Covid has opened an opportunity to connect with people who might be elderly and alone and help them, which has been a great benefit to me, in fact.

head shot Lois Ellen Frank chef and Native American food historian
Photo courtesy Lois Ellen Frank/Red Mesa Cuisine

Lois, thank you so much for your time and this fantastic interview.

3 comments

  • Katherine Sleeper

    Enjoy unpeeled journal. This article was excellent. I made the wild rice for Christmas and it was a big hit. Please keep giving inspiring articles and your recipes.

    • Unpeeled

      Hello and thank you so much. This is truly so nice to hear. I really enjoyed doing Lois’s profile and am so glad you enjoyed it–and the wild rice! It’s nice to highlight a Native American recipe, and I thought hers was so tasty and healthful, too. (Bonus!) Thanks again, and I hope you continue to enjoy Unpeeled!

  • Very informative and intriguing interview. Not only is Lois’ research fascinating but so is her focus of improving the health of Native Americans by applying her findings. .

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