Chicken Nuggets On The Path To The Native Foods Movement

on Wednesday, Jan. 26th

Depending where you live, and the income tier you occupy, the foodie revolution that’s spawned movements like Slow Food and “locavorism” can feel inescapable. But these culinary constituencies have considerable overlap with one that’s largely flown under the rader – the Native foods movement.

One of its leading proponents is Sante Fe-based Chef Lois Ellen Frank, who’s working with other chefs to form a standard for the definition of Native cuisine. That quest, which will reach a benchmark this March when she defends her dissertation on Native chefs in contemporary kitchens, began almost 20 years ago when the publisher of her first book informed her that there was no such thing as Native cuisine. “This encouraged me,” Frank said wryly, “to go into academia, and prove not only do (Native people) have a cuisine – but that most Native women that cooked for big groups of people were the true definition of a chef.”

This was the second turning point in her career that Frank said was the result of a “splinter” or a “thorn.” Another moment that spurred her into change happened during culinary school, when she was told that her options were to work under a man, or become a pastry chef. “I graduated high school in 1977, and there was something that disturbed me about that statement . I know the East Coast was much more conservative in its approach to cooking, and men do dominate. It goes back to the guild system in Europe.” But being told she couldn’t be a chef-owner, Frank said, was enough to spur her into switching gears — to photography school.

Frank began what she calls a very rewarding advertising career with some of L.A.’s best food photographers. The rub? She had seen how the figurative sausage was made. “I was promoting foods that, when I saw the quality of the ingredients, wasn’t up to my personal standards…of being wholesome, hearty, organic.”

It all came to a head on a shoot that gave the star treatment to chicken nuggets. Reknowned photographer Ernst Haas asked her simply if “that was the poetry from inside my being.” Frank was floored. “He asked me what was the poetry and how could I use that as a form of expression in my photography. So that’s really when I started to look at my mom’s heritage, and documenting native food.”

Stay tuned for part two of our introduction to Lois Ellen Frank and the Native food movement.

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