Nishat Kurwa on Thursday, Jan. 27th
Even for many epicures who consider themselves adventurous and intrepid, “Native American cuisine” is an abstraction. After fry bread, buffalo, and corn, most laymen would be hard pressed to name its constituent ingredients or dishes, since Native cuisine hasn’t been commercialized to a degree that makes it accessible to non-Native people. More painfully for indigenous food proponents like Chef Lois Ellen Frank, many Native Americans aren’t themselves benefiting from their heritage of healthy foods. Reinvigorating the traditions associated with those foods is at the heart of the Native Foods Movement that Frank is spearheading along with many other food activists, farmers, and historians.
Frank’s work to create a new definition for Native food is tied to the pursuit of her PhD examining the Native chefs’ role in contemporary kitchens. Frank’s food-related career pursuits have been multifaceted, from photographer to chef, but a dismissive comment from someone in the publishing industry almost two decades ago turned her toward the academy. They told Frank that “Native people didn’t have a cuisine.” Frank began unpacking the pronouncement; of course, a “cuisine” is simply defined by a grouping of regional foods that are cooked on a regular basis. “If we look at the United States and all of the Native populations that occupied these areas,” Frank said, “there were regional cuisines just like there are all through Europe.”
Naturally, Frank has frequently had to contend with the culinary industry’s Euro-centric bias as she articulates her thesis. One of her assertions (initially rejected by her committee) is that Spanish-introduced foods like wine grapes and stone fruit are rightfully also components of Native cuisine. She argued that if these foods were excluded, then “you’re going to have to tell the Italians they can’t use tomatoes or pasta in any of their traditional foods because those are not native foods to them. And you can’t. You can’t undo history.”
Frank has identified three stages of evolution for Native food: pre-contact (the ten thousand 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); and government-issue. Pre-contact foods are abundant and diverse; Frank rattled off a list of Southwestern foods alone, accounting for cross-tribal trade, that included, “bison, elk, venison, rabbit, quail, an assortment of fowl, wild herbs, wild lettuces, cacti, berries, and various fruits,” in addition to the cultivars; corn, beans, and squash.
Comparatively, Frank’s category of government-issue food is barren and malnourishment-inducing. “Many Native people were forcibly relocated…and the government issued them basically flour and lard. They made fry bread – which is, from a culinary standpoint, pretty creative,” she said. Nevertheless, these and other army rations issued to relocated tribes was designed to augment their diet. “But in the case of Native people,” Frank said, “because they had lost their hunting and agricultural base, these foods became their diet.”
More than a century later, the health problems associated with those commodity foods are crippling Native communities. As the Native foods movement grows, Frank said she hopes to see those foods supplanted by the wholesome traditional ingredients from the first two categories. “When you revitalize (indigenous people’s) food, they reclaim all the cultural traditions that go with that. An example might be to grind corn in the traditional way, and the songs and prayers and stories that go with that –and that doesn’t even include using that in a recipe.”
To read Chef Lois Ellen Frank’s journey to the Native foods movement, read Part 1 of this story here.