Rediscovering Native American cuisine before it gets lost

Rediscovering Native American cuisine before it gets lost

Culinary anthropologist Lois Ellen Frank brings a fresh perspective on Native American foodways, past, present and future.

For the past 25 years, Lois Ellen Frank, a Santa Fe, N.M.-based educator from the Kiowan nation has been documenting and studying the ways of life and food of Native American tribes.

During an open house/educational seminar at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, N.Y., Frank and fellow chef Walter Whitewater from the Navajo nation, demonstrated how lost native foods can be rediscovered.

THREE BEAN STEW: Served with white cornbread, this stew is made with pinto, kidney and tepary beans, an heirloom variety developed by Native Americans in the Southwest.

One area of focus for Frank has been the lack of credit Native Americans get in terms of food culture in America and the rest of the world. Without the “Magic 8”—ingredients introduced by Native Americans—corn, beans, squash, chilies, tomatoes, potatoes, vanilla and cacao, “Russia wouldn’t have vodka; Italians wouldn’t have tomatoes and the East wouldn’t have chilies for spicy curry,” Frank said during her lecture to the students, faculty and staff. About 300 people attended.

Frank also brought her James Beard Award-winning book, “Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations,” and a simple menu that said a lot about Native foods.

Because food culture—and forgetting parts of food culture—can be a fast process, Frank stresses the importance of preserving recipes and traditions, many of which have already been lost as Native American tribes were forcibly relocated to unfamiliar areas.

“When we lose our food, we lose our traditions, and it only takes one generation to forget,” Frank said during her lecture to the group, which was hosted by Stony Brook’s Chief Diversity Officer Lee Bitsoi, the Faculty Student Association and CulinArt Group.

Frank told the group that young people are key in keeping traditions alive.

“A new generation can modernize and reintroduce Native American cuisine,” she said. “It starts with these new generations sharing their recipes and their food while adapting traditional techniques with new technology.”

While serving three bean stew and white cornbread, Frank used the kernels on a cob of corn to draw parallels about diversity.

“Growing up, my mother always said that humans were all corn,” Frank said. “She explained that like the colors on the medicine wheel, corn comes in yellow, white, black and red. Those colors symbolize the interconnectedness of people, cultures and foods.”

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