Interview with a Chef: Lois Ellen Frank, Ph.D.

Name: Chef Lois Ellen Frank, Ph.D.  
Location: Santa Fe, NM 
Education/background: Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico in Culinary Anthropology (2011)  
Business name: Red Mesa Cuisine, LLC  

What initially led to your passion for indigenous foods? 
I think it was ingrained in me from the beginning. My mom always instilled in us that everything is interconnected and that you can’t do one thing without affecting all things. We had a garden when I was growing up and we would help put egg shells and kitchen scraps under the straw in the garden, and we had a little stand at the end of our road where my brother, sister, and I sold mom’s vegetables. I think I was around 10 or 11 years old when I realized that if I took something like fresh garden zucchini that she grew and I made it into little zucchini breads that I was adding value to the raw vegetable and that we would sell out much quicker at our little stand. I think that was the sort of an epiphany or the moment where I really combined what was always ingrained into who I was and my connection to the land, the garden, my mom, my heritage, and my family, with being a chef.  

My mom was really supportive, encouraging and open. In high school I was allowed to have one or two friends over to experiment with different cookbooks and make foods. Some of it worked really well and some of it completely failed. In that process, I started to learn what flavors I liked and how to cook different dishes. I learned that food demands attention and that you have to have a connection with it. If you walk away from the food you’re cooking, it responds to that. The food interacts with you as the cook or the chef. I believe that it responds to what you are feeling and putting into the food. There are many stories about cooking with a good heart, thinking good thoughts, and putting love into the food you create. I believe that. I think there is a non-tangible essence that goes into what we create, and like both my grandmothers always said to me, you put your love for the people you cook for into the food you make and then they eat that. That is why it tastes so good. 

I took culinary classes and went to culinary school on the east coast, but I think the majority of my experience comes from experimenting and cooking for people at home. What I find fascinating about culinary schools is you can learn things like knife skills, and a very Euro-centric way to make dishes, but I think that what really makes a chef is the application of experience. A foundation of skills is good, but really being a chef just comes from practical experience and forming relationships with people, the land, the farms and from our elders.  

Why do you think it’s important to make traditional foods accessible for Natives? 
In my research, I’ve always broken down Native American cuisine into four distinct historic periods. First, we have the pre-contact period where Native people were trading with one another and exchanging ingredients. This period goes back more than 10,000 years, up until first European contact around 1492. That first contact altered our history and our food. While I don’t believe Columbus discovered America, I do acknowledge that he took ingredients from the Americas back to his world. The period of ingredients being brought from the Americas to Europe is now referred to, by many food scholars, as the Colombian Exchange. The biggest and most profound ingredients that changed the Old World including Europe, Asia, India and Africa are what I call the magic eight. These ingredients included  corn, beans, squash, chilies, tomatoes, potatoes, vanilla and cacao.  

As ingredients from Native America made their way to Europe, Asia, India and Africa, etc. ingredients from those places also made their way to Native America. Some of the most profound ingredients that affected Native America were sheep, beef, goat and chickens and their byproducts such as milk, yogurt, cheese and butter as well as wheat and wine grapes. Those things definitely changed our way of being in the world. I call this period from 1492 until the early 1800s the first contact period.  

In 1824,the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was formed, the United States saw a Westward expansion,  native lands were taken and forced relocation from Native American ancestral homelands took place and Native people were forcibly removed from their homelands. The Trail of Tears started in 1831 and lasted for years and under the Indian Removal Act of 1930, tribes were moved from their traditional homelands into Oklahoma, which at the time was called Indian Territory. The Long Walk of the Navajo came later and was in 1864. The government created reservations with boundaries and because Native People could no longer hunt or gather food on their ancestral homelands, the government issued food rations, usually twice a month. Some people call this period part of the “nutritional genocide” that took place with Native Americans. The foods issued by the government included lard, flour, sugar, coffee and canned meat which was either corned beef or Spam. Many Native American ancestors had to take those rations and make it into something edible. This is where fry bread comes in. So, fry bread has its own problematic past. It does represent survival; but it also represents colonization and subjugation. This period is what I call the government issue period, which goes from the 1800s into the 1900s.  

This brings us to where we are now. Today we are in the period that I call the new Native American Cuisine period. This new generation of chefs are coming in and they are able to define, in their own words, what their cooking is and what foods they want to include for their communities. Every community is unique, therefore the foods in every individual Native American community vary. Each community has the ability now to define what they want to eat and what their own Native American cuisine is. That is a very exciting period and for the first time in history, Native chefs can take ancestral foods and make them modern, or they can make a meal that mixes the pre-contact period with the first contact and the government issue period. And for me, my Indigenous cuisine is about cultural education. 

If I need to make frybread to educate someone about the history behind it and what it means, then I will. I use food as part of cultural education. A lot of what I do is centered around healthy eating, accessibility and affordability of foods. I like to educate people on how they can remain healthy while using the foods they have access to, and that may require combining two or three of the food periods I mentioned. For example, if all someone has is flour and baking powder, I show people how to make “no fry frybread.” We already know how to make the dough, so instead of frying, I teach people how to grill it or put it in a hot, dry cast iron pan to cut back on some of the fat and calories that is added to the bread when it is fried. I’m a big proponent of making the healthiest foods possible with the ingredients we have access to.  

What other ways (besides your business) are you involved in the education, restoration and accessibility of traditional Native foods? 
In 2019, my Santa Fe-based catering company, Red Mesa Cuisine, partnered with Siobhan Hancock from the New Mexico Department of Health’s Obesity, Nutrition, and Physical Activity Program (ONAPA), along with the Aging and Long-Term Services Department (ALTSD) and the Office of Indian Elder Affairs. We held two hands-on trainings in different regions of the state for nearby food service staff from the elder centers in tribal communities. The trainings were an amazing experience. I ran my portion of the culinary trainings alongside Chef Walter Whitewater (Diné) and Aurora Fernandez (Mexican/French) two chefs that work with me at Red Mesa Cuisine. The cooks that participated were divided into small groups at each culinary station, engaging in hands-on food preparation of multiple recipes, followed by a tasting of the food each group had prepared. We introduced new methods of preparation as well as new flavors. In some instances, we presented new ways to cook traditional Native American recipes. For example, when preparing Indian tacos, we used ground organic turkey and pinto beans and toppings including arugula, radishes, microgreens, and sprouts. Another delicious contemporary dish we made from ancestral ingredients is the Native American Parfait: blue corn mush layered together with a mixed berry compote, fresh apples as a sweetener, and a topping of toasted and chopped New Mexico pecans. These recipes, along with the No Fry Frybread (fry bread dough that is grilled instead of fried), were some of the modern twists we introduced to old, familiar recipes. 

During these intensive two-day, hands-on trainings, we also incorporated knowledge of the meaning of the foods we worked with. We talked about how foods like corn, beans and squash—also known as the Three Sisters—play an important part in Native America cuisine and how best to integrate these foods into dishes that can be prepared for elder and senior centers. Not only was the food delicious, but seeing the creative inspiration ignited among the cooks was the highlight for us during the trainings. And when it came time to close the circle, we had created bonds and relationships through our shared history and love of cooking. We learned, we ate, and we shared our Indigenous knowledge with each other, and that was invaluable to all of us. 

I’m also a big proponent of farm-to-table so we are also working on an initiative with the Public Education Department to help small Native farms get approved to sell their produce such as greens, corn, and other vegetables to community schools and senior centers. This instills gardening skills while also restoring food justice and food sovereignty for Native people. Zuni Pueblo is an ONAPA Healthy Kids Healthy Community and an especially good example of a success story in a pueblo community. The Pueblo is currently purchasing food from a school-district-run greenhouse and transitioning to buying directly from Zuni growers. The food service professionals at Zuni Public School District want to buy from their local farmers, and with the Farm to School program in place, they have a clear pathway to do so. Once a local farm is certified, they will be able to provide fresh produce to food service staff at Zuni Public Schools as well as the senior center and Zuni Head Start. The farm-to-school certification process also open up a Zuni garden-to-cafeteria option. Students study and grow local healthy ancestral foods at the garden; using these foods in schools can advance food sovereignty as well as food security and food justice in the Zuni community. This matters—participating students have the opportunity not only to reconnect to tradition, but to take control of where their food comes form. 

We also do classes with universities such as Harvard, Boston University and Loyola Marymount University, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels virtually since the pandemic but in-person prior to that and again when things open up after the pandemic. And we work with nonprofits on virtual classes to help community members learn how to cook with local, accessible and common foods. We do stay very busy, but I think it’s important. If we are able to improve someone’s health and wellness or maybe help some people get off of certain medications related to type 2 diabetes, then I feel we are doing something good and vital to the communities we work with. 

How can community members be involved and support the cause of restoring and protecting indigenous food systems? 
I think it’s good to start small so it doesn’t feel overwhelming. I encourage people to grow herbs in their homes, because it connects you to the food. Try cooking a new indigenous dish or have a family “cook-a-long.” Get out of your comfort zone and try a dish like “no fry frybread,” or three sisters soup without meat. Just don’t overwhelm yourself, and remember that all steps are good steps.  

The final thing I really encourage people to do, if they have the resources is to buy Native. Buy the hand-harvested wild rice, buy the Tepary beans, buy the indigenous corn grown by Native people. This way the money goes to those Native communities to support economic enterprises in those communities with revenues going to Native owned businesses who are growing and harvesting foods on Native lands, but it also helps with the perpetuation of the cultural components associated with those foods as well as keeping alive and keeping vital the traditional knowledge surrounding them.  

1 thoughts on “Interview with a Chef: Lois Ellen Frank, Ph.D.

  1. Valeria says:

    Enjoyed reading the interview. I think it’s very important to embrace and share our respective cultural histories, especially when and where they intersect with European colonizers. Additionally, food has always been a good compass when surveying cultural experiences, customs and histories. Thank you for sharing.

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