Featured Foodie: Dr. Lois Ellen Frank of Red Mesa Cuisine
Author and PhD, Lois Ellen Frank, is far from your average chef. An adjunct professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts, her cookbook, “Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations” won the James Beard Award in 2003. She is an accomplished food photographer who has worked with the likes of Alice Waters, owner of famed restaurant Chez Panisse, and is the co-founder of Red Mesa Cuisine, a catering company that uses indigenous ingredients. Many of these ingredients are provided by tribal nations using traditional, sustainable agricultural practices which Dr. Frank uses to create dishes and experiences that educate about and preserve Native American food cultures. In her career, she has come up against many obstacles, like the hypermasculinity of the restaurant world and the denial of the existence of Native American cuisine. In response, she has resolutely carved out her own path.
Frank, Lois Ellen. “Kachina Face”. 2020. jpg file.
Dr. Frank’s love of Native cooking began as a young girl growing up in Remsenburg, near Westhampton, New York. “It was more rural. We had a garden and I worked as a stable girl and worked on planting gardens. So a lot of my sort of ‘touching the earth’ experiences happened out there”, she explains. Her mother, who was Kiowa, kept a vegetable garden as well, and influenced her view of food and its connection to the natural world.
“My mom always had a garden. The Native side is my mom, the Sephardic Jewish side is my dad. So you know, my mom, because she worked, and she was in an urban setting, I think when Rachel Carson came out with Silent Spring and this idea that everything was connected, that resonated very much with her Native ideology. And so she instilled a lot of that into us. I remember her having straw and egg shells in buckets, and we had to put the [leftover] food in the bucket and go out to the garden. And so she was composting before I think they called it compost. It was just putting back to the earth. So for us a lot of things that have now become trendy were just a part of who she was, you know, that idea that everything is connected.”
Through selling the produce from their garden, a young Dr. Frank made an observation that would lead her into the world of cooking. “What I noticed was that the raw vegetables- the carrots, the zucchini, or the tomatoes, which we seemed to have large amounts of, didn’t move as quickly as I wanted them to. And so I started to make these little mini zucchini breads and carrot breads, and we would sell out. I think I was about ten or eleven. So I realized early on that when you take something and you make it into something else, it increases its value.”
Frank, Lois Ellen. “Stuffed Chile”. 2020 jpg file.
This took her to culinary school, where she quickly realized that she had entered a world that was not exactly hospitable towards women.
“I worked in restaurants, and the executive chef was always a man. All of that just didn’t sit well with me.”
“I was told that as a woman, I should go into pastry. I would just never be an executive chef. The whole commercial kitchen and escoffier, the foundation, the brigade system, the line, all of that is based on the guild system, which is male dominated in European culture. Men were in guilds, not women. I worked in restaurants, and the executive chef was always a man. All of that just didn’t sit well with me.”
Realizing that these were not terms she would settle for, she decided to try another route into the world of food- photography. “I don’t like sugar. I don’t want to be a pastry chef. I want to be a savory chef. So I left that. My undergraduate degree, my BA, is in photography… And what came naturally to me when we had an assignment was food. I know how to cook it, I can photograph it, then I can eat it.”
Frank, Lois Ellen. “Chocolate Pinon Torte.” 2020. jpg file.
“[So] I went into the food advertising industry. But what I realized was that the people who have money to pay the food photographer, are the corporations. So whether you’re doing frozen pizza…or any of those large [fast food] corporations, you’re making their food look beautiful, which I have no problem doing. But I was promoting foods that I didn’t eat, and part of what I saw behind the scenes was the waste.”
After an upbringing based on the value of and connection to food, throwing away fifty pizzas to achieve the perfect cheese pull, or dozens of avocados to get the perfect slice was unsettling. To find something more in line with her values, she left the advertising industry to do editorial photography. She began to work with Alice Waters, photographing squash, tomatoes, and other vegetables- an exercise in appreciating food in its simplest form. Alice Waters, who put her restaurant, Chez Panisse, on the map in the 70’s by prizing seasonal, locally sourced food before it was trendy, shared Dr. Frank’s appreciation for whole, well-prepared food that is valued and respected.
Frank, Lois Ellen. “Indian Corn of the Americas”. 2020 jpg file.
Throughout this time Dr. Frank had been struck by the idea of creating a Native cookbook. When she first approached publishers in New York with the concept, she was told two things: “One, Native people don’t have a cuisine… And two with a BA in art, I didn’t really have any credentials to prove them wrong… So I did do a book. It’s called ‘Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations’, which won the James Beard Award. But you’ll notice the title was still not Native American cuisine, which always disturbed me.”
So, even though she had defied publishers and written a Native cookbook that would later win one of the most prestigious awards in the food world, Dr. Frank now set her sights on proving that indigenous people do indeed have distinct and perfectly legitimate food cultures.
Frank, Lois Ellen. “Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations.” 2002. jpg file.
“While the book came out, I started my Masters program and then went on to PhD work… And the title of my dissertation is ‘The Discourse and Practice of Native American Cuisine: Native American Chefs and Native American Cooks in Contemporary Southwest Kitchens’. And now… I have proven without a doubt that Native people do, in fact, have a cuisine, using that deconstructed French word. Foods from a region being cooked or performed on a daily basis. So every culture has a cuisine. I think Europeans have always felt a little Eurocentric- that theirs was best. So Aboriginals and First Nations and Native people and Michika, you know, everywhere in the world, people have a cuisine that might not be palatable to your palate. But it doesn’t mean that it’s less than or more than.”
This refreshing lesson in inclusivity is an important one, and one that Dr. Frank has learned in part through her cross-cultural background.
“I think growing up with different cultural traditions, different religions, different languages, different ways of being in the world…I have learned that you are totally who you eat. I really try to be a role model for walking my talk and using Native sourced or locally sourced foods as part of my identity.
“…we need to allow for divergent and diverse ways to get to a place of wholeness, health, and wellness and be open to differences because that’s what makes the United States so unique.”
“I do think [food and cultural identity] are inextricably linked to who we are. And when we think about the United States now, and we think about diversity, a lot of people have fear surrounding diversity. But the way I look at it, is that I use the bicycle wheel metaphor. If health and wellness is the center, then there are tons of spokes that go there to the center. And it doesn’t matter how you get to the center, as long as you get there. So if I’m Thai American, then health and wellness for me is going to look differently than someone who grew up in the Midwest whose grandma made apple pie. That apple pie might be very comforting, but if I’m Thai, it doesn’t have the same resonance. It doesn’t have the same meaning.”
“So I think we need to allow for divergent and diverse ways to get to a place of wholeness, health, and wellness and be open to differences because that’s what makes the United States so unique. And then that creates tolerance. And that creates acceptance. That creates openness to different ways of approaching the same thing.”
Frank, Lois Ellen. “Acorn Soup”. 2020. jpg file.
In her own company, Red Mesa Cuisine, she has been teaching these ideals through Native cooking classes. Nowadays, they look different because of COVID-19, but that has allowed her to spread her knowledge of healthful, indigenous food to indigenous communities in need.
“We’ve been doing a lot of zoom and virtual learning, especially for the homebound and the Indian nations who have been so hard to hit during this. A) they’re isolated, B) they’re in food deserts. So we took some very simple things that we thought people would have. And one of the things that came out of this was that we did a little video on how to make ash.”
“Culinary ash has tons of nutrients and lots of minerals. One teaspoon of culinary ash has the equivalent calcium as a glass of milk. And culinary ash is something that many of the Pueblos as well as the Navajo and some Eastern tribes have always used. Some of the Eastern tribes use wood ash. Here [in New Mexico], they use branches, so maybe from the Juniper tree, or the Four-wing Saltbush. So you burn the branches, you take the ash, and you strain it, so there’s no wood pieces, and then that powder looks like baking powder…it’s then added to cornmeal, increasing the nutritional value. But what has popped up from COVID is that these [Native] grandmas are making culinary ash in these remote areas and selling it on Etsy. So if you live in an urban area and you can’t make it you go on Etsy and buy it. [The grandma’s] get to sell it…giving them economic viability, especially during a very difficult time. So we’re using this old [practice].”
“Where we are now is the most exciting… for the first time in the [modern] history of these Native American communities, they can decide what’s on their own plate.”
Dr. Frank also puts a modern spin on these ancient foods. “We did a video on how to make a mush which is a pudding that solidifies, from the ash and cornmeal and then we went a step further and boiled berries to make a compote. Then we layered it. So the cornmeal, then the ash, then the berries, and made it into a parfait. And we called it a Native American parfait. So we modernized some very, very old things, and in the process helped out other [Native] people that are either growing, grinding, or making the ash and made a recipe and a video. And it’s been huge in these Native communities. We’re using old food and bringing it into the modern kitchen for health and wellness, because they are so healthy. I mean, mush with ash? Everybody would be like ‘Ew, what’s that?’ But when you taste it in a parfait, it’s so good. So, again, the very old in a modern context.”
Frank, Lois Ellen. “Native Parfait.” 2020. jpg file.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, some of these old methods were nearly forgotten when Native groups were forced onto reservations and cut off from their natural food sources. Instead, the government gave them cheap, high-fat rations to eat. This deeply impacted the health of Native communities in ways that still affect them to this day. But the future is bright.
“Where we are now is the most exciting. And that is the New Native American cuisine… for the first time in the [modern] history of these Native American communities, they can decide what’s on their own plate. I call it going back to the past to move forward to the future. You can go back to your own past and look at what was eaten and why the elders were so healthy, and then put it on your plate now. We reclaim, revitalize, reinvigorate, and in some instances, reintroduce these ancestral foods for health and wellness. And so it’s a really exciting time to be a chef or a [Native] community member. Because we get to decide what’s on that plate. And that brings in food sovereignty and food policy and food justice, and TEK (traditional ecological knowledge). And so all of these [old] ways…become viable, vibrant, and relevant to where we are now.”
Frank, Lois Ellen. Red Mesa Cuisine. 2020. jpg file.
With those old ways come a resurgence of the culture that surrounds them. “When you revitalize something, you don’t only revitalize that food, that dish, but you revitalize how to plant, when to plant, how to harvest, the basket that you need to harvest in, the planting stick, the song, the story, the recipe, so it becomes much larger than just the food. It becomes everything culturally associated with that. And I think that that’s important. In all cultural traditions. So that’s a lot of what we do at Red Mesa. We’re working with the New Mexico Department of Health, we’re working with tribal communities, we’re working with urban nonprofits, and doing virtual learning.”
You don’t have to be in the Native community to take part in this movement either.
“We’re also offering this to families…You can cook along with us or you can just watch us do it and become a part of this movement. It’s actually been really fun…to help families bond. I think food is not only medicine, but food is a binding ingredient…and I think at Red Mesa, we want every color, every culture, and every family to be healthy and well, not only in our Native communities, although we are very Native focused. And what a great way to bring together learning the story of the foods that Native people gave to the world and reconnecting with your own family. My hopes are…to educate and help people to appreciate and understand food…To touch it, to respect it, and to evolve with it in ways that they didn’t before.”
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