Exploring Contemporary Native American Cuisine with Chef Lois Ellen Frank

By Gabriella Marks

Red Mesa Cuisine offers a culinary experience where guests and participants are educated on the history of the foods they eat
and how these Native American foods are gathered, grown, and harvested. Photos by Gabriella Marks.

Chef Lois Ellen Frank settles down with a mug of steaming hot green tea sweetened with a spoonful of raw honey. On the table before her is a vibrant seasonal centerpiece of blue corn cobs, miniature white  pumpkins, and the unpredictable geometries and brilliant fall colors of ornamental gourds.

It’s a rare moment of stillness for Frank, who has just returned from leading a workshop hosted by the Squaxin Island Tribes near Olympia, Washington. Last night she hosted a dinner at home for friends visiting in town for a conference on Native American food. She’s being interviewed on a podcast later this afternoon, and then heading back west in a day’s time for another workshop, this time with the Kalispell Tribe, in Spokane.

It’s a typical week for Frank (Kiowa), whose role as a chef, author, educator, and ambassador for contemporary Native American cuisine keeps her constantly in motion. Together with business partner Chef Walter Whitewater (Diné), she has created Red Mesa Cuisine, a catering company whose mission extends far beyond simply serving contemporary Native American cuisine. Using ancient techniques with ancestral ingredients, Red Mesa offers a culinary experience where guests and participants are educated on the history of the foods they eat and how these Native American foods are gathered, grown, and harvested.

That meal can manifest as a multi-course candlelight dinner with wine pairings at a Santa Fe winery, or as a communal feast during a workshop where Frank and Whitewater are working to bring back health through food to Native communities around the country.

With a PhD in culinary anthropology from UNM, Frank approaches what she calls her “Native American Power Plate” with a philosophy deeply rooted in food research, inflected with an aesthetic sense from her years as a professional food photographer and seasoned by her years as a working chef.

Today, that power plate represents her “new Native” approach to contemporary Native American cuisine. Frank defines the epochs of Native American cuisine by four historical periods: pre-contact, first contact, government issue, new Native. With new Native, Frank advocates for “going back to the future”: encouraging tribes to customize a sustainable, Native American diet to fit their ecological region and to focus on the four aspects of the medicine wheel—fruits, grains, beans, vegetables—with the addition of wild game.

Today, that means evolving recipes. For instance, she teaches a recipe for a “no fry” fry bread, which calls for grilling dough, to create a healthier alternative to the commodity-based recipe from the days of government issue. There is also the trend toward low fat to no fat salad dressings, like a coleslaw dressed with apple cider vinegar and sea salt rather than mayonnaise.

Frank’s take on contemporary Native American food also reflects a global and environmental sensitivity to using meat. While not vegan, or even strictly vegetarian, her approach is decidedly Pollanesque, echoing those seven words of food and health wisdom: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” It can be a challenge to make a stew taste great without meat, but she is committed to developing something both delicious and nutritious with a few simple, mostly plant-based, ingredients.

She shares this approach through workshops and meals across the country, training the trainers, as she puts it, teaching chefs who cook for senior centers and Head Start programs in Native communities. Those who make meals can directly affect the health and well-being of their communities.

This philosophy of food isn’t simply about diet. It’s about improving health outcomes through changing lifestyles. Frank is invested in food not simply for sustenance, but as a source of healing. She is working with food as a feeling, a way to change perspectives and strengthen sense of well-being. But changing behaviors, especially those around food, can be surprisingly difficult. Humans have deeply rooted emotional memories and habits surrounding the purchase, preparation, and consumption of food. We are what we eat, and our personal and cultural identities are inseparable from the food we eat—and the way we eat it.

And yet in keeping with her belief that rediscovering old ways can bring us “back to the new,” Frank revives old traditions to help enact new behaviors. In the past ten years, there have been exciting new discoveries mapping the relationship of storytelling to brain chemistry. Numerous studies indicate that storytelling induces the brain’s production of a stimulating chemical cocktail of cortisol (which helps us stay attentive), dopamine (pleasurable rewards for that attentiveness), and oxytocin (promoting prosocial, empathetic behavior). Studies such as those by Paul Zak, a professor at the Claremont Graduate School, indicate that this potent combination helps catalyze action—changing behavior through changing brain chemistry.

Which brings us back to that workshop hosted by the Squaxin Island Tribes. After sharing a hearty meal, participants sat in a circle, where Frank went around the circle, asking participants to offer a word that captured how they felt about the meal. When thinking about healing through food—from cycles of unhealthy government-issued commodities to recovering from addiction—storytelling, that simple interaction all humans used to share with meals, is a powerful ingredient.

As she cooks, teaches, travels, and tells stories, she is keenly aware that change is still a question of personal decision. “As an individual, what are you comfortable with?” For Frank, it’s working within an ethical context: “Trying to talk my talk and eat the way I teach.” 

Sourcing is a key component when it comes to cooking. Frank has long lasting relationships with many vendors from the Santa Fe Farmers Market and the surrounding pueblos, buying hundreds of tomatoes annually from farmer Jose Gonzalez; amaranth, corn shoots, and baby carrots from Urban Rebel farms; and blue cornmeal from the Santa Ana Pueblo’s Cooking Post in Bernalillo. At the same time, she is quick to point out that her driving mantra for sourcing is as a “Nativevore,” rather than a “locavore.”

Left: Lois Ellen Frank in her home. Right: Chef Frank, above, and Chef Walter Whitewater, below, of Red Mesa Cuisine catering an event.  Photos by Gabriella Marks

She seeks out Native American producers, supporting indigenous industry so Native American growers can make a living doing something that sustains them. Frank is wild about a lesser-known bean from the Sonoran desert called the tepary, which she sources from Ramona Farms in Arizona. This bean is considered the world’s most drought-tolerant bean, is twenty to thirty percent higher in protein and fiber than most other beans, and has a low glycemic index that won’t spike blood sugar.

Furthermore, it simply doesn’t make sense to buy rice from California marketed as “wild rice” and cultivated using an incredibly water intensive process when she can buy true wild rice grown naturally in the lakes and rivers of northern Minnesota, hand-harvested and wood parched by tribal members using traditional methods, from NativeHarvest.com.

To learn more about Frank’s Native American cuisine, attend a Red Mesa Cuisine event, take one of her classes at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, or try cooking the recipes in her James Beard award-winning cookbook, Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations.


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