The culture of food: Chefs to highlight history of Native American cuisine

Published 7:50 am Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Whitewater prepares a Native American meal. Whitewater is a chef with Red Mesa Cuisine, a catering company based out of Santa Fe, N.M. (Submitted photo)

Whitewater prepares a Native American meal. Whitewater is a chef with Red Mesa Cuisine, a catering company based out of Santa Fe, N.M. (Submitted photo)

Anthropologists come in many different flavors.

Some study language. Others culture. And some, like Chef Lois Ellen Frank, study the history of food.

And, like the study the history in other subjects, what people learn from the past of cooking can benefit their own dishes in the present.

Frank, along with Chef Walter Whitewater, will bring her knowledge of classic and contemporary Native American cuisine to the people of Dowagiac during the Dogwood Fine Arts Festival, which takes place in May. The pair will host three different cooking demonstrations during the weeklong festival, showcasing the history of native cooking and providing attendees with a chance to sample dishes with a flavor that is distinct from the usual Midwestern fare.

“They will teach you how to incorporate cultural heritage of food for your table today,” said Bobbie-Jo Hartline, the festival secretary. “You’ll be able to go in and watch, hear and taste what the chefs prepare.”

Frank, a native of Long Island, N.Y., is founder of the New-Mexico based catering company Red Mesa Cuisine, where Whitewater also works. The two chefs specialize in modern Native American food, incorporating classic ingredients with a contemporary twist.

Graduating from the University of New Mexico in 2011 with a doctorate in culinary anthropology, Frank has spent the last several years lecturing around the country about the evolution of Native American cuisine. Focusing on four eras of Native cuisine, Frank tracks the influence that it had on other cultures.

“One thing I was never really taught in culinary school is that American cuisine is made up of Native American ingredients and European recipes,” Frank said.

Frank said that crops grown in the Americas, such as tomatoes and potatoes, had a profound effect on the development of cooking in other nations in Europe and Asia.

“Foods from here literally changed their cuisine,” Frank said. “When we think about Italian cuisine without the potato, it just ceases to exist. You can’t even think of the Irish without potatoes. That all came from here, in America.”

In turn, ingredients and cooking practices from European settlers eventually found its way in Native American dishes as well, Frank said, such as the domestication of chickens. In addition, the relocation of American tribes to reservations ushered in another era of Native American cooking, bringing about the creation of fry bread and indian tacos.

Today, Frank and Whitewater take the ingredients used in different eras and combine them into healthy, yet hearty, dishes. The duo will teach attendees a few of these items during their two demonstrations, emphasizing the use of local ingredients such as the squash, corn and beans.

“Not only do these plants grow sustainably, but they contain every amino acid the body requires,” Frank said.

In addition, they also plan to show off how to use lesser-known ingredients, such as the Paw Paw, a fruit that’s native to the region.

“It’s a wild fruit that’s in danger of growing extinct because no one knows what to do with it anymore,” Frank said.

The first of Dogwood’s three culinary events begins with a lecture on Thursday, May 15, at 7:30 p.m at the Dowagiac Area History Museum. Admission costs $15 for adults and $10 for students.

The two cooking demonstrations, will take place on Friday, May 16, at 7:30 p.m. and on Saturday, May 17, at 10 a.m., both at Dowagiac Middle School. Attendance costs $45 for adults and $40 for students.