If you think you know something about American Indian cuisine, you might be surprised to find out what you don't know after listening to Lois Ellen Frank, one of the nation's foremost experts on the native foodways of the Southwest.
Frank, a college professor, historian and culinary instructor in Santa Fe, N.M., has been studying Southwest Indian food traditions since the 1980s. Her book Food of the Southwest Indian Nations (Ten Speed Press, 2002) won a James Beard Award. She dispels the myth that American Indians were the original locavores, eating only what they could grow and raise in immediate surroundings.
For instance, she says, the remnants of wild rice, abalone and cacao beans (chocolate) were found in Chaco Canyon, west of Santa Fe, indicating that people walked there 1,000 years ago.
"That means this area was a trade hub," she says. None of those foods are native to that area of the country.
Frank will lecture on the history of Southwest Indian cuisine and join chef Walter Whitehouse in preparing food for tasting at two programs at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg on Feb. 20 and 22. The Feb. 22 event is for children. The programs are offered by the museum in conjunction with its exhibit, "New Mexico and the Arts of Enchantment Featuring the Raymond James Financial Collection," which runs through May 11.
Frank, who is a descendent of the Kiowa Indians, and Whitehouse, who is a Navajo, will prepare blue corn cob bread with pinion chili beans and Navajo lamb stew along with sunflower cakes with peach honey sauce for the Feb. 20 program. The children will sample Three Sisters Tacos, made of corns, bean and squash, and Tesuque pumpkin cookies.
In a phone interview from Santa Fe, Frank says she thinks that interest in native cuisine has grown in recent years.
"People are curious," she says. "When we look at diversity in American cuisine, people are open to the new information about native food, wondering what it is and how it influenced us."
Frank notes that some people might think of the American Indian diet as unhealthy because of the traditional fry bread and Indian tacos, which rely heavily on lard. That, and other ingredients, she explains, were provided to the reservations by the federal government as subsidies.
"I call those 'sometimes' foods, like ice cream," she said. "And we know we can't eat heavy fat foods everyday. What we see now in native communities is a letting go of this food representing a difficult time."
Frank says that many American Indians are returning to their ancestral foods as a way to trace their history.
In her museum program, Frank will also talk about how native cuisine influenced the world. For instance, Italian explorers brought tomato seeds back to Italy.
"Tomatoes are woven into fabric of their (Italian) culture. You can't imagine Italian food without tomato; but that came from Americas," she says. Likewise, corn, chilies and potatoes.
While Frank is in Pinellas County, she will do a little exploring of her own. She spent many youthful summers in Treasure Island and Gulfport, where her grandmother lived.
"I'll be curious to see how it has changed," she says.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.