Lois Ellen Frank is the Chef and owner of Red Mesa Cuisine, where she cooks and works with Chef Walter Whitewater. In this book she highlights basic indigenous foods: corn, beans, squash, chiles, tomatoes, potatoes, vanilla and cacao as starting points for scrumptious modern recipes. She refers to these ingredients as “the Magic Eight, [that] were given to the world by Native Peoples of the Americas. Part of Red Mesa Cuisine’s mission is to provide Indigenous foods and cultural education. We like to call it Native American Cuisine with a modern twist.” Pause for more than a few minutes and think about the foods we very much take for granted: corn, beans, squash, chiles, tomatoes, potatoes, vanilla and cacao. These food products are native to the Americas, and, because over the centuries, there has been a fair amount of invading, conquering and trading, these "Magic Eights" have engendered multiple varieties in the Americas and across planet earth. For chiles alone, there are said to be more than 4,000 types, and even more varieties.
The introduction is an illuminating history of those Magic Eight plants, and a reminder that, "Prior to 1492, these plants existed only in the Americas." As an example, "Cacao was first cultivated some four thousand years ago in ancient Mesoamerica by pre-Olmec cultures, the first known civilizations to turn the cacao plant into chocoalate." The chapters are divided by the plants, and an introduction to each chapter provides historical, botanical and nutritional information. Each recipe within a chapter has a brief introduction with cooking tips, personal ideas and experiences about growing, cooking and canning. The recipes are clearly printed with gorgeous color photographs thoughout and many are full-page. There is an excellent index; Sources Guide for Native Foods; extensive bibliography, and one page devoted to The Cultural Conservancy (www.nativeland.org and www.nativeseedpod.org). Chef Frank says, "The Cultural Conservancy (TCC) has been supporting and advocating for Indigenous food systems and sovereignty since our origins."
Chef Frank states, “Throughout this cookbook I use the terms Native American, American Indian, Indigenous, Native and Native Peoples–all of which are how the People here in the Southwest refer to themselves. … Some of the recipes are presented as they have been prepared for millennia, while others are contemporary versions of traditional dishes. Still others are creative, nutritious, and delicious recipes featuring the ingredients of this region.” There is an added culinary enrichment from Chef Frank's heritage. Her paternal background is Sephardic Jewish. In one recipe “Summer Vegetable Casserole,” eggplant (not native to the Americas) is used. "Using eggplant, tomato, and zucchini in my version of this dish melds Ancestral Native ingredients with ingredients that my Jewish grandmother used often, fused into one. I purhcase these ingredients from the Santa Fe Farmers' Market to make a delicious casserole..." And, in turn, this dish reminds me of M.F.K. Fisher's recipe for a French ratatouille that she learned to make from a woman who owned a very small vegetable stand in rural France.
Chef Lois Ellen Frank has written a book that pays homage to the food heritage of Native Peoples; provided all of us with the historical context of eight indigenous plants; offered modern recipes using these important plants, and all of this information is presented in a visually captivating way.