This July, Tasting Table celebrates the great state of American food and drink.
Ask most people to name a list of truly American foods, and they'll rattle off the usual suspects: hamburgers, hot dogs, apple pie. Pose the same question to Lois Ellen Frank and she'll cite a different canon: quail, blue corn, wild rice, chipotle peppers—ideally purchased from the people who have been raising and growing these foods for centuries.
Frank holds a PhD in cultural anthropology (she wrote her dissertation on Native American cuisine) and is a chef and author of the James Beard Award-winning Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations, with roots in the Kiowa Nation. Along with collaborator Walter Whitewater, a Navajo Nation tribesman, she formed Red Mesa Cuisine, a catering company dedicated to cooking contemporary American Indian foods using ancient techniques with ancestral ingredients. Alongside dishes like Chipotle Shrimp with Mango Sauce (see the recipe) and Grilled Quail with Red Chile Honey (see the recipe), Frank shares the history of how these foods were traditionally gathered, grown and harvested—and explains how buying the ingredients straight from members of the Indian Nations can sustain those traditions for centuries to come.
A Wild Rice Sauté (see the recipe), for instance, can be made from commercially available wild rice (generally cultivated in paddies) and still be delicious, but Frank uses the dish to share the story of the Ojibwe communities in Northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Canada, who cultivate Manoomin (wild rice) in lakes according to ancient techniques, and harvest it via canoe. While most people are familiar with sweet yellow corn bread, Frank's earthy blue version (see the recipe), heightened with a lashing of chile-spiked honey, adds an extra layer of complexity, woven through with a story of how the grain sustained the bodies, minds and souls of the Native American people who grew it.
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The ingredients for this cuisine may not always be easy for home cooks to find, but if you plan to explore it further, Frank encourages you to seek out online purveyors (she favors Tohono O'odham Community Action for Tepary beans and dried cholla cactus buds and Al and Jane Smoake's hand-harvested prickly pear cactus jam). Frank and Whitewater themselves hand-gather foods according to the season—yucca blossoms, tumbleweed greens, purslane for salads, soups, stews and vegetables and chokecherries for desserts. It's work, to be sure, but she's got centuries of American spirit to cheer her along.
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