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Savoring the legacy of Native foods

Chef Lois Ellen Frank cooks at the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta

SANTA FE, N.M. - The recipes were contemporary, but their ingredients were ancient - legacies of the millennia-old cultures of the Americas. ''Pre-contact'' and ''first contact'' were the terms Chef Lois Ellen Frank, Kiowa, used to describe the corn, squash, chiles, buffalo, cherries and other foodstuffs she dished up during her Native foods lecture/demonstration at the recent Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta.

These were the foods that indigenous people hunted, gathered and grew before and shortly after they encountered Europeans, Frank explained. However, she told her audience at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, she did not include a third category of fare: the U.S. government-issued provisions that appeared more recently in Native people's larders.

''The government commodity foods included white flour and sugar, lard, canned meat and other such items. I decided to spare you,'' Frank joked.

Santa Fe's annual Wine & Chile Fiesta showcased the area's noted chefs and restaurants, along with the nation's top wineries. About 5,000 members of the public shuttled among lavish luncheons and dinners, seminars, lecture-demonstrations and culinary tours Sept. 26 - 30. At wine auctions, people bid thousands of dollars on fine wine. Some 150 exhibitors offered samples of their best work to a crowd of 3,000 at the culminating event: the convivial Grand Food and Wine Tasting at the Santa Fe Opera in the juniper-studded hills above the city.

Seated around tables in the Santa Fe School of Cooking's sunny demonstration kitchen, the attendees at Frank's presentation watched her prepare a three-course Native foods meal with the help of the school's sous chef, Noe Cano; Santa Fe Community College lead culinary instructor Michelle Roetzer; and Pointe South Mountain Resort banquet chef Orson Patterson, Navajo.

Working assembly-line fashion behind a counter, Frank and her colleagues dipped goat cheese-stuffed squash blossoms in a batter, deep-fried them and arranged them with tomato and green chile salsa on plates that waiters doled out to the crowd. A strategically placed mirror above the counter gave every viewer the experience of being in a front-row seat.

As Frank worked, she lectured on the history and health benefits of the original foods of the Americas. A spirited and knowledgeable speaker, Frank is a candidate for a doctorate in culinary anthropology at the University of New Mexico and a proprietor, along with chef Walter Whitewater, Navajo, of Red Mesa Cuisine, an indigenous foods catering company.

The primarily mainstream audience appeared to digest Frank's message along with her menu. Most Americans have traveled far from their food roots, and they appeared to be captivated by the story of a galaxy of foods that were both delicious (the proof was on their plates) and sustaining, as evidenced by the Native people - Frank and Patterson - who stood before them. Finally, the ingredients were local and seasonal, thus physically and economically tailored to the needs of those who gathered and prepared them.

For the entree, the four chefs draped seared, coriander-cured buffalo tenderloins over mounds of garlicky rough-mashed potatoes. They then spooned onto the plates a dried-cherry sauce that had been infused with chipotle, which is a smoke-dried jalapeno chile. The mix of sweet, smoky and spicy flavors was the perfect foil for both the rich, butter-soft meat, a product of the Picuris Pueblo Bison Program, and the smooth, fruity Cosentino 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon that accompanied the course.

The meal came to a close with a flourless chocolate-pinon nut torte that managed to be both opulent and light. Frank told us that cakes she'd sampled on the feast days of the nearby pueblos had inspired her recipe.

After the event, diners lined up to have Frank and her colleagues autograph copies of her cookbook, ''Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations'' (Ten Speed Press, 2002), winner of a 2003 James Beard Foundation Award, the culinary world's equivalent to an Oscar.

To order Frank's cookbook, visit www.amazon.com or www.tenspeed.com. For information on the festival, visit www.santafewineandchile.org. Find classes and gourmet Southwestern food and cooking equipment at www.santafeschoolofcooking.com. To contact Red Mesa Cuisine, call (505) 466-6306.