The influence of Native American cuisine on dishes around the world, from Italy to Russia, is something that’s severely underrated, according to Chef Lois Ellen Frank.
Frank is a Native foods historian, culinary anthropologist and educator from the Kiowan nation who visited Stony Brook University for Native American Heritage Month. She was joined by fellow chef, Walter Whitewater from the Navajo nation.
The duo hosted an Open House on Wednesday, November 29, in the Student Activities Center, Ballroom A that included an educational seminar, food sampling and book signing. The program was hosted by Stony Brook’s Chief Diversity Officer Lee Bitsóí, the Faculty Student Association (FSA), CulinArt Group and the Native American Student Organization.
More than 250 students, faculty and staff attended along with elders from the local Native American tribes including the Shinnecock, Unkechaug and Matinecock nations who shared their own words and perspectives on Native American culture.
Chef Frank led the seminar, talking about the importance of traditions being passed down through generations in order to preserve them and have them grow. She said that Native Americans don’t get credit for the influence their food has had, running down a list of items that the world wouldn’t have without them, including the “Magic 8” — corn, beans, squash, chiles, tomatoes, potatoes, vanilla and cacao. Russia didn’t have vodka, Italians didn’t have tomatoes, and the East didn’t have chilis to make spicy curry. All of those ingredients, according to Frank, are “native.”
A tragic outcome of Native American land being stolen and tribes being forcibly relocated is that many Native American dishes lost any prominence they had, as the tribes that made them were moved to unfamiliar territories with different resources than the ones they were used to. Frank tells us that with help, a new generation can modernize and reintroduce Native American cuisine. She says it starts with generations sharing their recipes and their food while adapting their traditional techniques with new technology.
“I want all of you to take my recipe. Do you think any of you can do what I do?” Frank challenged the crowd. “What makes it unique is how I do it, none of you can have that. But I can share it with you, and you can make it your own. I want you to cook it, I want you to eat it, I want you to feel the nurturing of the ancestors.”
After finishing her talk, attendees were given a chance to sample two dishes made for the event — Three Sisters Stew with pinto and kidney beans and Blue Cornbread. Both were delicious and had the crowd going up for a second sample.
If you missed the opportunity to try Native American cuisine, you can still take up Frank’s challenge to make it your own. The recipes are available on the FSA website.