When life gives you acorns—make stew.
At least, that's what chef Nephi Craig (White Mountain Apache/Dine), founder of the Native American Culinary Association, does. As he takes life one acorn at a time in his mission to "restore and reinvent the largely-forgotten cuisine of our forebears," he relies on the natural abundance of indigenous foods that represent a culture defined by diversity and resiliency.
"Food is powerful and everything goes back to our roots," says the executive chef at the White Mountain Apache tribe's Sunrise Park Resort. Craig, and other Native chefs of like mind, will join forces to present a Native Foods Festival & Symposium, Nov. 12 through the 15, at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
The celebration of, by and for food producers will offer a chance to taste traditional and innovative preparations of the very foodstuffs that have sustained Native peoples for generations. Those cooking will be coming from many different directions, according to Craig, and for the first time the symposium is open to the public.
"It's a gathering of food people of all levels to support and grow networks and relationships across Native communities. Indigenous peoples will be traveling hundreds of miles to join this community building," he says. "There's a very strong theme of health, resilience and recovery as we continue to preserve and develop our food ways for posterity. We're not stuck in a certain time period ... Native food ways are very fluid and reflective of who we are and we're constructing an infrastructure of support that didn't exist 20 years ago."
Craig will be joined in cooking demonstrations and tastings by other notable indigenous chefs including owner of Red Mesa Cuisine in Santa Fe Lois Ellen Frank (Kiowa), owner of New Mexico's Corn Dance Café Loretta Barret Oden (Citizen Potawatomi Nation) and Walter Whitewater (Dine) who is culinary advisor for the Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations.
Chef Frank has spent more than a quarter of a century documenting foods and lifeways of Native American tribes from the Southwest. Her book, Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations, won a James Beard Award in the Americana category—the first Native American book to achieve that honor. A proponent of gathering her own natural ingredients from the land like prickly pear, yucca blossoms, purslane and other wild greens she says: "Food is sacred. What you eat is a gift of a person's culture. Traditional cooking feeds the body wholesome food that feeds the soul."
In New Mexico, Chef Oden likes to combine classic culinary techniques with old-fashioned Native American cooking processes like smoking and salting. As the first restaurateur to showcase the indigenous foods of America. the food historian says: "Native food is much more than fry bread and Indian tacos ... our diversity of dishes also points to our diversity as a people. I grew up in the kitchen watching my mother, grandmas and aunts cook," she says. "Now I want to promote the concept of healthy food that Native people ate before the Europeans came."
"Food is powerful," says Craig who supervises an all-Apache staff. "Native people are emerging from a great interruption in their traditional food ways. Pre-contact, we were expert hunters, gatherers, fishermen, farmers and cooks. Then came reservations with high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods, and a turn from the most important ingredient in Native cuisine—healing. Native foods are not a trend—they are a way to recover our communities."
Blending their talents, the blend of culinary craftsman will offer presentations about traditional foods and health, traditional agricultural practices and the concept of food sovereignty. Sessions will show how to make dishes like Hopi Piki bread and Yurok roasted salmon, leading up to a tasting lunch featuring indigenous foods prepared by the guest chefs.
For the true gourmand, a multi-course dinner on Friday, Nov. 13 will feature traditional ingredients from across the Americas. Beautifully presented and plated, each of the nationally-known chefs will discuss their inspirations over dishes that will be paired with wine. This unique limited seat fundraiser at the Museum's Ocotillo Café is $150 per person.
"We plate artful dishes similar to the fine dining world because we are artful people, but our style of cooking, the Indigenous way, is not about 'fine dining,'" Craig says. "It's a journey, a quiet pursuit that places home and family first. Cuisine is the articulation of culture, the poetry of mixing senses and memories—creating a recipe of the mind, spirit, history, ingenuity and deliciousness—all before picking up a knife."
Although food is a focal point, it's not the only attraction. On Saturday, Nov. 14 and Sunday, Nov. 15, internationally-acclaimed basket weaver Terrol Dew Johnson (Tohono O'odham)—a weaver since the age of 10—will join top basket weavers from the U.S. and Mexico in demonstrating (and selling) their art. Johnson's Tohono O'odham Community Action group notes:
"There is no word in the Tohono language for art ... In basketry, beauty and utility are joined together. While some call it art, most basket weavers simply call it life."