“Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” That’s what Michael Pollan’s 2008 book, In Defense of Food, advised, delivering an indictment of modern industrial eating and a rousing endorsement of “real food.”
Here in New Mexico and across the country, a growing number of Native Americans are taking that idea to a logical extreme, reaching back to the ingredients and dishes of their ancestors in order to fight health problems like diabetes, but also to reconnect with culture, tradition and spirituality.
A few years ago, Roxanne Swentzell of Santa Clara Pueblo and a group of willing friends spent three months eating exclusively foods that would have been available in New Mexico before the arrival of the Spanish 500 years ago.
They cut out sugar, wheat and dairy and turned to turkey, buffalo and rabbit, corn, squash, piñon and sunflower seeds. It was brutally hard at times, but they lost weight, their health improved—and they felt something inside, too.
Swentzell turned their time-traveling edible adventure into a cookbook that's being released this month, coinciding with a two-day symposium on Native food sovereignty at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture on Sept. 23 and 24.
The Pueblo Food Experience Cookbook is a 100-page collection of recipes, history and storytelling written by Swentzell and Patricia Perea, a professor in the Chicana/o Studies Department at the University of New Mexico. It includes an essay the history of Pueblo food by Porter Swentzell, Roxanne's son, a historian.
"I'd been having conversations with my son about whether we could eat the way our ancestors could eat," she recalls. "We didn't know if it was even possible because we're so used to going to a grocery store and eating what's there, depending on what's there. So to step out of that was frightening."
But Swentzell was better prepared than most to attempt such a diet. Although she is best known as a contemporary artist (she won Best of Sculpture at Indian Market in 1999), she also helped found the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute at Santa Clara Pueblo in 1989. So she had been involved in sustainable agriculture, seed-saving, cultural preservation and traditional foods for a long time.
"Eating connected to a place is going to be healthier no matter what, healthier than what we've been doing, transporting foods great distances out of season, packaged processed foods we have no relationship to except that we're addicted to it," Swentzell says.
She described it as a personal, spiritual journey, but one that was also connected to a larger picture. After her group completed the experiment she started to hear about other tribes trying similar things and she felt assured that her timing was right.
"It's part of this whole movement that's happening," she says. "People are not satisfied with how things have been going and tribes are looking toward their traditions for a better way to live."
Others have looked to food for solutions to obesity and heart disease through the likes of the so-called Paleo diet, which advises eating things available to humans in the Paleolithic period from 10,000 to 2.5 million years ago. Many who now live gluten-free point to their pre-agricultural ancestors for evidence that wheat should not be a part of the human diet.
America's health crisis is particularly acute among Native communities, where young people are 50 percent more likely to be overweight, while their parents are 50 percent more likely to be classified as obese. Native Americans are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes and almost twice as likely to go on to die from diabetes. They're more likely to have high blood pressure and twice as likely to have a stroke.
Those sobering statistics have prompted tribal and government health organizations to work harder at promoting healthy eating, more and more through Native ingredients and traditional recipes.
But Native people aren't the only ones looking to make a connection with the past. Americans have become obsessed with their ancestry. Web sites like Ancestry.com and MyHeritage are booming, and commercials feature testimonials from people who seem super, super excited to have found they have Native American blood.
Movie stars pore over their geneology on the PBS series Finding Your Roots, while the History Channel promoted its 2016 remake of Roots with a sweepstakes that offered the grand prize winner a 23andMe DNA kit and a journey for two to a geographic region revealed in their test results.
Meanwhile, on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona, basket weaver and jeweler Iva Honyestewa had been on journey of her own. She was hired to work on a project surveying Hopi people about farming and agriculture, tasked with finding out how farmers grew their crops, how much they harvested, who they sold or gave the food to. She asked Hopi women where they got their corn, how they used it, how they stored it.
The project sparked her interest and renewed her connection with the land and food.
"My grandmother made a lot of traditional dishes. But after I went away to boarding school, a lot of this Western food started coming in, so slowly people got away from the traditional food and eating more of the bad food," she says.
When the local agricultural extension agent asked her to help him revise an old cookbook of traditional recipes, she happily agreed. She cooked Hopi foods she'd never made before, like navawnova, a dish of lima beans, squash and other vegetables that she'd never tried. Now it's become a favorite. (The revision of Healthy Hopi Recipes and Native Edible Plants was published with grant money and given away free to local participants in healthy eating programs.)
At the same time, one of her sons was becoming more interested in health and fitness, disillusioned with modern ways. Together they watched Food, Inc., a documentary about industrial farming and food processing, and she became certain she had to give up modern processed food.
But change was not easy. Her family had a tough time breaking old habits. They would crave what she calls "bad food," fall off the wagon and then feel guilty. "We'd be like, 'Oh! We shouldn't have done that!' but it's tough," she says. And it was even tougher to travel through the reservation trying to persuade others. "Imagine trying to get our whole community to shift back to the old ways. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of education."
She's enthusiastic about the number of Hopi people she sees returning to traditional food, but she's frustrated by the pace of progress.
"People are finally realizing we should never have gone away from our traditional foods and a lot of them are starting to cook them," she says. "The problem is we're putting different ingredients in there to make them. For example, in our hominy stew they used rabbit for the meat and now we use mutton, which is a lot higher in cholesterol. And when we make blue corn dishes people are so wanting salt that they add Spam. Even the blue tamale that never had sugar in it now has so much sugar because that's what people are used to."
As anyone who has ever tried a restrictive diet can attest, sticking to it is a test of willpower. But restricting yourself only to the ingredients available to your ancestors is even tougher.
Even Swentzell doesn't keep to it all the time. "If I'm home I'm doing it 95 to 100 percent," she says. "But if I'm traveling that's when it gets hard." She brings homemade trail mix, jerky, dried bean snacks and dried fruit with her and tries to shop for local produce wherever she is.
The Pueblo Food Experience as a diet can feel limiting for people who have developed a global palate. A lot of the ingredients that have come to North America in the last 500 years are things we really like: apples, oranges, pork, tofu, cinnamon, curry powder, soy sauce and balsamic vinegar.
But there are experienced chefs who are taking local, pre-contact ingredients and applying culinary expertise to create what's being called a "New Native Cuisine." Last month The New York Times profiled Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota chef who runs a catering company called Sioux Chef and offers three-day cooking retreats during which people from all over the country come to watch him make magic out of unfamiliar, humble ingredients.
Like Swentzell and Honyestewa, Sherman avoids wheat flour, sugar and dairy, but he uses his 30 years of experience as a restaurant chef to pull together things like smoked rabbit rolled in purple amaranth, braised rabbit with spruce tips and a parfait of apricot coulis with gooseberries and sunflower seed cream.
Of course Santa Fe's own Lois Ellen Frank has been doing the same thing since the 1980s (as she told The Times), including that she teaches regular Native American cuisine classes at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. Santa Fe has long been a place where chefs have looked to local, traditional ingredients and recipes for inspiration.
All of these topics will be open for discussion at the Food Sovereignty symposium, which will bring Indigenous farmers, herders and hunters to the museum to talk about how they have maintained and revitalized traditional food production practices. For the museum, it's about culture but also health.
In a statement about the event, Museum Director Della Warrior made the connection clear, saying, "This event really foregrounds the critical work that individuals and tribal governments are doing to improve tribal communities through healthier diets and lifestyles."
Warrior had been planning a series of events on Native American sovereignty, and the Museum had worked with Swentzell on a summer reading program that brought 300 Pueblo students in to hear her talk about the book, sample food and play traditional games.
Many of the objects in the Museum's collection have to do with food: pots, baskets, knives and other utensils all represent meals that somebody's ancestors prepared.
Swentzell was able to use some of those objects in her presentations with the students, helping them to draw a clear line from the bean pots of their ancestors to the lunch that was served that day.
"One of our Indian Advisory Panel members was talking to me recently about food as a center of culture, that relationship between food and culture," says deputy director Marla Redcorn-Miller. The conversation was a powerful reminder. "Sometimes when a piece of beautiful piece of pottery is sitting on a shelf for a long time with a label on it, it can shift perspective of where it originally belonged," she says. Bringing people into the museum to talk about food makes the museum's collection come alive.
At the symposium, Sunday is the day designed to draw a broader community audience for buffalo dances and storytelling. The meat and potatoes (or piki bread) of the event are scheduled for Friday and Saturday.
The sessions include presentations of several traditional food revitalization projects happening in New Mexico, including a seed bank program in Tesuque, an effort to revitalize traditional piki bread (see recipe below) and farming programs for young people in Taos, Santo Domingo and Tesuque.
Another panel includes elders from Santa Clara, Taos and Ohkay Owingeh talking about the food of their early years while historic photos are projected in the background to prompt their memories. Ranchers will talk about economic development and entrepreneurship opportunities in raising bison, sheep and cattle. And hunters from Tesuque, Santa Clara and San Ildefonso will talk about the historic connection between their communities and hunting, the threats to traditional hunting lands and the importance of feasting, sharing and dancing.
On Saturday Lois Ellen Frank and her longtime collaborator Walter Whitewater will do a demonstration of contemporary Native cooking while participants are invited to help create a mural illustrating pre-contact foods.
For many visitors it may be the first time they've thought hard about what the people who lived here 1,000 years ago would have been eating. For others it may be a fond remembrance of the way things used to be.
For Swentzell, it's all good. "Any part of connecting, really connecting to food, by growing it or seeing it grown, is a reconnecting with your past," she says. "It's a first step back to a better way of life."
People who can't trace their heritage to the Pueblos or any other Native American group shouldn't feel this doesn't apply to them, she argues.
"I have deep roots here but I have mixed blood, too. We're all indigenous to somewhere and finding that connection to where you're from is profoundly life-changing in a good way." And it's all about eating. "Eating connects you back to place like nothing I've ever experienced before."
Food Sovereignty Symposium
10 am-3 pm Friday and Saturday, Sept. 23 and 24.
Free with museum admission.
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture,
710 Camino Lejo,
Food Sovereignty Community Day Celebration
11 am-4 pm Sunday, Sept. 25. Free.
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture,
710 Camino Lejo
Roxanne Swentzell and Patricia Perea
sign copies of The Pueblo Food Experience
6-7:30 pm Wednesday, Sept. 28. Free.
Collected Works Bookstore,
202 Galisteo St.,
Make Grandma’s Recipes
Blue Corn Piñon Pancakes
- 1/2 cup quinoa flour
- 1 cup blue cornmeal
- 3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/4 cups water
- 1 egg
- 3 tablespoons sunflower oil
- 1 tablespoon berries, such as blueberries
- 1/4 cup piñon nuts, shelled
- Berries and shelled piñon nuts for topping (optional)
- In a large bowl, sift together quinoa flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt.
- Form a well in the center and pour in the water, egg and oil. Add piñon nuts and berries, then mix until smooth.
- Heat a lightly oiled griddle or frying pan over medium-high heat.
- Pour batter onto the griddle, using approximately 1/4 cup for each pancake.
- Turn when bubbles appear. Brown on both sides and serve hot.
- Top with berries and piñon nuts (as much as you like).
Buwah (Piki Bread)
The making of buwah is a community event. This recipe is constructed with the assumption that two or three women (culturally, it is women who make this bread) participate in the cooking.
Cooking stones are usually flat pieces of basalt varying from 1 to 2 inches thick and range from 1 to 2 feet long. They are usually passed down from generation to generation.
The brains can come from any pre-contact animal, such as antelope, buffalo, deer or mountain sheep.
- 1 tablespoon brains
- 4 cups finely sifted cornmeal
- Up to 10 cups water
- 3 teaspoons ashes (preferably fourwing saltbush ashes and bean ashes)
- Mash brains to the consistency of softened butter and set aside.
- Place cornmeal in a large mixing bowl and with a wooden spoon, slowly add boiling water as needed. Stir constantly until the cornmeal batter is thick and completely smooth.
- Dissolve ashes in 2 cups of water. Slowly add ash water to batter until it reaches the consistency of thin pancake batter.
- Heat a cooking stone using thinly chopped firewood. When the stone is hot, use a cloth to grease the surface with a thin layer of brains.
- With a quick motion of your hand, spread a thin sheet of batter across the hot stone as evenly and quickly as possible. Most of the stone should be covered.
- When the batter starts to peel up, carefully lift the sheet and place it gently on a side pan. Repeat for a second sheet. As soon as the second sheet starts to peel up, gently lay the first sheet on top of it.
- Roll or fold both sheets together and place them on a side pan for eating. Repeat until all batter has been used.
Spicy Corn Soup with Roasted Red Bell Pepper and Chipotle Chile Purée
- 4 ears of corn, kernels scraped from the cob, or 3 cups corn kernels
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 1 teaspoon garlic, finely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon dried chipotle chile powder
- 1 teaspoon New Mexico red chile powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 6 cups vegetable stock or water
- 1 red bell pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and diced
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- Prepare the corn by cutting the kernels from the cob. You should have approximately 3 cups of corn kernels from 4 cobs of corn. Save the corncobs and set aside. The cobs will add additional corn flavor to the soup.
- In a medium sized saucepan over medium-high heat, add the olive oil and heat until hot but not smoking and then add the onions. Sauté the onions for 3 to 4 minutes until they are translucent, stirring occasionally to prevent burning.
- Add the garlic and chipòtle chile powder and sauté for 1 more minute. If you pan is too dry add ¼ cup of the vegetable stock. Add the corn kernels and sauté for another 3 minutes, stirring constantly.
- Add the salt, black pepper and the stock and bring to a boil. (If you have cut your corn fresh from the cob, place the reserved cobs into the saucepan at this time).
- Once the mixture has boiled, reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent the corn kernels from burning or sticking to the bottom of the pan.
- While the corn soup is simmering, roast the red bell pepper over an open flame then peel, seed, and dice it.
- Place the diced bell pepper into a blender with the chipotle chile powder, and the New Mexico red chile powder. Blend thoroughly for 1 minute. Pour through a fine sieve and discard the contents of the sieve.
- In a medium sized mixing bowl, mix together the roasted red bell pepper with the sour cream. Pour the red bell pepper sauce into a plastic squirt bottle and set aside.
- Remove the corn soup mixture from the heat, discard the corncobs and set aside. Place the corn soup mixture in a blender and puree for 3 minutes. Pour the mixture through a sieve and discard the contents of the sieve.
- Return the mixture to a saucepan, and heat, over medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Pour into bowls, garnish with some of the red pepper sauce and serve immediately.
Chocolate and Piñon Torte
This recipe is my adaptation of some of the tortes I sampled at different Pueblos and I serve it a lot in my catering company, Red Mesa Cuisine. I like to serve it with two sauces, a peach sauce from locally grown farmers market peaches from the Velarde Family's farm and a hand-harvested prickly pear fruit syrup. You can decorate the entire torte and set it out with the sauces for a buffet or you can slice it and plate it individually for your guests. Either way, it's a wonderful dessert.
- 1 cup raw piñon nuts
- 2 tablespoons blue cornmeal
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 9 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
- 6 egg yolks
- 3/4 cups granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4-cup confectioners’ sugar and 2 tablespoons blue cornmeal, for decoration (optional)
- Grease and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- In a food processor, grind the piñon nuts to a very moist nut butter. Add the blue cornmeal and blend again for about 30 seconds, just long enough to combine. In a double boiler over medium-high heat, melt the butter and chocolate together, stirring occasionally so that they melt and blend together evenly. Add to the piñon mixture in the food processor and blend about 1 minute until smooth.
- Beat the egg yolks, sugar, and vanilla together in a bowl, and add to the other ingredients in the food processor. Blend again until smooth. Always add the egg mixture last. Otherwise the eggs will curdle from the heated chocolate.
- Pour the batter into the prepared greased pan and pat down with your fingers until evenly spread in the baking pan. This is a thick batter and you will be able to handle it.
- Bake approximately 10 to 12 minutes, depending on your oven (convection works well for this torte) or until the cake springs back when the center is touched.
- Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool before decorating. This is a dense torte and to me it resembles dense, very moist brownies. I like it very moist, which is why I only cook it for 10 to 12 minutes; if you desire a crisper torte you can cook it slightly longer.
- When the torte has cooled, after 20 to 30 minutes, remove it from the pan, and then be creative for the decorating process. You can do individual stencils on each slice or decorate the entire torte.