It was a cold night in New York, but the food was heating up as Navajo chef Walter Whitewater put the final touches on a dish of roasted green chile stuffed with Dine Churro lamb. He was demonstrating Native recipes from the American Southwest before a group of sophisticated -- and salivating -- food lovers at the New York's American Museum of Natural History as part of the museum's ongoing Adventures in the Global Kitchen series.
His partner for the evening was Lois Ellen Frank, author of the award-winning cookbook Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations. Ms. Frank - who has roots in the Kiowa tribe -- told the audience that their goal was not only to showcase the delicious foods of the region…but also to honor and preserve ancient Native American culture. "It's my mission these days to get people to appreciate the importance of Native foods," she said, "and show people how to harvest them and cook them and help keep alive some of the endangered traditions that Native peoples have."
The foods associated with the Southwest - including chiles, corn meal and beans -- date back thousands of years. Ms. Franks told her audience that such ethnic food traditions have served to bind people together socially and spiritually. "When these traditions stay alive," she said, "they live through the people that cook the food. Food is very sacred. When you are invited into a household and you are fed -- in any tradition -- what you are eating is a gift from that person's culture. It has love. It has intent. It has thought. It has prayer."
Mr. Whitewater explained how his Navajo tribe viewed growing, cooking, and savoring food both as forms of prayer and occasions for praying -- sometimes through song. He then introduced a song about a feast. "It's about a gathering, maybe to be thankful for something good or for the children," he said. "Or maybe there is a time when somebody is sick. They do a ceremony for it. They do a prayer that goes with these ways, saying 'thank you' to the Creator for letting us have food on the table again. It's a very sacred thing."
The cuisine of the American Southwest is rooted in the dry desert regions of what are now the states of New Mexico and Arizona. Over the millennia, so-called "dry-farming" techniques have been refined so that beans, squash, chiles and corn [maize] can thrive. Lois Ellen Frank calls them the "magic ingredients."
"Corn is significant because it not only nourishes you," she told the New York crowd, "but there are some cultures in the Americas who believe they were born from the corn. Corn is [called] 'Sustainer.' Corn is 'Life-giver.'"
For many Americans, the food of the Southwest is all about the chile pepper - a humble vegetable with a hot and spicy attitude. The chile is native to the region, but has traveled widely. "Chile originated in the area of what is now Mexico and Mexico City," Lois Ellen Frank told the audience as they got a spicy taste of the vegetable. "And it migrated…all over the world. The chile from India, the East Indies, the Thai chile, the African chile -- a lot of the chiles we eat today came from the Americas. And what would Thai food be without the Thai chile? Yet the Thai chile is an American chile!"
Many southwestern foods also have medicinal uses. Chile peppers help cleanse the blood, for example. Ms. Frank said that some native cactuses now being re-introduced on Arizona's Tohono Oodham reservation can help regulate blood sugar levels as an treatment for diabetes - which, she noted, "afflicts a very large percentage of the tribe."
For the food lovers in New York, the recipes Ms. Frank and Mr. Whitewater prepared proved to be good medicine for a chilly evening - from a steaming serving for chile pepper lamb to the dessert, a chocolate pinon torte made with blue corn flour, prickly pear cactus sauce, and peach honey.