I came to Santa Fe in search of Native American food, a centuries-old cuisine in the midst of a culinary resurgence. While indigenous food differs depending on tribe and geographic region—in South Dakota, Sean Sherman, a chef from the Oglala Lakota tribe, hosts cooking retreats at the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation, where participants smoke duck in sage leaves and forage for buffalo berries—it’s united by a collection of staple ingredients and the goal of making the best of what’s available, a concept that attuned to our farm-to-table times. The pueblo-lined Santa Fe is home to Lois Frank, a Kiowa Nation descendant who literally wrote the book on Native American cuisine: her “Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations” won a James Beard award.
But finding the flavors of this resurfacing genre of food isn’t as easy as opening up Yelp and looking for the nearest place with five stars. At first, I wasn’t even sure what Native American cuisine was. “We have what’s called the magic eight,” Frank told me the other day outside of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, where she was selling bags of blue corn meal and Anasazi beans to curious passersby. “Eight foods that are inherently Native American, that were given to the world, that didn’t exist anywhere outside of America in 1491: corn, beans, squash, chili, tomato, potato, vanilla, and cacao.”
Those happen to be the staples of Mexican cuisine as well, which is also rooted in the indigenous cooking traditions of the Americas, and restaurants slinging tacos and margaritas do good business in downtown Santa Fe, where it’s easy to work up an appetite shopping for turquoise jewelry and cowboy boots. There are few Native American restaurants in the country (like Colorado’s Tocabe and Mitsitam Cafe, the latter of which is housed in Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of the American Indian), and none in Santa Fe—“too bad,” Frank lamented—but there are people experimenting with the ingredients and dishes of the Southwest.
At Eloisa, a sprawling space that used to be a hospital, chef John Rivera Sedlar reinterprets the standards of his grandmother, the restaurant’s namesake. Tortillas made of ancient blue corn are stuffed with pastrami, sauerkraut, pickled serrano peppers, and a dash of mustard—a native spin on ballpark fare. A few blocks away, Laurent Gruet runs a hacienda style tasting room for his sparkling wines, which have been made in New Mexico since Gruet moved to Santa Fe from Champagne in 1984.
“Thirty years ago, people said, ‘Are you crazy, are you nuts? Did your parents send you here because they wanted to get rid of you?’” he said, holding a glass of Gruet’s 2011 Sauvage, a sparkling Chardonnay. Now he’s working with tribes that are growing Gruet grapes on their reservations: “There’s clearly a thirst for this.”
Recently, foodies from all over the world have been flocking to this region—more than 3,000 people attended the grand tasting of Santa Fe’s annual Wine and Chile Fiesta in September, though they were lining up for dishes as diverse as Thai shrimp curry and squid ink paella. In August, Kai Autenrieth took over the kitchen of the Four Seasons Rancho Encantado, a ten-minute drive through the hills from downtown Santa Fe. Born in Germany, Autenrieth helmed restaurants in Zanzibar, Australia, and Jamaica before landing in New Mexico. He was hired to infuse regional flavors into a menu that could’ve easily been at home in New York or Paris. What did he know about Native American cuisine? “Quite frankly, nothing,” he said. But after a crash course from the Native American cooks in his kitchen, he inked a plan to overhaul all of the Four Seasons’ food offerings, incorporating indigenous staples like bison and venison. He’s also started taking breaks to forage for mushrooms in the nearby mountains.
“I like the chili sauces they make here, especially the red one,” said Autenrieth. “It has a nice flavor to it. It’s something you can use in a lot of different ways—I could even make foams with it.”
Beyond sampling Santa Fe’s contemporary spins on native cuisine at venues like Eloisa and The Four Seasons, Frank suggested that those with inquiring palates sign up for a class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, or check out her catering company, Red Mesa Cuisine, which routinely hosts events and tastings. Popularizing Native American cuisine has been her life’s mission. A former food photographer, she pursued a PhD in culinary anthropology after book publishers shot down her first attempt to chronicle the eating habits of her people. (“They told me that native people didn’t have a cuisine and I had no credentials,” she said.) Frank watched interest in Native American food rise in the 1980s and ‘90s—it had a moment in New York, with restaurants like Silverbird, which attracted the likes of Goldie Hawn, Paul Newman, and representatives from the United Nations. Reuben Silverbird, the owner of his namesake eatery, opened the restaurant, hoping it would bring pride to his fellow Native Americans—and introduce ingredients that he grew up on, like buffalo and rattlesnake. The trend eventually fell flat, and Silverbird closed. Now, Frank said, “It’s percolating again.” A culinary diplomat with the U.S. State Department, she recently traveled to Russia and served blue cornbread.
“It was pretty cool,” she said, “they had never had it. I think people now want to know the story and eat the story, and the story is that there are very rich and delicious native foods. Let’s hope it takes.”
Lake Traverse Indian Reservation: swo-nsn.gov
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture: indianartsandculture.org
Mitsitam Cafe: nmai.si.edu
National Museum of the American Indian: nmai.si.edu
Gruet Winery: gruetwinery.com
Santa Fe School of Cooking: santafeschoolofcooking.com
Red Mesa Cuisine: redmesacuisine.com