Lois Ellen Frank

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Woman in chef's whites sitting in a field
Lois Ellen Frank

Lois Ellen Frank is a member of the Kiowa tribe and food historian, cookbook author, photographer, chef, and culinary anthropologist. She won a 2003 James Beard Foundation Award for her cookbook Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations, the first Native American cuisine cookbook so honored.

Early life[edit]

Frank was born in New York City to a Kiowa mother and Sephardic Jew father.[1][2] She is a member of the Kiowa tribe.[3][4]


Frank attended culinary school[1][5] and then attended the Brooks Institute, graduating with a degree in photography in 1985.[1][5] She earned a Master's in Cultural Anthropology in 1999 with a thesis connecting indigenous tribes throughout the Americas on the basis of their use of corn.[1] She has a PhD in Cultural Anthropology[6]:188[7] with a dissertation on Native American cuisine,[8] entitled The Discourse and Practice of Native American Cuisine: Native American Chefs and Native American Cooks in Contemporary Southwest Kitchens,[2] from the University of New Mexico.[9]


During college she worked as a cook at the first Good Earth restaurant.[1] After graduation she worked in the advertising industry, photographing commercial shoots for Evian, Taco Bell and International House of Pancakes.[1]

A mentor, Ernst Haas, questioned the meaningfulness of her work[5] and encouraged her to explore her heritage.[1] She had a "moment of reckoning," realizing she was "making food that I wouldn't even eat look beautiful, and then promoting others to eat it."[1] In the 1980s, she started asking questions about Native American cuisine and "was told there was no such thing."[7] She told the New York Times, “But of course they had a cuisine, and it was intricate, diverse and delicious.”[7]

In 1991 she proposed a book on Native American cuisine to publishers in New York.[1] "They told me that Native people didn't have a cuisine," she recalled in a 2013 interview, "and that I didn't have the credentials to write any such book."[1] She returned to school to earn a Master's and then a PhD in Cultural Anthropology, and recalls that "at the time, they were teaching that American cuisine was made up of immigrant populations. The traditions of Native kitchens were largely overlooked."[1]

She talked to and collected recipes from the Hopi,[5] Ute, Pueblo, and other Southwestern tribes, and in 2002 Ten Speed Press published Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations,[1][10] working with Walter Whitewater.[11] In 2003, it won a James Beard Foundation Award, the first cookbook on Native American cuisine or by a Native American author so honored.[1][12][13][14] CNN called it "the first Native American cookbook to turn the heads of James Beard Foundation Award judges".[12]

In 2017 she was featured in Native American Food Movements, a public television documentary about traditional diets.[15]

Frank teaches a science class, Indigenous Concepts of Native American Food, at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.[2] She teaches at the Santa Fe School of Cooking.[16] She and business partner Whitewater founded and operate Red Mesa Cuisine, a catering company and educational organization.[9]


Frank delineates four major periods in Native American cuisine.[17] The first is prior to 1491, which she calls "Pre-Contact", when Native Americans were of necessity relying on ingredients they grew, gathered, or hunted in their local areas.[17] The second is "First Contact," when European ingredients like domesticated farm animals were added to Native American diets.[17] The third was the "Government Issue" period, during which many Native Americans were removed from areas where they could produce their own food and provided government commodity ingredients such as flour, sugar and lard in order to provide a subsistence diet[4][17] resulting in foods of necessity like frybread, which she calls "a very complicated food for me. It represents survival. If the ancestors had not created this bread, they might have starved...For some it is a comfort food, for others including some chefs and some Native community members, it represents colonization and a period of time in history that is traumatic.[14] The current period she calls "New Native American," characterized by Native American chefs returning to the pre-contact ingredients and recipes.[17]

Frank calls potatoes, tomatoes, corn, beans, squash, chili, cacao, and vanilla the "magic eight" ingredients that were found and used only in the Americas before 1491 and were taken by explorers and colonialists to the Old World, changing cuisine there.[3][5] According to Frank,[14]

If we deconstruct that these foods were inherently native, then that means that the Italians didn’t have the tomato, the Irish didn’t have the potato, half the British National Dish—Fish and Chips—didn’t exist. The Russians didn’t have the potato, nor did they have vodka from the potato. There were no chiles in any Asian cuisine anywhere in the world, nor were there any chiles in any East Indian cuisine dishes, including curries. And the French had no confection using either vanilla or chocolate. So the Old World was a completely different place.

Unlike some Native American chefs and cookbook authors, she believes that others developing recipes for and cooking Native American cuisine is not a problem if Native American producers, such as wild rice harvesters, are benefitting.[18]

Her recipes have a vegetable-forward approach,[9] and she has said she prefers to develop menus focussed primarily on foods from the Pre-Contact period and some from the First Contact period.[14] She believes foods from the Government Issue period created health issues such as high rates of diabetes and prefers not to use them often.[14]


  • Taco Table (2013)[5]
  • Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations (2002)[1]
  • Native American Cooking (1995)[19]


Personal life[edit]

Woman in chef's whites holding a large cat
Frank in her Santa Fe, New Mexico, garden

Frank lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.[3]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Fredrich, Lori (2013-11-20). "Chef Lois Ellen Frank demystifies New Native American cuisine". OnMilwaukee.com. Retrieved 2019-06-07.
  2. ^ a b c "Chef Lois Ellen Frank". Red Mesa Cuisine, LLC. Retrieved October 6, 2019.
  3. ^ a b c "Rediscovering Native American cuisine before it gets lost". Food Management. 2019-01-02. Retrieved 2019-07-27.
  4. ^ a b Granillo, Aaron. "Apache Chef Revives The Cuisine Of His Ancestors". www.knau.org. Retrieved 2019-07-27.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Babb, Robin (2019-05-22). "The 'Nativore' Chef Working to Improve Nutrition in Indigenous Communities". Civil Eats. Retrieved 2019-06-07.
  6. ^ Sean Sherman; Beth Dooley (2017). The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0-8166-9979-7.
  7. ^ a b c Rao, Tejal (2016-08-16). "The Movement to Define Native American Cuisine". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-07-27.
  8. ^ Kinsman, Kat (2015-07-30). "Modern Southwest Native American Dinner Party - Red Mesa Cuisine". Tasting Table. Retrieved 2019-06-07.
  9. ^ a b c Marks, Gabriella (2019-01-10). "Eating Back to the Future". Edible New Mexico. Retrieved 2019-07-27.
  10. ^ Lois Ellen Frank (2002). Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations: Traditional & Contemporary Native American Recipes. Ten Speed Press. ISBN 978-1-58008-398-0.
  11. ^ "Lois Ellen Frank". NPR.org. Retrieved 2019-07-27.
  12. ^ a b Biggers, Ashley (2018-09-05). "The first truly American cuisine is having a revival". CNN. Retrieved 2019-06-07.
  13. ^ Swanson, Stevenson (May 14, 2003). "Star grazing". Chicago Tribune.
  14. ^ a b c d e Kunz, Jenna (July 31, 2019). "The Chef Revitalizing Native American Cuisine". Unearth Women. Retrieved October 11, 2019.
  15. ^ Americans, Partnership With Native. "Partnership With Native Americans Featured in PBS Documentary on Native American Food Movement and Food Insecurity". www.prnewswire.com. Retrieved 2019-07-27.
  16. ^ Weissman, Randall (2016-08-22). "Revitalizing native food cultures in modern kitchens". The Seattle Times. Retrieved 2019-07-27.
  17. ^ a b c d e Belle, Rachel (2018-04-11). "Native American cuisine and ancestral traditions in the kitchen at Tulalip Casino". MyNorthwest.com. Retrieved 2019-07-27.
  18. ^ Judkis, Maura (November 22, 2017). "'This is not a trend': Native American chefs resist the 'Columbusing' of indigenous foods". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 27, 2019.
  19. ^ Lois Ellen Frank; Cynthia J. Frank (1995). Native American Cooking. Wings Books. ISBN 978-0-517-14750-4.