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Why a new Indigenous cookbook on Southwest plant-based cuisine brought one Diné chef to tears

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

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Rochelle Garcia calmly crushes kernels of blue corn inside her kitchen in San Tan Valley. Her soft hands, one bejeweled with a turquoise stone and another wrapped in a silver ring, firmly grip a beige grinding stone about the size of a meatloaf. 

This Diné chef cooks from the heart and channels a strong connection to her ancestors through that stone and the sacred corns of the Southwest. 

Tim Agne/KJZZ

“As I grind the corn, I begin to think about how it was used, the laughter that comes with it, the stories,” said Garcia, “and it really is something that’s continued to be passed down.”

Her 72-year-old father, Reynold Thomas, a Northern Paiute from the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, began growing blue corn in Kayenta. A family tradition, it’s one that she’ll pass on to her 9-year-old son, Matthew. 

And it even turned into a budding business: Blue Corn Custom Designs. Her Indigenous brand meshes cultural customs from Navajo, Fallon Paiute Shoshone and Tohono O’odham communities. 

She sells custom-ordered raw ingredients used for blue corn products. And her signature juniper ash is always in high demand. 

Relatives on the Navajo Nation ship it south, transforming traditional dishes — fry breads, cookies and corn mush — into even healthier treats. One teaspoon of juniper ash contains almost the same amount of calcium as one cup of milk. 

Blue Corn Custom Designs is one of only a handful of Indigenous agribusinesses in Arizona featured in a directory in the new plant-based cookbook, “Seed to Plate, Soil to Sky: Modern Plant-Based Recipes using Native American Ingredients.” 

Garcia and her authentic Native products appear in rare company alongside Ramona Farms at the Gila River Indian Reservation and SHIMA' of Navajoland, a nonprofit located in Fort Defiance. It elevates Indigenous entrepreneurs in the process. 

“That’s the purpose; that’s exactly it,” said Lois Ellen Frank, who consulted Garcia while compiling the cookbook. It’s a love letter to the Southwest and its uniquely sizzling and savory flavors. And most of all, the Indigenous producers who cultivate and cherish them. 

“And I think that was the initiative to have a source guide,” she added, “so that the small mom-and-pop businesses that are popping up, people can order directly from them.” 

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She operates Red Mesa Cuisine, a contemporary Southwest kitchen using ancestral ingredients with a modern twist in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her talents as a photographer and Native foods historian manifested in a previous cookbook, “Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations,” earning a James Beard Award in 2003.

Two decades later, she’s exploring the origins of the “Magic Eight”: potatoes, tomatoes, corn, beans, squash, chili, cacao and vanilla. 

“There’s more, but those ‘Magic Eight’ didn’t exist anywhere outside of the Americas until after 1492,” said Frank, “so these are inherently Native, and they’re a gift.” 

And another Native contribution: plant-based dieting, which can help combat preventable diseases.

“When we look at the Indigenous diet. You go back to the past,” she added. “You understand that these issues didn’t exist. Now, we say ‘what changed?’”

The cookbook’s 130 recipes draw from the past for a healthier future.

“There’s plenty to chew on for food scholars to glean from the book, but it’s also pragmatic,” said to Melissa Nelson, a professor of Indigenous sustainability, at Arizona State University. “It’s really rooting it in practicing these recipes.” 

“Eating a plant-based diet really reconnects us to the health of the soil, the waters, the air, all of the elements,” added Nelson, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. “And it really increases our health because the meat diet has become so toxic with the industrialization of animal farms and ranching.”

A Diné construction worker-turned-chef, Walter Whitewater served as the cookbook’s Native American culinary advisor. He said, “People eat meat. People eat cheese. Then the diet will catch up with you too.”

He had to cope with his own health challenges. Whitewater insists he’s living proof of the benefits of plant-based eating. 

“It changed me because I was diagnosed with polyps,” said Whitewater. “I’m due to be checked again. The first time they did that, and they said to me, ‘What’d you do? There’s nothing in you.’ I said, ‘Green, green.’ Then they said, ‘Green? Green?’ ‘Yeah, veggies and stuff like that,’ and that’s what really cured me.” 

“Walter always says, you know, ‘We don’t own the recipes,’” Frank added. “Some of the recipes are so traditional. They’re just pure. We don’t change them. We just leave them as they are, and we want people to use these traditional ingredients. We want to make them healthy.” 

Back in Garcia’s home near the town of Queen Creek, her father lies in a bed next to the kitchen, dealing with dementia. She and her husband have become his primary caretakers. Despite his declining health, him being just within arm’s reach keeps Garcia cooking that sacred blue corn atop her cast-iron griddle. 

And when she was handed a hardcover copy of that cookbook, she finally saw the Garcia name printed as a part of this plant-based movement. It even brought her to tears.

“Oh wow … We don’t say ‘Oh, we want to be in a book,’” said Garcia. “I’m just very honored because I just see my family. You know, this is the work of all of them. It makes me tear up.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify how Lois Ellen Frank wishes to identify herself.

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.