While we might not speak the same language, share the same religious views, or have the same political systems, food is a universal language.
Working in St. Petersburg, Russia with Native American ancestral foods from the Southwest was an opportunity to bridge a cultural gap. When we serve these foods to others, including chefs, diplomatic leaders, business professionals, culinary students, school children and educators, it helps to build stronger bonds between countries and offers an important setting to further vital diplomatic work.
My experience being in Russia as a culinary diplomat along with Chef Walter Whitewater, from the Diné Nation, surpassed anything I could have imagined. Consul General Thomas Leary and his wife Rachel Norniella welcomed us to their home. The employees of the U.S. State Department, the Public Affairs Associate at the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg, and the Regional Academic and Alumni Outreach Coordinator for the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Consulate General, made sure we had everything we needed for our programs. They also worked with us for months prior to our trip to create the cultural programs that would ultimately help engage Russian audiences in our Southwest Native American culture and foods.
The first two programs were held at the SWISSAM Hospitality Business and Culinary Arts School. The first of these was geared toward international and Russian chefs of some of St. Petersburg’s top Michelin-star restaurants. It included a food history presentation on Native American cuisine of the Southwest and the ancestral foods that make up this regional cuisine. We followed the talk with a chef demonstration on how to prepare these foods and a tasting. The following day we offered a similar program that focused on working with culinary students for a master class.
After those presentations, the Consul General hosted a dinner reception at his residence for invited Russians from prominent cultural, educational, and business institutions, diplomats from international Consulates, and press highlighting Native American foods of the Southwest. We presented tray passed hors d’oeuvres and a buffet of our Native American dishes for approximately 100 guests.
These programs gave us the opportunity to exchange ancient and traditional cultural information through our ancestral foods. We were able to strengthen our relationship with Russia by improving foreign insight into our current society and culture and form an understanding into Native American foods. To the guests’ surprise, many of the foods that originated in the Americas are now common staples in everyday Russian cooking. The potato, which is now a staple in the Russian diet, has only been so for approximately the last 500 years, since it was first introduced. And cooking with other Native American ingredients (particularly corn, beans, and squash, the three foods that comprise the Three Sisters and the Native American trinity) we were able to educate our Russian audience on the importance of these foods to Native Peoples from all over the Americas.
We knew some ingredients would be difficult to find in Russia, so we had them shipped. Like Tamaya white and blue finely ground corn meal from Santa Ana Pueblo for baking bread; red, white and blue corn posole for making posole stew; this year’s crop of New Mexico red chile powder for making red chile honey and red chile sauce from Casado Farms at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, and our local farmer’s at the Santa Fe Farmer’s market. We brought corn masa for making tamales; and dried New Mexico red chile pods, local pumpkin seeds, as well as dried Northern New Mexican fruit, which we used to make a mole sauce. The remaining ingredients were purchased locally using seasonal foods available from markets and vendors in St. Petersburg.
By helping prepare the food for each event, the culinary students from SWISSAM learned traditional Native American recipes and cooking techniques they had never before been exposed to.
We served a handmade savory tamale with a traditional New Mexican red chile sauce made from chile pods at the Consul General’s reception and a sweet dessert tamale for the chef’s tasting at SWISSAM. I had to show the Russian guests that we don’t eat the outside of the tamale, (the corn husk), and they loved the corn masa and red chile. Our guests embraced the traditional red chile sauce, even though it was hotter than any of their local dishes. Almost every guest that tried the tamales, said that it was their first time ever eating one, and Chef Whitewater and myself made sure we had enough of them so guests could take several home to share with family members along with our freshly baked blue and white corn bread.
While some of the ingredients and cooking techniques were familiar to the chefs and students, many were new. This cultural exchange impacted both the culinary students who are just launching their careers and the experienced chefs who are established and have forged their own styles. Even without a common language, it was obvious we made an impact on everyone who had experienced the local foods and dishes of our ancestors.
As I reflect on my trip to Russia and the purpose of the diplomatic mission, I think one of the most important messages that resonated with the chefs and culinary students was simple and universal: We are all part of the land from which we come. The food we prepare from each of our regions is place-based and filled with local terroir—the French word for conditions in which food is grown and gives it its unique characteristics. Each of our grandmothers has traditionally prepared foods that are unique to our ecological regions. These ancestral foods have always been prepared sustainably with the traditions of the land from which they come. Today, these foods can be prepared using contemporary artistry and presentation styles from our local regions so our guests can literally “eat the landscape” from which these ingredients come. This is the mission that Chef Whitewater and I have dedicated our culinary careers to, and this is what we are doing with local, regional, New Mexican and Native American ancestral ingredients at Red Mesa Cuisine, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
If we don’t pass meaningful culinary traditions to the next generation, then part of our culture will disappear. Chefs today have a wonderful opportunity to keep alive these crucial and significant culinary traditions for future generations.
Food, in this instance, is the common thread that binds us. It teaches us the importance and value of each other. Food is indeed the essence of life. To find and share that common ground in Russia is remarkable. The relationships that were formed will last forever and the experience of using food as an agent of diplomacy was the perfect medium for these changes to happen.