Karlos Baca has given up wheat, dairy, sugar, pork, chicken, beef, and misleading labels. For instance, Indian doesn’t fit (he’s not from India), nor does Native American (his people were here before the naming of America. Since creation, to be exact). Baca prefers the term indigenous (he’s Tewa, Ute, and Navajo). He is an indigenous chef and the landscape is his cuisine. He can find something to eat in any wild ecosystem in the Southwest: fungi, flower, foliage, fauna. He cooks on cast iron, but wants to give that up too.
Karlos Baca has been busy lately. It’s prime foraging season, and his house is festooned with edible and medicinal plants in various states of preservation. Between stalking the forest for food, he’s been traveling: Mexico, the Great Lakes area, Denver, Portland, Rhode Island, New York City. In each locale, he cooks, consults, and educates people on Indigenous cuisine (He was a speaker at the Indigenous Food Symposium in Tucson, Arizona, the Homegrown Food Retreat in Ignacio, Colorado, and at the Iina Ba’ Hōzhō Community Event in Newcomb, New Mexico).
“I’m a famous chef,” Baca says, shrugging, though he seems ambivalent about this title bestowed upon him. He’s been written up in the New York Times (“The Movement to Define Native Foods”) and the premiere restaurant-review magazine, Zagat, but has turned down interviews with Food and Wine and Bon Appetite because the media erroneously perpetuates the idea that there’s one singular star of the indigenous food movement. “That’s a white thing,” he laughs, “the chef as rock star.” He’s quick to give credit to the many other up and coming indigenous chefs. “We are a people that do not rely on individualism. We don’t really do that,” he says, his mane of sleek, black hair tamed by a tight braid.
His full time chef days are likely over, though Baca’s cooked for several upscale Durango restaurants, and spent nearly three years as executive chef at Dunton Hot Springs, a remote, luxury resort on the Dolores River (nightly rates between $900 – $2000; meals included). These days, he hauls dried southwestern mushrooms, osha root, and other local flavors around the country, collaborating on “pop-up meals” with indigenous menus. Next venue: New York City.
A man has to make a living, but Baca discovered a song louder than capitalism piped in on the airwaves of his ancestors, his contemporaries, and his own consciousness. In 2011, he founded Taste of Native Cuisine, which is like a catering company with exacting values; instead of a customer-driven menu, Baca prepares food that could be recognized by his pre-Columbian ancestors, in season. At an event at the Southern Ute Cultural Center in Ignacio, Baca and his team fed over 300 people on 80 percent foraged food. (Menu: red chile pumpkin soup, roasted sweet potato with piñon brown butter, heritage corn polenta, smoked elk with wild mushrooms and chokecherry sauce). That elk was not farm-raised, but taken down the day before by Baca’s cousin; Baca is not seeking USDA approval. “Our food system has been destroyed. It’s about reclaiming what was lost through colonization,” Baca says.
It seems the many indigenous chefs who are speaking out for a new (albeit ancient) culinary paradigm – “The solid core group of talented people who care about the future of indigenous food and medicine” – see their native culture as a gem buried in the mud, themselves as excavators. However, Baca doesn’t speak in metaphor: “Colonialism is warfare,” he says. “Food is activism.”
Baca has been peeling away the institutionalized layers that have aggregated to his person over 41 years. This is not a casual, half-hearted effort. He’s taught his sons to “hand-catch” trout. He dissects his meals ethically – within a juicy slab of pineapple he sees indigenous Hawaiian land and people displaced by corporations. “Going out to eat with me is a nightmare,” he admits, laughing. He just turned down a notable speaking gig because the ticket included a white chef he considers a cultural appropriator. He won’t cook fry bread, a food associated with the Navajo Nation, which he sees as a path to diabetes. “As indigenous people, our bodies don’t process flour. Gluten intolerance is pretty much across the board.” The last culinary layer he’d like to shed is cooking technology. Ideally, he’d be “throwing his own clay, steaming in mosses, roasting meat on open fires, getting closer to the root.”
Growing up in Cortez and Ignacio, eating happened “community style.” The matriarchs put the food on the table (ingredients were hunted, foraged, and sourced from dubious-quality government commodities free to residents of reservations), and cousins, aunts, and uncles drifted in and grabbed a plate. Long before foraging was a hip, urban activity to showcase on Instagram, Baca’s grandmother sent him out with a bag to harvest purslane. He jokes that learning to doctor up government commodities (think powdered eggs and tinned meat) inspired his interest in cooking.
At a recent talk on indigenous foods at the Ohana Kuleana Community Garden in Durango (Baca serves blue cornmeal flavored with wild sumac berries, popped amaranth, and pumpkin seeds), the rapt audience, 80 percent white, is hungry for Baca’s every word. When asked what it’s like to have so many white people attracted to his message, Baca explains that out of respect for his people, he doesn’t give all the information. Also, if he’s giving a class on foraging to Ute or Navajo people, whom he refers to as “the community,” he may ask for just gas money in return. “However, I might create an twelve course meal and for the people who have the money, I’ll charge $150 a plate.” He pauses, closes his eyes, shakes his head and says, “It’s tough. It almost sounds racist, doesn’t it?”
Karlos Baca doesn’t mind if his activism makes you uncomfortable. He’s open to “conversating,” and relishes the tough discussions. “The fact that we’re still around to have these conversations is a blessing,” he says, going quiet for an introspective moment. He speaks to the metronome of an unhurried and relaxed pace, even as he translates the Mayflower Proclamation from an indigenous perspective: “Thank you for helping us survive. Now we’re going to annihilate you.”
“We have harvest ceremonies each fall which don’t involve killing our host.” Baca says by way of pointing out Thanksgiving’s historical undertones. Baca fasts every year on Thanksgiving, and this November he’ll be at The Indigenous Chefs Takeover of Manna-hatta (Lenape tribe’s original name for Manhattan). The event is still under wraps, but he does mention the word “direct action” in the same sentence as “Macy’s Day Parade.”
There’s a culinary history, airbrushed from history books, which Karlos Baca is busy uncovering. Fry bread (white flour deep fried in shortening), currently posed as native cuisine, can be traced back to a “bread” Navajo women made with acorn flour, animal fat, and coltsfoot ash for leavening). Baca explains that during the 1864 forced migration known as the Long Walk of the Navajo, people were given nutritionally inferior white flour and lard and tasked with keeping themselves alive. Hence, fry bread. Also, Baca points out what happened after the Shoshone saved the starving Utahans in 1849 by introducing them to the edible and relatively caloric sego lily bulb: the sego lily became a state flower, which the Shoshone can no longer legally harvest.
After the Indigenous Chefs Takeover of Manna-hatta, there is work to be done closer to home. Baca, with others, is creating a food truck in Ignacio, Colorado. The menu includes heritage crops and the business will provide training for indigenous youth. Also, a 1-2 acre Ignacio farm is in the works, from which boxes of produce will be available for tribal families, free. “I feel better about it (indigenous culinary and agricultural endeavors) than at any other point in the past,” Baca says. He’s buoyed to see sustainable, indigenously-owned and operated food businesses popping up across the country (olive oil, fruit orchards, heritage seed crops, maple syrup, honey farms, restaurants), providing an alternative to income from casinos, oil, and gas.
Baca pulls out a plastic baggie filled with dried herbs. “It’s not weed,” he announces, naming the mixture in a melodic language I don’t recognize, and proceeds to roll a smoke. “Is there mullein in that?” I ask before adding, “and can you spell that name for me?” He lets a pause bloom and answers, “No. I’m not going to let you print that. And yes, there’s mullein in here.” He smiles, twisting the ends of his herbal cigarette, tattoos poking out of his shirt sleeves. “There’s eighteen different wild plants in this. To make this, you have to be a medicine person. Eighteen songs for eighteen plants.”
There’s more to ask but Karlos Baca is busy. The chanterelle mushrooms are popping up. When I ask how he preserves them, he replies that he “cooks and freezes them.”
“You sauté them in butter?”
“No butter. It’s that colonial thing.”