WHEN I ARRIVE, WALTER WHITEWATER is already in the kitchen. He asks if I want coffee or if he can make me an egg. He refreshes his knife blade on a sharpening steel before resuming the work in front of him. As he attends to a bowl of cut vegetables that are headed for a stockpot, he carefully adds carrot peels, onion skins, celery ends, and herb stems to another bowl, so the edible odds and ends won’t go to waste. “I’ll lay them away from the house where the wild animals come, so everybody gets to eat,” he says.
I’ve known the Diné chef for several years now, having had the privilege of cooking with him on many food projects throughout Santa Fe. I’ve seen how he prepares food for guests and at his home. I have worked in all sorts of kitchens with all kinds of chefs. I’ve never cooked with anyone like Whitewater.
He’s been cooking since childhood, thanks to his grandparents and father, who taught him the connection between food and all living things via storytelling, cooking methods, and living in community. Born in Piñon, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation, Whitewater has been cooking professionally since 1992, when he took a job with chef David Tanis at the late Cafe Escalera, in Santa Fe. He also spent time at Bishop’s Lodge, as well as at the now-shuttered Mu Du Noodles. Eventually, he and fellow chef Lois Ellen Frank joined forces as the Native American catering company Red Mesa Cuisine, in Eldorado. These days, he splits his time between Arizona and New Mexico, catering private events and teaching cooking classes across the region.
As he adds vegetables to the pot, I realize how much I love being here. It’s a time when I put aside everything I think I know about preparing food. Instead, I have the chance to observe and record—a task I’ve done with Whitewater enough times to know that I need to type as fast as I can, hoping I can somehow translate the uniquely light touch he uses to bring dishes to life.
Sometimes I’ll gently interrupt to ask a question, usually to confirm an ingredient amount. But when Whitewater cooks, his energy is entirely focused on both cooking and telling stories. Storytelling is not something he does to pass the time; it’s an integral part of the cooking process.
For the most part, he doesn’t follow recipes. And it’s not only because he cooks from a deep well of memory and taste. He simply couldn’t care less about following a straight line of ingredients and methods.
That’s a feat, when you consider the labor that went into his position as the primary culinary advisor for two cookbooks written by Frank. In 2003, the first one, Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations (Ten Speed Press), won a James Beard Award, the very first Native American cookbook to receive the honor. The second, Seed to Plate, Soil to Sky, was published by Hachette Go this past summer. It focuses on eight plants that Indigenous people introduced to the rest of the world—corn, beans, squash, chile, tomato, potato, vanilla, and cacao—and features more than 100 recipes.
Maybe the intuitive way Whitewater works in the kitchen frees his mind for other things, more important things. At the kitchen island, he shows me how he picks dried thyme leaves off the stems. These herbs will be used throughout the fall and winter until new thyme blooms appear in the yard next summer.
“After we make the stock,” he says, “we will work on the corn.” Like many plants in Indigenous culture, corn is not simply considered food. “All the hard work, all the work that goes into it, praying for the rain to provide the food and medicine that we need,” he says reflectively. He recounts what happens after the corn harvest—how they dig a four-foot-deep pit, fill it with wood, and feed a fire throughout the day.
“At the end of the day, when the sun starts setting and the ash has turned white, we know it’s time,” he says. The wood charcoal is removed, then the corn goes into the hot pit. It gets doused with water before the covering process begins—first goes a layer of canvas, then dirt, then it’s topped with hot wooden embers. Someone stays to add wood to the hot coals throughout the night. When the sun comes up, each layer is gently removed to reveal the steamed corn. A single ear is taken out of the pit and passed around. Everyone takes a bite.
“As the steam comes out of the ground,” Whitewater says, “we sing the corn song. Whatever is left from the ear of corn is given back to the fire to show respect to the fire, water, and dirt we have used. The corn is hung to dry, and this is our food for winter.” The corn is shared with elders and others in the community, ground to make creamer for coffee, or saved for ceremonial occasions.
“This is how my family made steamed corn,” he says. “Nothing goes to waste. We say thank you with how we treat the husk, the cob, the corn silk.”
The sweet smell of corn, herbs, and roasted chicken fills the house while we talk. For Whitewater, the flavors of fall are about seasonal availability: apples, dried fruit, sumac berries, green chile, savory herbs, turkey, and wild game. But perhaps even more, they recall the connections forged through his memories of trading. “When I was a boy, there was a family that came to our house every fall. My grandfather raised animals that we could trade for goods. But we also shared language with each other, and, over the years, friendship.”
At the end of our time together, he stands at the sink, washing the spoons we’ve been using for tasting throughout the day. “One day you realize, maybe I should have listened a little bit more,” he says.
“Our elders made such an effort to teach us traditions, language, songs, and the best time to collect seeds from the squash. I’m lucky to have these memories. These stories are how our connection is not lost.”
This dish celebrates fall flavors and the intersection of Indigenous and Mexican cuisines. It features roasted Cornish game hens along with Navajo Kneel Down Bread, so named for the cook’s traditional necessity to kneel while tending to the pit-baked bread. Mole comes from the Nahuatl word mõlli, meaning “sauce.”