Vendors come to Indian Market from all over the region, including the Navajo Reservation and Jemez Pueblo, says Paula Rivera of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts. Vendors often offer a new take on traditional staples.
“They’re making the same traditional foods but making them in a different way,” Rivera says.
Ronaldo Scott, of Wide Ruins, Ariz., is the owner of Taste the Nation and has sold his food at Indian Market about 10 times. Scott, who is Navajo, also travels to events in California and throughout the Southwest, including the Navajo Nation Fair and the annual Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial in Gallup.
The most popular item on his menu is anything with chile, especially red chile, he says. Another specialty is his roast lamb sandwich on fry bread with lettuce and chile.
Like all the artists at Indian Market, food vendors try to mix traditional staples with something new every year, Scott says.
“I try to throw in something a little different,” he says.
Selling at Indian Market makes for a busy weekend for vendors facing a steady stream of hungry art patrons.
“We stay busy, which is great,” Scott says. “Time flies when we’re busy like that. Last year I had a really great time. It’s a really good show for us.”
Although most customers at Indian Market are familiar with native dishes, Scott says he especially likes when he has time to give newcomers a sample for the first time and explain his dishes.
Food can offer visitors new insight into native culture. Given the Navajo sheepherding tradition, Scott says lamb has long been a common food source and remains popular for its flavor and tenderness.
Corn also remains an important staple, whether it is roasted, mashed or used in a stew, he adds. At Indian Market, he will offer several dishes using lamb and corn, such as blue corn mush and a corn stew made with lamb.
Zina Benally, owner of Zina’s Blue Corn Grill in Albuquerque, says she is excited to sell food at Indian Market.
Benally, who is also Navajo, gives fast food a native touch with items like the Navajo burger, a hamburger patty between pieces of fry bread, a Rez chile dog wrapped in fry bread and a Navajo pizza.
She also sells breakfast burritos and several varieties of dessert fry bread, including one option with chocolate, caramel and chocolate sprinkles.
Benally also sells at Tingley Coliseum and the New Mexico State Fair, where, she says, she has won best fry bread and best Indian taco categories in past years.
Fry bread, which Benally describes as similar to a fried tortilla, is rooted in a painful history. During “The Long Walk” in the 1800s, thousands of Navajos were forced to leave their land and homes and walk to Fort Sumner in southeastern New Mexico. There, they had to make do with rations, and started experimenting with flour and lard, says Benally.
Fry bread is a creative “survival” food that has since become a pan-Indian staple, says Lois Ellen Frank, a Santa Fe chef with the catering company Red Mesa, as well as a photographer, native foods historian and author of “Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations.”
Frank, who completed a Ph.D. dissertation on native cuisine at the University of New Mexico, says she would like to see more native chefs return to healthier ancestral foods, such as the combination of corn, beans and squash found in many Southwestern native communities.
Foods like blue corn mush, for example, are healthy, low-fat options that can be used with savory additions like posole and chile or sweet toppings like fruit, she says. Dishes like green chile stew with wild game also hearken to earlier culinary traditions.
“Food is an art form,” she says. “I would love to encourage people to really think outside the box.”
For more information, go to swaia.org.