Reporter's Notebook: An Inside Look At Award-Winning Story Of Apache Chef

Oct 9, 2017

Chef Nephi Craig makes his signature piñon-infused whipped cream for dessert
Credit Aaron Granillo

This time last year, KNAU brought you the story of Nephi Craig, an Apache chef reviving the cuisine of his ancestors. He believes food can help his people recover from a dark past that includes war, relocation and a food-related health crisis. The story went on to win a national Edward R. Murrow Award. Aaron Granillo was the reporter on the piece. Gillian Ferris was the editor. They are in New York City today to accept the award for best writing. Before they left, Aaron and Gillian sat down for a reporter’s notebook, a look behind the scenes of the original story.


Gillian Ferris: Aaron, tell us a little bit about Nephi. Just set up this story for us a little bit. 

Aaron Granillo: Ok, so Nephi is born and raised Western Apache, born in the White Mountains, traveled all over the world, is this great cook. But, he decided to come back home and cook the food of his ancestors. That's what he's all about it. He kind of puts a modern twist on ancestral cooking. He uses locally, harvested food. In fact, at the restaurant that he runs there's a mountainside right there. And, often times, he'll go out and forage for wild edibles, wild plants that he can use in his dishes. So, I was fascinated by him because I'm a food guy, and I love Native culture as well, so to combine the two sounded like a great story to report on.

So, he told you something that you didn't use in the original piece, but has stuck with you. This idea of companion planting, specifically the three sisters. 

Right, so the three sisters are beans, corn, and squash. And, a good rule of thumb that I learned from Nephi is that if they grow together, they’re probably going to taste really good when you cook them together. And, it is called companion planting, and here’s how Nephi explains it:

Nephi Craig: They’re grown together so the corn provides a natural bean stock. The beans grow up. And the squash provides shade, protection from erosion. It retains moisture, and the beans and squash, release nitrogen into the soil. And, corn on its own is nutritious, but it’s missing a couple amino acids to form a protein. So, the squash and the beans add those in, so they’re working together. So, from seed all the way until we eat them they’re working together.

And Aaron, Nephi told you that the three sisters – beans, corn, squash – can result in unlimited types of recipes.

Yeah, he said thousands of recipes because you have all the different types of beans, all the different types of corns. Squash – you have different seasons. You have summer and winter squash and spaghetti squash and butternut squash. So, you can do all sorts of different combinations together. When I was there, he had three sisters pickled relish on top of a piece of salmon.

Yum.

Delicious. He also did a fried version, so he rolled the three sisters together in some flour and fried them for, like a three sisters fritter, which was also amazing.

And, he also made you Apache corn nuts or popcorn.

Yeah, It’s kind of like indigenous popcorn. And, corn is a huge part of the Apache culture, and Native culture in general. When I was there, Nephi was saying that the Western Apaches are just one of the many tribes that refer to themselves as “corn people.” Corn is eaten at almost every meal in traditional Native homes. The corn husks are used for a lot of stuff. They make shoes out of them, they make blankets, masks, head wear. So, corn is a big part of their culture, and when I was there, he was swirling these white corn kernels, and yeah, he was making, sort of like indigenous popcorn.

Nephi: You smell that?

Aaron: Oh yeah.

Nephi: So really, really, amazing –

Aaron: It smells like popcorn.

Nephi: Yeah, it’s tasty. It’s hot right now.

Aaron: How does it taste?

Nephi: Tastes good. Nice and salty corn, toasted corn flavor. And, this you could get at ceremonies, sold in little bags on the street. You know, people’s homes. When people pop it at home, like right now, it’d be real fragrant. Really nice, like comforting smell to anybody, but real powerful taste memories for a lot of Apache people.

And important, if you’re going to do this at home. If you’re going to cook these Apache corn nuts, make sure you cook them thoroughly. Nephi warns if you don’t, you will crack a tooth. 

Editor's Note: Nephi Craig continues to use traditional Apache foods, techniques and philosophies to help his people. He is now the Nutritional Recovery Program Coordinator at a drug and alcohol rehab center in the White Mountains.