Leadership Profile: Kelzi Bartholomaei
Chef-Owner of Mother Hubbard’s Restaurant in Tucson, Arizona
~ Natalie Brown ~
Author’s Note: I have had the joy of knowing Kelzi for several years.
She is a regular participant in WnT’s Tucson Gathering of Women
events, including hosting our leadership team for a wrap-up meal at
her restaurant, Mother Hubbard’s Café. In another context, I was
thrilled to facilitate an event in which she provided knife skills training
for refugee women from half a dozen countries, then seamlessly
transitioned from mentor to mentee as they put her to work to prepare dishes traditional to their homelands for a communal feast.
Kelzi is a member of the San Antonio Mission Indian Tribes of Texas, and her Nations’ lands span across Texas and the Northern states of Mexico. She has resided in Arizona since 1979, moving to Tucson in 1993.
Kelzi purchased Mother Hubbard’s Café in 2010 and transformed it from a greasy spoon to the award-winning diner it is today, known for its contemporary Native American cuisine. First Nations friends north of border may have seen Ms. Bartholomaei on an episode of Food Network Canada’s You Gotta Eat Here, which aired last fall.
NB: Who are your culinary influences? What first drew you to cooking?
KB: My maternal grandmother was my first teacher. Her home was in rural Coahuila. The first thing she taught me to make were tortillas. As I grew older, she also taught me my first butchering lessons. She had me killing and plucking chickens and pigeons from a young age. I learned to butcher my first cow at age 14 on my uncle’s ranch.
She would describe herself as “not a fancy cook”, but she excelled
at making traditional home cookery. Once, as an adult after having
worked in Indonesia and Thailand for some time, I returned to my
grandparents’ home in Mexico. In the U.S., they were celebrating
Thanksgiving, which of course they don’t celebrate in Mexico. My
grandparents had this kind of open door policy when it came to
friends, and that week they were hosting college students who were
friends of one of my cousins and who wanted to they spend their
Thanksgiving Day break with my grandparents. So I decided it
would be fun to do a Thanksgiving meal with Asian overtones. It
included chicken, and a turkey shot locally by a friend of my grandma, which I brined and smoked. At the end of the evening, I noticed that my grandma had mostly eaten the beans I had prepared, and I asked her what was wrong. She said, “You know Mija, you cook way too fancy for me” She just liked simple, traditional dishes, and she knew how to make them all, very well.
NB: Did you ever establish any culinary traditions with your Nana?
KB: Yes, I would always let her know when I was coming to visit and no matter what time of day she always had a pot of cocido (beef vegetable soup) waiting on the stove. During each visit, one day we always had mole and one day, tortillas.
NB: Many families have a tradition of recording and passing down recipes as part of preserving family histories. Did you ever collect your Nana’s recipes?
When she was in her late 70s, I started collecting her recipes. But, of course, she measured by sight and taste, so I would follow her around the kitchen and as she would pour an amount of an ingredient into hand, I would take her hand and pour whatever it was onto a scale and weigh it before she added it to the developing dish, so I would know how much to write down. She would get so frustrated with me! On a good day, we might get through a couple of recipes, but usually it would take a couple of cookings to get the entire recipe. In fact, sometimes she’d refuse to teach me anything for a couple days. She would eventually kick me out of the kitchen exclaiming, “Leave me to cook!”
NB: Was there any recipe that holds any special significance for you?
KB: Yes, I mentioned her mole. Moles are to Mexican families as BBQ would be to my Texan family. They are complex recipes, often very old, with secret ingredients and closeted techniques. And my grandmother’s was no different. It was a day-long process, getting the ingredients, with many ingredients needing to be prepared before they could be used in the recipe.
As she aged, crippling arthritis in her hands and osteoporosis became more and more problematic. Yet, we still made her mole. Then one year, she served me a mole that was made in advance, and it tasted off. I asked her about it, and she said it was store bought. Her hands just couldn’t work mano y metate anymore. So she stopped making mole. In a way, that was my wake up call. I hadn’t started collecting her recipes yet. So, I made sure that during those intervening years, I learned as much as I could from her. But I couldn’t get her to make the mole, no matter how often I asked. I remember finally telling her, “Just tell me what to do; I’ll do all the work.” She agreed. We went shopping to get the ingredients and then set about prepping: toasting bolillo (Mexican baguette) slices over open flame, cleaning the chiles, seasoning the chocolate, preparing syrup from piloncillo, toasting seeds, and drawing honey from the comb. I did alright with the prep. Then the work really began. I started grinding, and she continuously corrected my technique: “Roll the mano back and pull it flat; you’re not doing it right”. After a couple of hours, we still weren’t ¼ of the way through the process, and she had had enough. She told me, “Anda a la porra. No molestas. Get out of my way; let me finish this properly”. And she did – and it was wonderful. She was completely frustrated with me, but at the end of that trip, she said, “Vente Mija. Tomalo. She was pointing at the mano y metate. I protested! “Abuelita – all of your daughters have been wanting this!” It was her grandma’s mano and metate. She said when I was ready to leave, to take them, that she wanted me to have them as I was the only one who would really use them. And I still do.
When my daughter Olivia was 9 or 10, she wanted to make tamales with her friends so I agreed to teach them. I had already made the masa, but I had them grind the posole, just a cup or two to make enough dough for a few tamales, and we mixed that in with what I had already done. We made green corn tamales.
NB: What would you say to readers who might think, “What’s Native about this? She’s describing Mexican food!”
KB: The fact is that these foods that we’re so accustomed to describing in Spanish are actually known to my people by their names in Nahuatl, a language that is and was used from what is now Texas to the middle of South America. It’s a dynamic, living language that well predates European contact, as do these culinary traditions.
Spanish or English
NB: Who else has influenced your culinary style and approach?
KB: Dr. Lois Ellen Frank has had a huge impact on me as a theorist. I relate very strongly to the way in which she has defined the four distinct eras of Native cooking, which are:
Pre-Columbian Era: with all the ingredients and cooking techniques that predate European contact.
Early Post Contact Era: It’s hard to think about Native peoples without picturing horses across the continent, sheep in Dine country, and goats on my peoples’ homelands, but of course these were all introduced by Europeans. That said, there was a time after contact and before reservations in which these and other animal, crop, and seasonings additions were integrated well into our indigenous cooking traditions. It was also a time for the introduction of techniques such as yeasted baking for Pueblo bread and kneel down breads.
Reservation Era: I consider this to be from the 1830s until the closing of the last boarding school, which wasn’t until the 1960s. This era was the reign of the commodity foods with their poor health outcomes. It was a cuisine based on limited resources and forced necessity. Unfortunately, it’s also the food that most people consider “Native cooking”. Some contemporary Native chefs choose not to serve frybread, equating it with a symbol of oppression and genocide.
While I love frybread, it is not on my menu (and I do get complaints about that from an uninformed public who equate Native food with frybread). However, I personally like having fun with serving “commodity breakfasts”. My menu includes one entrée per month that is the featured “commodity meal”. Currently, that’s a “Bison McSpreadable”.
Some people have renamed Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I don’t see any need to repurpose it; for me, it’s a holiday that doesn’t exist, period. That being said, I do typically offer a full week of Commodity Selections during one week in October. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but it also is thought-provoking, and sometimes provides an opportunity for dialogue with guests that otherwise might not happen.
4. Contemporary Native American cuisine: This is where we are today, with new chefs reinterpreting their cuisines. My personal focus is taking traditional techniques and adapting them for contemporary palettes.
NB: Give me an example of a technique you’ve adapted that might surprise our readers.
KB: Well, of course, many of the dishes I prepare include chilies, which for certain dishes need to be fire roasted. Traditionally, they are fire roasted over open flame. Growing up we’d build a fire outside and roast them over coals or for small quantities, roast them on the stove. Nowadays, most fire-roasted chilies are tumble roasted. However, I find that chilies roasted like that tend to cook all the way through. I prefer mine to be cooked “al dente” so to speak. It’s probably not all that common, but I have found the most efficient and enjoyable way to do so is with a propane blow torch! I have it from my glassblowing days, but I’ve repurposed it. Anything I’ve ever really liked in my life involved fire.
NB: Tell me more about the philosophy behind your revamp of Mother Hubbard’s Café.
KB: When I bought the business I had no idea what I was doing. The café was known for its low-cost breakfasts and its support of the local community of people living with HIV/AIDS. While I have maintained those traditions, I really needed to overhaul the menu. I love to create, and therefore two eggs, potatoes, and toast was not going to make it. In my naivety, the first dish I tried to make my own was corned beef hash. Growing up on Sundays we would go to Corktown in Detroit to get house-made hash and eggs, not the canned stuff. So I bought brisket, made a brine, and set it to corn. After the cure, I braised it in beer and then, using the point, diced for a fresh veggie hash. What a learning experience! That hash was resoundly trashed. Everyone wanted the canned hash experience. ¡After all, this is a diner! I didn’t own a fancy restaurant. I seriously had to rethink how to rethink “a diner” and survive in this location. So, it took years to introduce new items. With hindsight, this was how the concept developed, organically over time. Now, about 80% of what we serve is sourced within a tristate area. Our chilies come from New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Mexico; our pork and eggs come from Southern Arizona; some of our cheeses come from this region; our flours come from mills in Arizona, Colorado, California, and New Mexico, and those are heritage crops – blue corn meal from Cortez, CO and White Sonoran Wheat from here in the Tucson area. One of the local farmers markets has become for me somewhat of the community that others might find in a church setting; I’m there nearly every Sunday and know most of the vendors quite well. Supporting the local food system – at every level – is very important to me. I have also partnered with local nonprofits that offer culinary training programs to disenfranchised, underserved, and low-income populations and preferentially hire graduates from these classes. I have a commitment, when I can, to hire Native young men and women. Mother Hubbard’s Café is a member of a group of locally owned restaurants called Tucson Originals, and we chef-owners regularly get together and find ways to support each other’s establishments. It’s a hard business to make a living in, particularly in the summer months when Tucson’s population significantly dwindles as winter visitors and students exit in mass.
NB: You have quite the array of charcuterie on your menu. Tell us the story behind one example.
KB: One of the chorizo recipes that I use is very old. I learned it from my auntie, but it has been passed down for over the decades, originally from a Portuguese woman who came into Mexico and migrated north to San Luis Potosi in the Matahuala area, marrying into our family many generations ago.
It’s important to me that my menu reflect the charcuterie traditions of Native people. We (Native people), have a strong tradition of exchange – for culture or commerce. Hence, my liberal use of ingredients and techniques from other native communities and adapting them to here, my adopted home. UNESCO recently awarded Tucson with the designation of being the only City of Gastronomy in the U.S. This is due in large part to our longstanding traditional agricultural practices and our current integration of those foods and techniques into our modern cuisine. In fact, it is documented that Tucson is the longest known continuously cultivated settlement in the country. The smoking process that I use involves local apple, citrus, mesquite, and pecan wood, a practice that has been in place in this region for generations.
Editors’ Note: We publish quarterly, and sometimes situations change in shorter time frames. The author has informed us that between filing this article and our publication date, Kelzi made the difficult decision to temporarily relocate to Detroit to be closer to her mother, who was ill. In the process, she sold a majority stake in her restaurant, but remains a minority owner and recipe consultant, as well as the supplier of their meat program. Kelzi’s mother subsequently passed away, and Kelzi is currently settling her Ma’s estate in Michigan. As she grieves, we ask that our readers in Southern Arizona continue to support Kelzi and her business partners, as we advocate for all Native-owned businesses.
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