Monday, September 3, 2012
As a person who loves to eat and is not afraid to try new things, I sometimes look back at the food that has come from my home.
I started thinking about our food when I ate “traditional Native American food” in Chicago during a journalism conference. The local Native American chapter/group/club/organization/tribe invited us to their place for dinner. I was excited. I wondered what they ate up there and what it tasted like. Then I was disappointed. It was roasted meat and a side mix of squash and corn. I can’t remember what kind of bread they gave us, but that meal was not memorable. Native American food is as simple as that.
Most Natives were nomadic. They moved around with the seasons and herds. Sometimes they grew vegetables such as corn, squash, beans, potatoes, ect. That’s true with the Navajo, we pretty much ate off the land.
Each tribe hunted the animals that were native to their area. Deer in the forested areas, buffalo, rabbits, fish, whales, dogs – yes dogs, turkeys, chickens, ect. They used the local vegetables and fruits that grew in the area too.
Then came the immigrants and forced assimilation. Every tribe was forced to live in one place. I imagine a lot of starvation happened. They didn’t know how to farm or process foods. They also didn’t know how to use the strange, new foods that were rationed to them by the government, because they had never seen them before. Imagine if you never saw flour or coffee before. Would you know what to do with it? I also imagine there was a lot of sickness too.
Natives were also heavily influenced by these immigrants and their neighbors. They learned how to cook things, use new cooking tools and put their own twist on dishes. Take the Navajo for instance. We were heavily influenced by our Mexican/Spanish brothers. We have Navajo tacos, pesolé, chile stews and a lot of our Navajo words are actually Spanish words too. Geeso is how we say “cheese,” queso is how it’s said in Spanish; sounds the same. Mandagi’a is Navajo for “butter”; and mantaquella in Spanish. Oh, and tortillas, every Navajo woman must know how to make fry bread and tortillas. We also consider tamales to be a delicacy, just like the Mexicans do, and they only come out on special occasions.
Tortillas cooked on the grill.
I know what the first thing you think about when you think about Native Americans and food. Fry bread. Actually, I don’t know how it was born or how each tribe came to have it. But each tribe has a different technique, texture and size to their fry bread. Each person who knows how to make fry bread takes great pride in their recipe. Navajos go all out with the plate-sized, thin fry bread with crispy bubbles. Up north, they make it thick and small. Some like it sweet with sugar stuff on it like a waffle. Others, like me, never put sugar on it and prefer it plain with salt or with some stew.
Mutton stew (it's actually a soup) with fry bread.
On our reservation there are many flavors that come very simple.
They were introduced to us by the Spanish around the 17th century. They became a very important animal; the life and way of the people. Families kept hundreds of them and used their wool for rugs and their meat for sustainability.
To butcher a sheep takes practice and ceremony. Prayers and ‘thank you’s’ are said for the sheep. It’s bled out from the neck and skinned. I’ve only seen this once and didn’t stay for the whole thing. But the body is broken down and prepared for the grill – or the freezer.
The innards are not thrown out, they’re prepared too. The large intestines, liver, kidneys, stomach and other bits can be chopped and fried together. Everything in that mix is very grassy, gamey and greasy – good with a hot tortilla. The liver, like all livers, sort of come apart in the mouth like soft sand. The stomach turns rubbery and the intestines are the grassy rubbery ones. My sister loves this mix and says the kidneys are very good, especially with a piece of green chile and tortilla.
Even the blood is used to make a blood sausage. It’s poured in the stomach with some potatoes and chile and boiled. I’ve never had this, but I’m guessing it tastes like liver. And some of the fat, or fat lining is set out to dry and eaten with bread or by itself.
The small intestines are saved for achii’. They’re cleaned and wrapped around a sliver of fat. It’s grilled is popped into a tortilla. I’ve had just a few of these. They’re greasy and the intestines become a little rubbery or crispy. It’s very “muttony.”
The head is saved for the open fire -- above or under. I’ve never seen this but my sister has: Since it was my first time, watching was something kind of … from a scary movie. It was graphic to see how the head was taken apart. It still looked like a sheep, but it was charred. The jaw was separated, that gave me the chills because I’ve never seen it before. I tried the tongue, it was really tender but it was really chewy at the same time. The nose was taken off. Then the meat on the cheeks were taken off and shared with everybody. The cheek meat was really the best part of a muttony taste I’ve tasted. It was soft meat, it was really juicy and tender and tasty. We ate all of this with our hands. The next part that was cut out was the eyes. The guy who did the butchering ate the first eye. That was kind of gross, because I never thought of eating the eyes before. In the back of my mind I thought it was going to be gross, but I said “yes” (to their offer). I said “yes” because I felt like I needed to do it because I really wasn’t afraid. I didn’t eat the whole eye, it was cut in half. I closed my eyes, because I wanted to process the whole thing. It was slimy and very fatty and gooey. I don’t really remember what it tasted like, it was just really like a big jelly kind of jelly-meat.
This sheep head was cooked underground.
You know when you’re eating mutton, because mutton is really strong and distinct. It also leaves a strong sheep and meaty smell when you have it in the house. And the grease! The grease that gets everywhere is the reason why I don’t like it too much. If you don’t eat it fast enough, the grease will harden in the stew, in your nails and on the plate.
There are a lot of other traditional Navajo foods such as; blue corn mush, ground blue corn cooked in hot water and salted or served with sugar; Navajo tea, which, to me, tastes like you took a fall in the weeds and you got some of it in your mouth and; Navajo cake, a mix of ground corn and other sweet things that is baked underground and comes out dense and kind of tough – for a cake.
See? There are no special techniques, marinades, spices, lemon zest or sauces. It’s all very rugged; meat, bread, salt and a whole green chile/jalapeno on the side. Sometimes it comes with a side of roast corn, cooked squash, but that’s pretty much it.
In a more modern take, Navajos use all the same foods everyone else does. During events, and everyday life, there are burritos, cotton candy, fruit salads, noodle salads, burgers, Navajo burgers (burger in a fry bread).
Navajo faire is always the best when it comes from a food truck like this.
We have also gotten better “rations” from the government. In recent years, there has been a shift from canned fruits, vegetables and meat to fresh and frozen ones through the Navajo Nation Food Distribution, which is kind of like a food stamps program.
Our family is not traditional. I didn’t grow up eating mutton and caring for sheep – most of us didn’t. We considered it a treat when we could afford it, or when our friendly neighbors gave us a leg or rack of ribs for Christmas. We ate spaghetti (mom’s spaghetti is soul food), chicken fried steak, enchiladas, salads, fish and Chinese food.
I learned to cook from my mom. Although she didn’t teach me how to make fry bread and tortillas, I know my way around the kitchen very well because of her. I can make many different things from chicken Brunswick stew and garlic-lemon salmon to Indian samosas and Afghan korma (lately I’ve been obsessed with the Middle East and India). Every now and then you can hear “oh my God, I’m a genius” coming from me in the kitchen.
I’m glad I have tasted most of the traditional foods from my home. Although I don’t like most of them, I know their value and importance to our people. I appreciate the thankfulness and waste less culture we have. These dishes and methods are exotic – even to me – and unique. I’m lucky to have it right at home.