My glorious Citizens! After a busy week planning world food domination at an Illuminati conclave in NYC, I find myself comfortably ensconced once again in My secret Antarctic lair on the smoldering shoulders of Mount Erebus! This sense of hygge has in fact left Me with a certain sense of guilt, as so many others in the world lack creature comforts and have been ill-treated by their fellow Man. This is especially true of the First Nations of the United States – insultingly referred to as ‘Indians’.
Citizens, the First Nations have been treated with contempt through virtually all of American history – something I find nauseating in the extreme given how Navajo code talkers helped us win WW II and First Nation soldiers served with incredible distinction in the U.S. armed forces. As just one example, First Sgt. Pascal Cleatus Poolaw Sr. served this country through three wars, and gave up his life in Vietnam.
Poolaw has been called America’s most decorated American Indian Soldier with 42 medals and citations. Among his medals are four Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars. He also earned three Purple Hearts, one for each of the wars in which he fought – World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. The fourth Silver Star was awarded posthumously after Poolaw died during action in Vietnam – read about his story of bravery and sacrifice here.
To remind all of TFD Nation about the rich and proud gastronomic history of the First Nation peoples, I wish to discuss with you today a tribe that has persevered in maintaining both their culture and native eating habits – I speak of no one less than the mighty Navajo of the southwestern United States! I visited their reservation in New Mexico and was profoundly struck by their cuisine, which preserves so many ancient vegetables, recipes and techniques, including this dish of mutton stew.
The eating culture of the Navajo Nation is heavily influenced by the history of its people. New World foods such as corn, boiled mutton, goat meat, acorns, potatoes, and grapes were used widely by the Navajo people prior to and during European colonization of the Americas. Since then, the Navajo diet has become more homogenized with American cuisine but still retains distinct features of pre-colonized Navajo culture.
Following European expansion, the Navajo Nation was formed and today remains a large but impoverished entity within the United States. The Navajo tribe dates back to the 1500s during which time their diet relied heavily on maize, much like other Native tribes. The rest of the Navajo diet was shaped by the foods available in their region, and as such consisted in large part of foods such as pumpkins, yucca, elk, cottontail rabbits, mutton, and acorns, among others.
Also like other Native tribes, the Navajo depended on women to cook and serve food. Navajo cooking was similar to that of other Native tribes in the region in that it made use of hornos, or clay ovens, in which food was cooked by starting a wood fire inside. The fire was left to burn itself out, the ashes were either removed or pushed to the back of the horno, and the food to be cooked replaced them.
One of the Navajo’s biggest cultural staples is fry bread, largely due to its history. In the mid-1800s, the Navajo were forced by the United States government to walk from their lands in Arizona to Bosque Redondo in New Mexico, a walk along which hundreds of Navajo are said to have died. Bosque Redondo was not conducive to the Navajo’s usual diet, and the Navajo were given by the government flour, salt, water, powdered milk, lard, sugar, and baking powder to use in cooking.
From those ingredients, the Navajo created fry bread, and it has since become a significant part of Navajo culture and of several other Native cultures as a symbol of perseverance. Shortly following the removal of the Navajo from Arizona and the creation of the Navajo Nation, the Navajo assimilated much more with mainstream American culture, and pre-colonial cultural traditions began to figure less and less in the daily lives of the Navajo people.
As further noted on navajopeople.org:
Find out what are some traditional Navajo foods still eaten today? What are some traditional Navajo foods from the past, but not commonly eaten today? What are the various foods prepared from a sheep? The principal food is mutton, boiled, and corn prepared in many ways. Considerable flour obtained from traders is consumed; this is leavened slightly and made into small cakes, which are cooked over the embers like Mexican tortillas.
The standard diet, established in tribal habits at Bosque Redondo (which was in effect a military boarding school for the “Americanization” of the Navajo), consists of mutton, fried bread, vast quantities of coffee with sugar and goat milk.
The Navajo tell many amusing anecdotes of their adjustment to the food of white people at Bosque Redondo. Those who came from the Navajo backwoods, beyond the forts, had never seen coffee. At first they tried frying the coffee beans, which did not improve the flavor; next they made porridge of them.
The Navajo of today claim that their dislike of pork and bacon dates from Bosque Redondo days when so many people fell ill from eating poorly cooked pork. This is a rationalization for their abhorrence, however, because as early as 1855 Davis observed that they loathed hogs.
The Navajo are very fond of goat meat. Reichard (1936:7) quotes a Navajo as philosophising: “It seems like you’re getting more to eat if it’s tough.” The Navajo children drink some of the goat milk, but the tribe did not take over the European fondness for dairy products along with domesticated animals.
Wild plants which were gathered for food in early times included greens from beeweed; seed from the hedge mustard, pigweed and mountain grass; tubers of wild onions and wild potato; fruit like yucca, prickly pear, grapes; wild berries such as currants, chokecherries, sumac, rose, and raspberries. Parties of women went into the mountains each year to gather acorns, pinyon nuts, and walnuts.
In olden times, when a drought ruined crops, the pinyon nuts were the major food of some of the Indians. The nuts are now an important source of income to the mountain people. The gathering begins in the fall after the family has moved to the foothills for the winter, and in March, when the weather is better, the women gather more of the nuts. They do most of the seed gathering in June and July, while the men stay at home to hoe the gardens.
Wild potatoes, no larger than hickory nuts, formerly grew in abundance in certain parts of the Navajo territory, especially around Fort Defiance. Early travelers commented frequently on the broad fields of wild potatoes in the southern part of the reservation. From April till June these tubers served the Navajo as fresh vegetables. The potato has a very bad taste, so clay is used as a seasoning for it.
Yucca or “Spanish bayonet” was important as a relish and for adding variety to a meal. It was dried and baked, ground, roasted, and dried again before being made into cakes and stored away. Before being eaten, the cakes were mixed with water to make a syrup.
Butchering sheep became an integral part of Navajo culture once they were introduced by the Spanish – and was traditionally done by women, as you can see in this fascinating (and not for the squeamish!) video of the Miss Navajo Nation 2017 pageant! There is also a scholarly dissertation on this topic, authored by Dr. Christine Ami – a Diné College Associate Professor – titled “Díí jí nída’iil’ah : A Study of Traditional Navajo Butchering”. Listen to a fascinating podcast with her speaking on this topic here.
For today’s recipe, I challenged myself (as always) to keep the authentic spirit of the dish alive in every way possible while adding a few symphonic gourmet touches as evinced solely by the Maestro of Magniloquence Himself! That zero-compromise mentality infuses every recipe here on TFD and this one is no exception – and that means you are going to be using mutton to make this dish, as it MUST be the centerpiece of this Navajo staple!
Navajo strongly prefer mutton, which has sadly disappeared from the plates of American homes – but fear not, as I found a Navajo butcher who ships this precious meat direct to you!
The stew meat is shipped in 5 lb. packs, and you will use half the meat for the actual stew and half to make the mutton stock that is also a key part of the flavor profile of this recipe. The mutton used to make the stock should be simmered with vegetables, lots of onion, garlic, herbs and salt – save the cooked mutton meat, grind it up with the cooked vegetables and herbs to make pelmeni (Siberian mutton ravioli) with them or stir the meat/herb paste into the stew right before serving to make it extra-rich!
Next, you’ll want to use another important part of this dish – Neeshjizhii, aka Navajo heirloom dried corn – and no, this ingredient CANNOT be substituted! Once again, the Don Quixote incarnate who ALONE is TFD rides to your rescue with this mail order source, direct from the Navajo Nation! I like to garnish the stew with some chive flowers, which are not traditional but ARE a good substitute for the flowers of allium macropetalum – aka desert onion which IS used in the classic recipe of yore.
My version of this recipe calls for some herbs, nuts and spices not typically used in home versions of the stew, but they are all native to the region or attempts to make accurate substitutions for wild ingredients not available outside the region. For example, desert onion grows on the Navajo reservation lands but is simply not available unless you can gather it yourself! My genius substitute is frozen pearl onions and wild ramp powder to simulate the proper flavor profile and shape of desert onion.
No self-respecting Navajo would be caught dead eating this stew without its traditional accompaniment – fry bread! Once again, I have taken authenticity to the Nth degree with My recipe – calling for the only flour you should use for authentic Navajo fry bread, which is Blue Bird flour, mercifully available via Amazon. If you fry this up in anything less than pure lard, you are dead to me – purchase the good stuff here.
A complete listing of First Nation recipes here on TFD may be found at this link – Citizens, I hope you see fit to make this recipe and any of the others here at your earliest convenience! Remembering the contributions – gastronomic and otherwise – of these proud peoples is part of our shared history here in America and we must pay homage to their culture, lest we lose ourselves in prejudice and ignorance.
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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