Editor’s Note: This is an editorial from a reader in response to the article “Who Owns New Mexican Food?,” which ran in Vol. 27, Issue 9 of Weekly Alibi. The story was lightly edited for length and word choice. Most notably, the word “Diné” has been used to replace the word “Navajo” in all but two instances here (when referring to a reservation and the language) as it’s currently the more widely preferred term by the people it represents.
I read your recent article, “Who Owns New Mexican Food?” with interest. I would like to make a small contribution. I am 85 years old and have spent my whole life in New Mexico. My great-grandfather came to New Mexico in 1875 as a missionary from the Mormons to the Diné and Zuni peoples. I have written four books on local history centered in Cibola and McKinley Counties (the Grants-Gallup area), so my experience is somewhat regional, but I can tell you what people ate and you can compare that to other areas in the state.
We were always on the edge or within the Navajo Reservation. My father spoke Navajo, so he worked many years for the Indian Service (later the Bureau of Indian Affairs). Later we had a trading post at Mexican Hat, Utah, and I worked in a trading post at Bluewater. For a number of years, Dad was a foreman on Diné crews working for the Biological Survey and for commercial farms in the Bluewater area. My family were all cattle ranchers, but one year was spent raising sheep. For several years I was the cook for our ranch in the Datil area. Thus I am familiar with the Diné diet and the diet of ranchers. For one summer, a Diné friend and I killed one beef a day for the Diné crews at Bluewater. We hired sheepherders and I stayed at the sheep camp and ate with the Diné people there much of the time.
Historically, the Diné people lived on sheep and cattle they had stolen. When none were available, they loved prairie dogs and jackrabbits. When they could farm, they raised corn and squash, but that was seasonal. They did not use flour before 1864. In Jay Sharp’s “The Long Walk,” he says that “The army commissary gave wheat flour to the Indians, who tried to eat the strange new food raw or as gruel. They died of dysentery. [200 died].” They learned to use flour at Fort Sumner and made flour tortillas from it.
In my own experience in the sheep camps, a rack about three inches high was constructed of baling wire and placed on coals as a makeshift grill. The meat and tortillas were cooked on this. There was no cooking oil; everybody used lard which could be purchased at the trading post. When a sheep or cow was killed, every last bit of it was cooked and eaten, including the marrow, guts and stomach. After they acquired dutch ovens, they learned to make fry bread, using baking powder. They never used yeast or did any baking.
At the trading post, coffee and soda pop were very popular as were canned peaches, sardines and crackers. Soda pop came in three flavors: red, orange and green. I have read that Diné people first learned about coffee at Fort Sumner. At first they tried frying it, then making porridge out of it. Potatoes were a staple, always eaten fried with plenty of red chile sprinkled on them. Green chile was not available except to Spanish Americans who raised their own. As I grew up, tomatoes were not used with green chile. Pinto beans were popular but black, lima and Navy beans were unheard of. When green chile was available, people liked it really hot. There was always a contest among the cowboys to see who could eat the hottest chile, and they would sit there with tears running down their faces and claiming, “That shore is good chile.” Garlic was not used by the Diné people, but was popular with Spanish Americans. In my high school days we ate lunch at a small restaurant. In those days, a combination of dairy and chile (or dairy and fish) was considered poisonous, so they would not serve them together.
When I was growing up, enchiladas were never rolled. People made them with a stack of tortillas, using ground beef and red chile. There was always a fried egg on top. For 30 years I lived in Los Alamos. Northern New Mexico has its own culture, with a green chile dish for nearly every meal. Sopaipillas were universal, and I think they are not used nearly so much elsewhere. In speaking to Mexicans from Mexico City, I learned that they ate enchiladas only on holidays, particularly Christmas. They also ate a lot of fruit, not as available to New Mexicans. The Spanish Americans grew their own chile and made it unbelievably hot. I had an officemate who brought it regularly to work. I asked him how he could eat it that hot. He told me that you had to stay “in practice” daily to continue eating it.
I think the development of food in New Mexico depended a lot on what was available. Green chile and tomatoes were available only for about a month in the fall. When the Mormons came to New Mexico about 1880, canning with glass jars was not known. As many crops as available were stored in root cellars (potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions). When they did learn to can vegetables, Mormons canned nearly everything. Mormons also had a lot of milk and cream and butter and eggs, and raised all kinds of vegetables, but these were not generally available to Spanish Americans and hardly ever seen with Diné people. Pork was very popular with Spanish Americans, but Diné people, from their Fort Sumner experience, did not like it. As I grew up, we cured our own bacon and hams using a sugar cure. Cans of this cure were available in every grocery store. Cowboys made a lot of their own jerky and parched corn to use while riding.
Tamales came from the Aztecs and Mayans, and were very popular among Spanish Americans, but not eaten by the Diné people. They are very rich in lard.
Cattle ranchers lived on potatoes, beans and steak. Red chile and stews were common. We made a lot of sourdough biscuits but we couldn’t stand sourdough cold. We made our own butter, but bacon was had only by the slab. We had to slice our own off the slab. Our family had baking powder biscuits and gravy nearly every morning for breakfast, but Mormons had hot wheat cereal at every breakfast. Supper with them was frequently just milk and homemade bread.
I, too, had a Texas grandmother and we had a regular diet of collard greens, turnips, okra, grits, and, like you, always had black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day.
- Story from Gary Tietjen
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