Acclaimed artist Roxanne Swentzell celebrates a culinary lifestyle at the heart of Puebloan New Mexico.
Above: Corn squash pudding with blue corn cakes, from The Pueblo Food Experience.
Santa Clara Pueblo artist Roxanne Swentzell’s 30-year exploration into permaculture farming techniques gave rise to the Pueblo Food Experience, a program that promotes a pre-Columbian diet of simple ingredients with no sugar and limited fats. Adherents use chemical-free meat, fowl, fish, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables to reset their physical and mental well-being. Late last year, with co-author Patricia M. Perea, Swentzell explained it in The Pueblo Food Experience Cookbook: Whole Food of Our Ancestors (Museum of New Mexico Press).
While some of the ingredients may lie beyond most people’s palates (fried grasshoppers and jackrabbit stew), others speak to commonsense eating and grow-your-own pluck to reap foods at the core of every New Mexican’s diet.
Maybe your New Year’s resolutions include amping up your personal health index. In this excerpt from The Pueblo Food Experience, Swentzell explains how a global view and a local community can complement that goal.
AS A YOUNG CHILD, I would make small ditches with my hands to water the fruit trees and bushes in our front yard. Later, the excitement of growing pumpkins, tomatoes, and corn was something I looked forward to each spring. That excitement continues today.
Sometime in the mid-1980s, I became aware of seed saving and the differences between crop varieties and where they came from. My cultural roots became part of the understanding that plants, animals, and people are unique to their locations on this planet. Our traits evolved from environmental factors over many generations. Our DNA literally adjusted to such things as light, dryness, wetness, heat, cold, nutrients, and dangers. They all played a role in creating the amazing diversity of this planet.
We are at a new period in human history. We do not interact much with our food any longer and have lost sight of the community that generates it. Whole ecosystems have been eliminated, weakening the basket of life to the point of real danger to all of us. We are losing the amazing diversity of this world.
We used to be more rooted in place, taking time to notice the way a plant grew or where the sun came up each day. We could grow something from seed and be there to eat it, too. It took much longer to travel from place to place, giving our bodies and minds time to adjust to new things. Some adjustments require remaining in the same environment for many generations. By this I mean living in the natural environment of clouds, sunlight, dirt, water, air, animals, sounds, and wind, not just sitting in air-conditioned houses and cars. Our relationship to our environment is what makes us adjust to place. If we don’t live within our natural world, we start disconnecting from it to the extent that our very survival is threatened.
When I realized our situation, I began to collect and grow the traditional crops of the Pueblo people in an attempt to keep some of this diversity alive. Eventually, I had enough seed to build a seed bank. I have been growing these seeds every year since.
In much of the southwestern United States, we live in one of the harshest climates on earth. We get the hot, the cold, and the dry. The Ancestral Pueblo people thrived in this region because they learned how to move within their environment sustainably. This took thinking in a communal sense—seeing themselves within the whole ecosystem, not as separate from it. As a Pueblo farmer, I’ve spent my life learning how to grow crops in this region, looking for signs of what works and what doesn’t. It keeps me human and has taught me a great respect for my ancestors’ wisdom. It keeps me watching and noticing all the things that make up the world around me. I am forever learning, forever praying, forever thankful, forever blessed.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of working with a group of young women over the summer in our field of corn, beans, squash, amaranth, and chile. Some were interns, some hired hands, some friends and family. We gathered once a week to lay out rows, plant, irrigate, weed, and then harvest our crop. It was very hard working in the hot sun, amid bugs and stickers, but we not only persevered, we had fun.
I wondered many times why these ladies showed up week after week to struggle through these conditions and leave smiling. I realized it was about community. We gathered to gossip and share the week’s events, to talk about boyfriends, girlfriends, struggles of one sort or another, to laugh and cry with one another, and in this way our sense of belonging increased. We usually moved through the field on hands and knees, pulling weeds and admiring the corn growing stronger each week among insects, puppies, cats, and potsherds. Our intimate physical efforts with the ground, sky, and all that was between made us exist in a way that nothing else could. It was a whole community made up of clouds, water, plants, animals, insects, and people having conversations with one another on many levels
The seeds in the ground pulled us to them and grew not only from sunshine and wet soil but also from human voices and human touch. We fed them, and in the end they fed us. Community is much larger than human. This is the story behind our return to eating our original food. It’s about our relationship to place. In that field we again belonged to place, and everything felt better for it.
A NATIVE TABLE
The ingredients in The Pueblo Food Experience claim centuries-old roots in the Southwest. Many can be found in grocery stores, ethnic markets, and farmers’ markets. The finished dishes are intentionally simple. You may wish to add herbs, spices, and other ingredients.
Blue Corn Cakes
- 1 cup blue cornmeal
- 1/4 cup quinoa flour
- 1/2 cup piñon nuts, shelled
- 1/2 cup currants
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1/4 cup sunflower oil
- 1/2 cup water
- Grease a large muffin pan. Preheat oven to 350°.
- Stir together dry ingredients and then mix in the egg, sunflower oil, and water until the dough is sticky.
- Divide the dough into 8 balls and pat them into the tin with your fingers.
- Bake for 15 minutes or until cakes are solid in the middle. Cool before removing them from the baking pan.
Corn Squash Pudding
- 2 cups white corn
- 1 zucchini
- 2 tablespoons sunflower seeds or piñon nuts, shelled
- Cut corn kernels from the cob and finely dice the zucchini. Chop the sunflower seeds or pine nuts extremely fine.
- Mash all ingredients together until the texture is milky. (A blender helps.)*
- Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer until it is thick like pudding. Serve in cups or small bowls.
* Our tester added water to the mix.
Santa Clara Bean Loaf
- 1/2 onion
- 1 large tomatillo
- 4 cups cooked and mashed beans
- 1/2 cup crumbly corn masa
- 1/2 cup sunflower seeds
- 1 egg, preferably turkey, beaten
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Mince onion thoroughly and chop tomatillo into cubes. Mix all ingredients together thoroughly.
- Pack the mixture into a loaf pan and bake at 350° for 45 minutes.
- Cut into slices to serve.
Buffalo Meatballs and Quinoa
- 1 cup quinoa
- 2 pounds ground buffalo meat
- 1 cup finely chopped mushrooms
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs, preferably turkey or duck, beaten
- Cook quinoa according to package directions; set aside.
- Mix ground buffalo with mushrooms, salt, and eggs.
- Boil water in a large saucepan. Form buffalo mixture into meatballs and place in the boiling water. Cover pan, reduce heat, and simmer until meatballs are done (about 30 minutes).
- Serve over mounds of quinoa.
- 1 1/2 cups corn masa
- 1/2 cup amaranth flour
- 1 1/3 teaspoons salt
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup plums (dried and pitted)
- 2 cups currants
- Preheat oven to 350°.
- Mix masa and amaranth flour together. Add salt and eggs.*
- Press the mixture into a pie pan to make the crust.
- Boil plums down with water until they become a syrup. Mix currants and syrup and spread over the piecrust. Bake for 40 minutes.
* Add water to make dough pliable. You will have enough to add a top crust. If desired, roll it, place over the top, pinch the edges together, and cut a few vents before baking.
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