Young people all over the United States are growing and cooking their own food. Whether it’s in a farm-to-school program or at home, kids are taking their rightful place in the kitchen.
Recently I interviewed a young Navajo girl named Chassitti Lincoln who has been helping her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother in the kitchen on their reservation in Arizona since she was small.
They invited me to witness the passing down of some of the traditional Navajo recipes from this group of women onto the next generation, namely Chassitti.
I drove 50 back-road miles to the small town of Pinion, Ariz., then two miles up a rugged dirt road to the crest of a hill where there was a small house and a sweat lodge overlooking more than 1,000 acres of land. This is Sage Spring, where Chassitti’s family has lived for more than 100 years. Their clan is called One Walks Around You.
Chassitti is interested in learning how to make traditional Navajo foods that are healthy because she knows type 2 diabetes is prevalent in Indian families, including her own.
It is no small thing for four generations of Navajo women to gather and cook, and so relatives came to be part of the meal from as far as Phoenix.
Great-grandmother Ruth and grandmother Mary greeted me in their traditional velvet dresses and turquoise jewelry. Chassitti’s 90-year-old grandfather, who is almost blind, was there. He is a medicine man and still treats some tribal ailments.
The lamb for this feast was tethered in a small corral by the side of the house. In front of the corral, there was an open fire pit laid with cedar and an iron rack to cook the lamb after slaughter and butchering. In the Navajo tradition an animal’s life is never taken without the honoring of its spirit.
Chassitti told me that along with the roasted lamb, our menu for lunch would include juniper ash blue corn mush, over-the-grill tortillas, roasted Anaheim green peppers and a mixed summer salad.
Respecting the sacrifice
I had never killed an animal, nor even watched one being slaughtered. On this day, respecting this lamb’s spirit, I prepared myself to watch as it gave up its life for our lunch.
With the cedar fire lit, the lamb was led out of the corral to a spot overlooking the barren canyon. Several feet from the fire, a rope was hanging from a tall pole stuck deep into the ground. Whispering to the lamb in Navajo, Chassitti’s father knelt down to tie the lamb’s feet together and then, taking a long sharp knife from his pocket, he quickly and efficiently slit the lamb’s throat. I watched the lamb for any signs of terror, but all I saw was the gentle draining out of the lamb’s life. Within moments Chassitti’s father picked the lamb up, suspending it head first, feet tied to the rope while the remaining blood drained out into a bowl that Dave Jr.’s mother lifted under the lamb’s neck.
“Have you ever had blood sausage?” Chassititi’s grandmother, Mary, asked me. “Usually [it is] just blood and seasoning like onions and carrots, parsley, even potatoes, stuffed into a casing and then tied off and poached in pretty hot water.”
Somewhere back in time I remember my Swedish grandmother serving blood pudding, which sounds similar.
“You know we eat everything,” she said. “The whole lamb including the head, even the eyeballs.”
A fourth generation joins the ritual
Chassitti returned to the circle of people that now included her grandparents, brother and sister. They skinned the lamb, the pelt coming off whole. Chassitti draped it over the chicken coop.
“It can be used as a rug,” she said. “In the old days it was used for bedding. Grandma Mary will wash it and dry it in the sun.”
Now came the butchering. With each of the grandmothers offering Chassitti suggestions, she disassembled the carcass with her father’s sharp knife. As I looked on, it was amazing to me how quickly that beautiful lively creature became meat.
Inside the house, one of Chassitti’s aunts pressed juniper ash through a strainer, prepared days ago from the ash of burned juniper branches. Great-grandmother Ruth and grandmother Mary returned to the kitchen and stirred a pot of blue corn flour (blue corn is more nutritious than yellow or white corn) with a pair of greasewood sticks made from rabbit brush into boiling water. Strained juniper ash was added to the mush mixture and stirred over this hot burner until thickened. The juniper ash is full of calcium and deemed extremely beneficial for pregnant and nursing women.
Another aunt washed Anaheim peppers, to be grilled along with the lamb.
Ruth sat at the kitchen table mixing a bowl of flour, milk, and baking powder into a batter to be rolled out by hand. It is the traditional recipe for Navajo fry bread, but in the interest of greater health, Chassitti planned to grill it over the hot fire when the meat has finished.
After all, the food was cooked and laid out on a beautiful wooden table, we gathered in a circle and Dave, Chassitti’s grandfather, said a long prayer in Navajo. He bowed to the lamb, to the holy people and Four Corners, the water, and the land. He bowed to his family. We all bowed to each other in thanks.
When I bit into that lamb, I tasted the fresh goodness of the meat and all of the love with which the animal grew up. But I also tasted the continuity of life itself in that tight and traditional Navajo community.
My Mother’s Roasted Spring Leg of Lamb
This is my favorite spring delicacy. The pasture-raised lamb I used came from Poorfarm Farm, in Vermont, which belongs to my daughter’s boyfriend.
a pile of rosemary leaves
a pile of thyme sprigs (for the pan)
- Rub the bottom of the pan with a tablespoon or two of olive oil. Place half the bunch of rosemary sprigs and thyme sprigs in the pan. Using a knife, make fine cuts in the leg of lamb and place the garlic cloves into the slits. Place the leg of lamb on top of the herb layer, salt and pepper, cover with a dish towel and let it rest for an hour or so.
- Heat the oven to 500 F.
- Toss all of the vegetables in the remaining oil (2 to 3 tablespoons) and surround the lamb with the veggies. Roast for about 20 minutes and then turn the temperature down to 350 F and cook until a meat thermometer reaches 130 F.
- For medium rare, this should take about 40 minutes. Transfer it to a platter and let it rest for while before carving.
Blue Corn Mush (Taa’niil, Tanaashgiizh)
- Mix juniper ash with 1 cup boiling water.
- Strain ashes into the remaining 3 cups boiling water and stir.
- Add 4 cups of blue cornmeal and stir. Boil for 30 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir.
Blue corn meal mush with juniper ash (Taa niil) has 802 mg of calcium in one cup, compared to 2.4 mg of the same amount without ash.
Zester Daily contributor Katherine Leiner has published many award-winning books for children and young adults and, more recently, her first novel for adults, “Digging Out” (Penguin). Her most recent book, “Growing Roots: The New Sustainable Generation of Farmers, Cooks and Food Activists” won half a dozen awards, including the National Indie Excellence Gold Medal Award. Katherine’s next novel is due this year.
Photos, from top:
Great-grandmother Ruth and Grandmother Mary prepare meat for the feast.
Credits: Andrew Lipton