You are what your ancestors ate The Pueblo Food Experience Cookbook
THE PUEBLO FOOD EXPERIENCE COOKBOOK
You are what you eat,” a philosophy that most likely originated in the early 19th century, was popularized in the 1940s and re-energized by the counterculture of the ’60s. It morphed, in the early years of the 21st century, into “You are where you eat” — the culinary war cry of the locavores, who aspire to eat only foods raised, grown, or wild crafted within 100 miles of their homes — or 250 miles, in the case of desert dwellers like ethnobiologist Gary Paul Nabhan, who wrote about his year of eating locally in Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Food (W.W. Norton, 2001).
Internationally renowned Santa Clara Pueblo sculptor Roxanne Swentzell (who shows new work at the Tower Gallery at the Poeh Cultural Center over Indian Market weekend) joined that conversation in 2013 with the Pueblo Food Experience project, when 14 volunteers of Pueblo descent agreed to eat, for three months, only the foods available to their ancestors before the first Native contact with the Spanish in 1540. Swentzell took that locavore goal one step further: We are not only what and where we eat, she suggested; we are also what and where our ancestors ate. The Pueblo Food Experience grew out of Swentzell’s work with the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, a nonprofit she co-founded at Santa Clara Pueblo in 1987.
“I’ve been a seed saver for about 30 years,” Swentzell told Pasatiempo, “and I’ve been very aware of how crops are adapted to their environment. I had read an article that said it takes 20 generations for any species to adapt to an environment. Given that thought, I was fascinated with the idea that we humans, being like seeds, also adapt to our environments. And the way we move around nowadays, our bodies are constantly having to adapt to a new environment. Then I realized that Pueblo people are a very special case in that we are one of the few tribes that were not relocated. That means that we still have our genetic code to our environment intact. But the problem is we are not eating our local food; so even though we have location intact, our food is like we are living in a foreign country all the time. And our health is struggling. So I wanted to see if I could experiment with eating our traditional foods, foods we evolved with for more than 20 generations in the same location, and see what it would do for us.”
The experiment proved, beyond a doubt, that returning to a pre-contact diet — free of dairy products, refined sugar and carbohydrates, and other highly processed foods — had a positive effect on all the volunteers.
Before they started the new diets, all the volunteers (who ranged from six to sixty-five years old) were weighed and given blood tests that measured their blood sugar, cholesterol, triglycerides, and liver function. When they were retested after the three-month trial period, the doctor who conducted the exams reported that the group had an average weight loss of 35 to 40 pounds and significant decreases in triglyceride, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. Swentzell’s own high total cholesterol level — which she had assumed was genetic because she had been unable to lower it no matter what she did — dropped from 245 to 172 mg/DL. Her son Porter lost 50 pounds. Another volunteer noted that the lupus butterfly rash that had marked her for years was gone, as were the swelling and muscle pain that accompany the condition.
But improved physical health, Swentzell noted, was only one of the benefits of returning to pre-contact foods. Volunteers also reported less depression and more energy and mental clarity. “Granted, we were all suffering from some kind of health issues, but because the diet was based on a cultural identity — this is the food our people used to eat — there was also a reconnecting that none of us realized would happen. It was so strong. It’s hard to even put words to it because it was something we all felt, a connection to something that was very, very old in ourselves, like we went home in a deep, deep sense. It was not a fad or a diet,” she said. “This was a belonging. This was an empowerment event.”
The Pueblo Food Experience Cookbook: Whole Food of Our Ancestors, published by the Museum of New Mexico Press, was born from her desire to share the experience. “I created the cookbook for my pueblo,” Swentzell said, as a starting point for people who were asking her what the group ate and how they prepared it.
The book’s co-editor, Patricia Maria Perea, Ph.D., who teaches Chicano/a and Native studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, was introduced to the food experience project and to Swentzell in one of those small-world ways that seem to flourish in Northern New Mexico. Swentzell and Perea sign copies of the book at the Indian Market merchandise booth on the Plaza this weekend.
Perea said, “I had met Roxanne’s daughter Rose in Providence, Rhode Island, while I was teaching at Brown University. [Rose B. Simpson, a writer, painter and performance artist, was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design at the time.] And when we moved to New Mexico, we ran into her again in Española. My partner started taking classes with Rose’s brother Porter at UNM in Taos and started going to Roxanne’s house to help with permaculture things like weeding. Then we moved to Chimayó, and I started going with her, and Roxanne invited us to do this Pueblo Food Experience diet.” The gift of “a ton” of buffalo meat and the number of small farms in Chimayó helped them make up their minds to give it a try. “It was amazing,” Perea said.
“We went back more to the way Mexicanos eat,” she said, “introducing ourselves back to corn, squash, beans, then coming up with new recipes. And I just got healthier; it just came.” After that, Perea started spending more time with Swentzell, and when the conversation turned to creating a cookbook to expand the reach of the Pueblo Food Experiment, she volunteered to help.
The cookbook the women created is more than a collection of recipes. The marketing copy on its back cover says it’s “by, for, and about the Pueblo peoples” and that its “goal is to promote healing and balance by returning to the original foodways of the Pueblo peoples.” The book fulfills both intentions by including seven essays relating to Pueblo history and culture (among them three by Swentzell and one by Perea) along with the recipes.
The first chapter, “A History of Pueblo Food,” written by Roxanne’s son Porter, a historian and professor at the Institute for American Indian Arts, offers an especially succinct overview of the Southwestern environment, the arrival of corn in the region, and the Puebloans’ lifestyle transitions from gatherers to planters to traders. The pages summarizing the coming of the Spanish and then the Anglo Americans offers a brief but pointed history of the colonization of the Native population and the impact of that colonization on their traditional diet.
Perea’s chapter, about a trip to the Estancia Basin to gather salt, is more personal. “To so many,” she
Because the diet was based on a cultural identity — this is the food our people used to eat — there was a reconnecting that none of us realized would happen. It was so strong. It’s hard to even put words to it because it was something we all felt, a connection to something that was very, very old in ourselves, like we went home in a deep, deep sense. — Roxanne Swentzell
writes, “this land is desolate and ugly … But this is my home. I grew up in the vast expanse of these plains. Here, there are things we do not know how to see. Underneath this deceptively dry earth, water lies quiet and powerful. It seeps up into plants and makes the tastiest dirt I’ve ever known. … Wet earth here tastes clean, like fresh clay.”
Perea told Pasatiempo that she had been going through “this crazy craving, with the rain, for eating clay.” One of the first places she read about that phenomenon, she said, was in an essay by Roxanne’s late mother, writer, potter, architect, and UNM professor Rina Swentzell. “We used to teach her essays in the Intro to American Studies classes,” she said, “and I remembered reading an essay [“Remembering Tewa Pueblo Houses and Spaces,” included in The
Multicultural Southwest: A Reader] where she talks about walking around the pueblo licking different houses and how they tasted different. I realized I’d done that my whole life. I thought I was a weirdo — then I read Rina.” Swentzell writes about farming, hunting, and the relationship, as much spiritual as physical, between community and food. About the experience of working with interns on the permaculture institute farm, she concludes, “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.” Annette Rodríguez, one of the 14 original Pueblo Food Experience volunteers, shares the pain and joy of making a major lifestyle change and the positive effects it had on her her health. “I won’t go back to how I ate before,” she writes. In the last essay and the final chapter of the book, Marian Naranjo, founder and director of Honor Our Pueblo Existence and another Food Experience volunteer, talks about the impact of the atomic age on health and relationships and how Puebloans are, by nature, well suited to feed both themselves and the spirit world.
More than 60 recipes — ranging from corn and grains to beans, squash, proteins, greens, drinks, desserts, snacks, and condiments — offer suggestions for choosing and preparing pre-contact foods. Not surprisingly, given its prominent place in the region’s foodways, the largest section of recipes features corn in its many permutations. In an earlier interview for an article in The New
Mexican’s 2016 Health & Wellness magazine, Swentzell talked about the difficulty the group had sourcing enough non-GMO corn to get them through the winter. “Even though it was one of our main staples,” she said, “it has all been genetically modified, and it’s not the same kind of plant that we used to eat.” She didn’t have enough of the indigenous corn she grows to feed everyone participating in the project over the three-month trial, but she finally located a sufficient quantity in Oregon to meet the group’s needs. “Isn’t that sad?” she said. “Here we are, corn people, and we had to go to Oregon to find non-GMO corn.”
The corn-centric recipes are as simple as atole (a drink or porridge) and chicos (roasted sweet corn that can be set to simmer in a slow cooker overnight) and as complex and time-consuming as tamales, which require multiple steps and a community of cooks to turn out in quantity. You’ll find a recipe for ceremonial piki bread in that chapter, too — one that calls for pre-contact animal brains, saltbush ashes, and basalt cooking stones — although Perea confessed that they did not include that bread in their recipetesting rounds.
Other recipes, such as those for beans and squash — the other two of the traditional “three sisters” of the desert Southwest — are much more accessible. Some, like a rabbit stew, look simple — there are only four sentences in the recipe — but it assumes you already know how to butcher and clean the rabbit. Buffalo, elk, and turkey star in the protein chapter, joined by fish, birds, and other wild creatures, including grasshoppers. At first glance, the juniper-lamb stew and sheep-corn soup seem out of place — it was the Spanish who brought the churro to the Americas — but a quick glance at the list of pre-contact foods at the back of the book clarifies that those tough mountain sheep were here from the beginning.
I realized that Pueblo people are a very special case in that we are one of the few tribes that were not relocated. That means that we still have our genetic code to our environment intact. But the problem is we are not eating our local food; so even though we have location intact, our food is like we are living in a foreign country all the time. And our health is struggling. So I wanted to see if I could experiment with eating our traditional foods, foods we evolved with for more than 20 generations in the same location, and see what it would do for us. — Roxanne Swentzell
Cookies and cakes sweetened with dried plums and pies made with turkey- or duck-egg crusts fill the dessert section. Sunflower “coffee” and mint or cota tea (made from a plant native to the Pueblo landscape) are substitutions for coffee — something many food experience volunteers cited as one of the most difficult post-contact foods to give up.
“It’s hard to get people to change the way they eat, especially in Native communities where there’s some real pride in food like fry bread and Navajo tacos,” Perea said. But she thinks that even non-cooks (like her) may accept these dietary changes because of a growing interest in sustainability and a growing awareness, especially among indigenous peoples, of the relationship between food sovereignty and tribal sovereignty. She noted that Decolonize Your Diet: Mexican-American Plant-Based Recipes for Health and Healing (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2015), a book that spans the foods of both the Americas, was published last fall and has been well received. Academics from North American tribes ranging from New England to the Pacific West Coast are also exploring food sovereignty issues, she said.
Do Swentzell and Perea recommend that everyone should start eating more corn and beans; give up butter, cheese, and cream; and choose buffalo rather than beef? While a healthy pre-contact Puebloan diet would probably do no harm, it’s not what Swentzell and Perea are advocating.
“This may not be your pre-contact food,” Perea said, “but everyone is indigenous to someplace, so we are encouraging people to think about the food that was available to them before their own colonial experience.” The approach, she said, is as valid for the Navajo as it is for New Zealanders or for African Americans dislocated by the slave trade in Brazil or Cuba or Florida. What was the traditional Irish diet before potatoes were introduced to the island in 1580?
Non-Native readers who are interested in the Pueblo Food Experience and want to improve their physical and mental health should think about their own ancestors, Swentzell said. “Where were your genes in one place for 20 generations?” she asked. “Find out what foods were there then. Everybody has an indigenous food base — and it would probably fit your body better than any other foods.”
Although she originally put the cookbook together for her own people, Swentzell said, she soon realized that “it’s really about all people finding their roots. This book is our story about finding those roots. Hopefully, it will encourage people not to do our diet but to find their own.”
Images from the harvest at Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico, circa 1900, Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Neg. No. 004128