Article and photo by Brenda Norrell

Foods for Health

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As the corn is ripening in the fields, it is a good time to share these traditional Dine’ recipes. During the 1980s, Katherine Arviso, director of Navajo Foods and Nutrition, provided Navajos with a scientific study on traditional foods, revealing these are superior to modern foods of bleached flour, with too much sugar and salt. I’m happy to add that I had the honor of working with this program as a nutrition educator. Through the years, traditional Navajo foods and healing practices have been recognized by scientists, including the benefits of sweats and healing with herbs.

In the food study, juniper ash was among the traditional foods found to be packed with benefits. It was made by burning juniper branches and sifting out the ashes. It provided Navajos with a great source of calcium. Another of those traditional foods was dleesh, edible clay. 

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 (Toshchiin.) Minerals were also found in Navajo edible white clay, grey clay, tumbleweed ash and Zuni Lake salt. The study showed that ash was superior to baking soda in boiled hominy corn. The ash added calcium and Vitamin A. However, the baking soda added sodium which can increase hypertension.

Navajos also used earth cellars to store dried foods for winter. Dried yellow squash and zucchini squash, often dried as spirals in the summer sun, along with stored whole melons, were good sources of vitamins and minerals. The study revealed high sources of protein and iron in mutton blood sausage, liver and heart.

Traditional Navajo “creamer” made from ground corn offered protein, fiber, calcium, magnesium and iron. Wild greens were very high in Vitamin A. One half cup of Navajo spinach “waa” (Cleome serulatum) contained four times the recommended daily allowance for Vitamin A. Chiilchin, sumac berries, were found high in Vitamin C. Roasted pinons offer protein, potassium, magnesium, iron and zinc.

Yucca bananas from the Yucca Bacata, wide bladed yucca, are nutritious, sweet and delicious. The pulp from the wild banana fruits was either scraped and baked on a hot rock or the fruits were baked in a bowl in hot coals. The baked fruit was sometimes made into a roll, with a hole pushed through the center to allow air to circulate. A piece of the dried roll could be cut and added to corn meal mush.

Here’s a few traditional Dine’ recipes for the harvest season.

Navajo Cake

Bring six cups of water to boil. Add four cups of pre-cooked blue cornmeal. Next, add three cups of pre-cooked yellow cornmeal. Add one-half cup of raisins. Then, add one-half cup of brown sugar. Blend well, dissolving all lumps. Pour into a baking pan and cover with foil. Bake at 250 F for four hours. Allow the caked to cool slowly.

Navajo Blue Corn Marbles

Mix one cup juniper ash, prepared from juniper branches, and one cup boiling water. Put three and one-half cups water in a pot and boil. Strain into the pot the ashes and stir. Add six cups blue corn meal. Knead the dough until soft and firm. Shape into thumb-sized pieces. Put three cups water in a big pot. Boil. Add dough pieces to boiling water. Serve hot.

Kneeldown Bread

Gather fresh corn in the field. One dozen feeds four people. Then build a fire in a pit, many inches deep. While the fire is burning in the pit, cut the kernels from the corn cobs. Place your grinding stone on a clean sheep or goat skin. Grind the corn until it is very smooth. Make the ground corn into cakes, about two inches by five inches long. Add salt if you like. Place the corn cakes between two husks in a way that they won’t fall apart.

Make as tamales. Take the hot ashes from the pit and lay them aside. Lay some husks over at the bottom and up the sides of the fire pit. Place the bread in and cover with more husks. Put the ashes from the fire on top. Build a little fire of twigs on top of it all. The fire shouldn’t be too big, or it will burn the bread. After an hour, remove all the ashes and husks off the bread. Eat.

Dleesh with Haasch’eedaa’ berries (Matrimony vine or box thorn)

Wash the ripe berries until they become a juicy pulp. Dleesh is added so that it dissolves in the juice. The pulp is left in the mixture. The dlessh thickens the juice and flattens the naturally sour berries.

Dleesh is also eaten when too many fatty foods have been eaten, by dissolving in water.

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