By Brenda Norrell
These days, you can just type the words, “Navajo white corn stew,” into the Google search engine and bingo, you have it, the full nutritional content of the delicious stew that is served up in the fall, sometimes with fresh squash added from the garden.
But years ago, that was not the case. In the early 1980s, the Navajo Food and Nutrition Division worked with a university student and was able to have all the traditional foods analyzed for nutrition content. Fresh out of graduate school, I was hired as a nutrition educator for one of its programs, the Navajo-Hopi WIC Program, to produce “culturally relevant education materials.” Although I didn’t last long as a nutrition educator, I did produce one pamphlet and some rather sad looking flip charts. Later, in the 1990s, working as a news reporter, I was at a conference of Native American medical doctors, when a speaker pulled out a familiar looking (and somewhat pitiful pamphlet) copied on white paper.
“This is one of the few pamphlets ever made that shows the nutritional content of traditional foods,” the speaker said. If you’ve seen this pamphlet, you will remember that the goat looks a little funny. OK, so I couldn’t draw goats. But what the program did was this: It sent a message to Navajos that not only did traditional foods taste good, but they were extremely nutritious.
Those were the foods that carried the People, the Dineh, through the harsh and cruel days of the Long Walk, those were the foods that they survived on when they returned to their lands between the Four Sacred Mountains. These were the teas that they picked, the squashes and corn that they dried in the fall, the cornmeal that they ground to the sounds of the corn grinding songs.
After moving on to a job as a reporter for Navajo Times when the newspaper was a daily, the Navajo Times TODAY, I served as food editor and served up some of those traditional foods.
Traditional Navajos told me their stories, how they made Chil’chin pudding from the sumac plant berries, used a certain wild plant to curdle goat’s milk for cheese and used a special white clay to take the astringent taste out of wild potatoes and wolfberries. I can still remember those stories and the look in their eyes after all these years. I still remember the way they spoke of those wild foods with such tenderness.
My good friend Howard McKinley in Fort Defiance, Tse Ho Tso (the meadow between the rocks) told me about the ice houses of his childhood. For more than 15 years, he told me of the yucca bananas he picked as a boy, the wild potatoes that he dug and how the ice in Blue Canyon would be chipped and stored into the cut-stone houses in the canyon at Fort Defiance. During the first warm days of late spring, there would be ice. Howard lost his eyesight in one eye as a boy, so he walked, he walked everywhere. He slept in the trees when he walked to Albuquerque, about 175 miles away, to avoid the coyotes. Howard liked to remember traveling with Annie Wauneka, who won the Medal of Freedom for eradicating tuberculosis on the Navajo Nation. He remembered how they would tell Navajos not to share the dipper in the water pail, so the tuberculosis wouldn’t spread.
Howard obtained a master’s degree and served on the Navajo Council and as a Fort Defiance councilman. I knew we would be good friends when I first read a quote by him in the Navajo Times, while he was still a Fort Defiance chapter officer: “I like Fort Defiance Chapter, they don’t steal as much as the other ones.” Howard took his flight to the Spirit World when he was about 100 years old, the world will miss him.
Which brings me back to white corn stew. I’m happy to report that I couldn’t find a good recipe for traditional Navajo white corn stew, with fresh Navajo squash from the garden, on the Internet.