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Pueblo food cookbook offers variety of taste experiences

POJOAQUE – As proliferating grasshoppers have been munching on her crops this summer, Roxanne Swentzell realized she had a choice of how to regard the invasion: as a plague of pests or a godsend of protein.

She’s making the effort to develop gratitude for the protein.

“You can catch quite a few early in the morning when it’s cool,” she said, explaining that she collects the insects in a jar and then cooks them. “They get a little larger and turn orange, like shrimp.” You can pull off the hard-to-chew wings and you can eat the little ones raw. “They taste a bit nutty,” she said, or they absorb the taste of whatever they’ve been eating – such as her corn.

Fried Grasshopper is one of the more unusual recipes offered in a new cookbook put together by Swentzell and co-editor Patricia M. Perea, Chicano studies professor at the University of New Mexico.

But “The Pueblo Food Experience Cookbook: Whole Food of Our Ancestors” (120 pp., Museum of New Mexico Press, $24.95) is not a compilation of recipes that would cause the modern eater to cringe.

Instead, it’s a thoughtful exploration of ways of eating that hark back to the precontact times in the Southwest, when indigenous tribes knew the types of food and ways of growing it that would survive in the arid climate. That food, in turn, nourished people in ways that made many of the diseases of modern life relatively unknown.

It gives a particular nod to the “three sisters,” the corns, beans and squash that formed the heart of nourishment in the ancestral Pueblo agricultural world, but also encompasses the hunted meat, such as rabbit, elk and bison, as well as gathered plants, such as wild spinach, prickly pear fruits and piñon nuts.

Swentzell minces no words when she talks about the “scary price” of the ubiquitous prepared foods on retail shelves or in restaurants: “Fast food is killing us and I don’t just mean McDonald’s and Dairy Queen,” she writes in her introduction to the book. “I mean all the packaged foods in stores and all the unknown processed ingredients.”

They not only put ingredients, or an unnatural balance of certain ingredients, into a person’s body for which he or she is not biologically adapted, but also these types of food remove the spiritual connection to the land and animals that feed us.

Essays in the book speak of the importance of reverence and gratitude for the food, including thanking the spirits of the animals slain for human consumption, as well as the significance of community in sharing the experience of hunting, gathering and cooking.

This assortment of traditional food came together during a potluck meal at the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute at Santa Clara Pueblo. (Courtesy of University of New Mexico Press)

This assortment of traditional food came together during a potluck meal at the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute at Santa Clara Pueblo. (Courtesy of University of New Mexico Press)

The all-Pueblo diet

That sense of community was invoked in an experiment Swentzell decided to undertake involving a group of Native Americans whose ancestors have lived in northern New Mexico for more than 20 generations.

“I once read that it takes twenty generations in the same location for a species (humans included) to genetically adapt to that environment,” Swentzell wrote in the cookbook. In her experiment, the group agreed to spend three months eating only these ancestral foods.

The results, tracked through before and after blood tests, showed an improvement in health, she said, but the experience also engendered mutual support.

“We really helped each other,” Swentzell said. “The communal aspect was very important, even to find the food resources.” That could mean trekking to the Estancia Basin to gather salt, as described by Perea in an essay in the book, sharing meat from an elk hunted by a family member, telling of finding rabbit meat or duck eggs in a store, or calling around telling that the fruits on a cactus plant in front of McDonald’s were ripe.

Swentzell was one of the all-Pueblo diet volunteers. “Everyone was saying, ‘I’m not used to cooking so much!'” she said, adding, “I couldn’t have done it without a crock pot. You could throw things in and go to bed.”

For three years now, she has stuck pretty close to those foods, although a trip to Europe last spring made it more difficult. “I’m trying to get back on the wagon,” she said, estimating that 80 percent of her diet comes from Pueblo foods, but she’d like to make it 90 to 95 percent. You’ve got to leave room for a little ice cream, after all.

This archival photograph from the New Mexico History Museum shows a Santa Clara Pueblo harvest around 1900. (Courtesy of University of New Mexico Press)

This archival photograph from the New Mexico History Museum shows a Santa Clara Pueblo harvest around 1900. (Courtesy of University of New Mexico Press)

Preserving culture

While many people know Swentzell as a talented sculptor and artist – who created the drawings in the cookbook – she also has long been involved in sustainable lifestyles and permaculture.

In the 1970s, she started the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute on the grounds of her Santa Clara Pueblo home with her then-husband. She still runs it, bringing in interns over the years to learn about the growing method.

This year’s intern has been making adobe bricks and helping build a cookhouse in the village where women can come together to cook, while learning about the traditional foods, and producing meals for feast days and ceremonies.

But Swentzell said her interest in the land came even earlier, when she was a child and enjoyed taking care of her family’s garden and spending time with the turkeys in their coop. “I loved to grow things,” she said.

That love of growing translated to working organic matter and manure into her two fields, switching in nitrogen-fixing crops and creating productive gardens. “Now, the trees I planted from seed are 30 to 40 feet high,” she said, noting that their leaves become mulch and what was once a sandy driveway has turned into a forest.

As she learned about permaculture, Swentzell said, “I loved what I was hearing … . I loved seeing the way permaculture put it all together… how it fit neatly into cultural traditions of sustainability.”

So, over time, “my interest became more into cultural preservation of what we had been doing for a very long time.”

Many of the foods and practices already had been lost, Swentzell said, so she delved into information found in archaeological studies, which showed evidence of pollen residues and other clues of eating habits of the ancestors before they encountered the European colonists.

“It’s such a fascinating story of how we survived,” she said.

Although her studies, demonstrations and talks she has given while putting together the cookbook have focused on Native people, Swentzell noted that she believes everyone’s health is suffering from the fast pace and fast food of today’s society. Industrial food production has made it easy for us to grab something to eat that may taste good, but may not offer the best nourishment for our bodies and spirits.

“We’re all in it,” she said. “Corporations have made it so convenient for us.”

But it’s empowering, she added, to learn how to grow and prepare your own food. “I’ve even got people making cooking pots again,” she added.

By the way, while Swentzell will be signing the cookbook with Perea from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Santa Fe Indian Market’s merchandise booth, you won’t see her sculptures at the market. Head on up to the Roxanne Swentzell Tower Gallery in Pojoaque to get a look at her artworks.