When folks shared love through meals

By Duane A. Beyal
Special to the Times

December 29, 2012

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A t dawn the sound of steady wood chops broke the stillness. In the interior of the hogan a small fire licked at embers. Then my paternal grandma bent through the doorway with an armful of wood.

She built up the fire and put a pot of coffee on a stone next to the flames. Then she began preparing breakfast, peeling potatoes and flapping dough with capable hands to make fry bread.

That was the rhythm in the mornings in the canyon where my grandparents had their winter camp. The dirt road we rumbled on in my father's pickup is paved today and will take you north to Pueblo Pintado and south to Crownpoint.

During the many trips we took to the Eastern Navajo Agency in my childhood, Dad drove through a maze of rutted dirt tracks, only a few graded. Over almost every hill or around the mesas, we stopped at small settlements with a hut or two or only a hogan — but all with a sheep corral nearby and some with horses and cattle.

At each stop, the residents – Dad's friends or my uncles, aunts and cousins – offered us food in the hospitable way of traditional Diné.

As a youngster with friends to play with, I never wanted to go on a long drive, but the passing land, music on the radio, and sometimes my father singing a Navajo traveling song relieved the monotony. When we left the pavement, the trip became an adventure and my grandpas – I had more than 10, my dad said – and their families always made sure we ate before we left their homes. So we ate about four or five times before reaching our destination.

When we finally arrived at the summer camp in Nageezi or the winter camp south in the canyon or where a cluster of relatives lived in Lake Valley, the host family immediately picked out a sheep to butcher and began preparing a feast.

My favorite cook in those years was auntie who lived in a valley just over the hill west of Crownpoint. When we visited she amazingly always presented us with a long table filled with Diné delicacies and several main dishes. My brothers and sisters and our cousins were young kids who played nearby until called to eat. I don't think I've ever had better fried potatoes (apologies to all the other cooks I've known).

Also when I was very young, we visited our maternal grandma and grandpa who lived a few miles north of Fort Defiance so often that we knew every bump and turn in the road. Along the route we cheered sheep dogs that briefly chased our pickup before returning to their flocks.

The only experience that marred those happy visits was a tom turkey. Its head was about level with mine and it would glare at me, fluff its feathers then peck at my clothes. One Thanksgiving, grandpa took it out to the woodpile. His axe glinted in the sun, then he took the bundle of feathers away to clean. Grandma cooked the turkey in the wood-burning stove in the hogan. That was one of the best roast turkey dinners I've ever had, although I was too young to connect the delicious tender meat with the brute that had tormented me.

Our mother lived in the old Church Rock Indian Village for more than 40 years, first in a small, functional two-bedroom apartment that over the years grew to become her beloved old house. We had moved from Fort Defiance just before I reached kindergarten age. The village thrived back then with events held for the holidays that always involved food.

Our mother was as practical as her father who had always planned ahead and found the best ways to do things, from chopping wood to growing crops to storing food. Our kitchen and refrigerator were always full of canned goods, meat, fruit, vegetables, grains and all the accoutrements of a food-producing enterprise.

As many as 10 kids lived in our house because Mom often took in the children of our relatives who were struggling with hard times. These children stayed with us for a few months to a year. Mom often organized us into teams, some to toast and butter bread, others to lay out plates.

Mom, who met our father first at Ft. Wingate Boarding School, then at Fort Wingate High before they moved to Phoenix and Los Angeles, said she wasn't very good in home economics class. But, practical as ever, she used recipes, common sense and experimentation to make meals with all the fixings in a variety of styles. With practice, she gained efficiency cooking large meals for a house full of kids.

In later years, she became an expert with meals for large groups of children and adults. In the past few days, in memory of her cooking during the holiday seasons, we talked about those dinners and the wellbeing that they generated. Dispersed all over the country but linked through Facebook, we remembered the large platters of enchiladas, the giant pans of tacos, her famous short ribs buried in rice, the wide variety of stews and casseroles – all with appropriate vegetables and other side dishes.

Every Sunday she prepared an extra large feast, even into her older years. Walk into her house and you were hit with a blast of heat and aroma and visions of all sizes of pots, pans and platters filled with food, steaming and ready to eat.

Her cooking included forays to picnic areas, lakes and our favorite spots in the mountains and forests. Several of us camped out at McGaffey one weekend to fish at the lake. Early in the morning, I heard a vehicle crunching up the gravel road then other sounds: a car door shutting, a trunk opening. I got up to look and there was Mom unloading pans of pork chops, eggs, bacon and sausages. The memory of our paternal grandma at the sheep camp came to mind as I went to help.

One of my favorite memories was when we were still young and we ate a dinner of crumbled hamburger in a gravy made by mixing the meat with flour and water. Mom sat us down and said times are hard and mom and dad don't have much money so we will have to eat this for a while. We responded, "Yay!" because the simple dish was one of our favorites.

Her cooking was an expression of her love for her family. She taught us that every birthday is a celebration of life. She taught us to be human beings. She showed us that a family cooks and eats together.

Like so many families, her children may have fallen away from this fine tradition, mostly because we are spread out all over the U.S.

Our mother left us in August of 2010. After her funeral service, her extended family, who had travelled to Church Rock from every direction of the compass, gathered in the chapter house for a great feast. Appropriately and in her honor, the gathering was not sad but happy with children playing and people talking. Everyone sat down with a full plate, the way it always was and the way it should be.

Happy holidays, everyone, and make sure to hug your cooks. And, once again, thank you, Mom.

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