The visual piles of dried corn, pinon nuts and beans flowing through outstretched fingers lead my mind to these words, “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the Days of Our Lives.”
While this long running soap opera has not much to do with life in our Southwest, grains have always been a relied on staple.
Corn (maize) was introduced to the Native cultures of the Southwest approximately 2100 BC from Mesoamerica.
“Isn’t that Mexico?” you might ask. That is only partially correct. Mesoamerica extended from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica.
Corn cobs found at ruin sites and inside caves were much smaller than what we know of today, similar to baby ornamentals seen around fall holidays. Great care was taken in cultivating stronger varieties that would survive higher altitudes and weather systems that alternated between drought and flooding.
In the 1520s, explorers from Spain introduced wheat to Mexico. As with corn, it made its way up to the Southwest and into Native fields.
Evidence of trade between San Juan County Native cultures and Mexico was proven with the finding of a macaw feather shawl in Canyonlands National Park by explorer Kent Frost, housed and exhibited at Edge of the Cedar State Park.
Traces of cacao were found in pottery at Alkali Ridge and an exhibit was displayed at the Natural History Museum in Salt Lake City in 2014.
How did corn and wheat become the flour to make breads? The Puebloan people used stone tools; a “mano”, a smooth hand-held stone, was used against a “metate”, a large stone with a depression.
The movement of the hand stone against the depressed stone consisted of a circular, rocking or chopping motion using one or both hands to grind. Work rooms, called “mealing” rooms, were established with sets of manos and metates for mass grinding efforts, basically gossip central for the women.
Baking nowadays is much easier with gas or electric powered ovens; the Puebloans used a mud adobe-built outdoor oven. The oven was beehive-shaped, using wood as the heat source to build a fire inside.
When the proper amount of time had passed, embers and ashes were removed or moved about the oven; bread was then inserted for baking. This oven was also used for roasting corn and cooking meats.
Now aren’t you happy that all you have to do is head on down to the local supermarket to buy pre-ground flours and fully baked bread goods?
Using a recipe from the Pueblo Indian Cookbook by Phyllis Hughes, I ventured into making Pueblo Oven Bread.
As a first timer, my bread was not the prettiest, but it tasted pretty darned good, especially with butter, honey, combo of both... oh, and bacon.
Bacon makes almost everything better…. not desserts though, no not desserts.
This first time I also used basic, all-purpose white flour, but I’m going to be playing with other types of flours, like wheat, blue corn and corn.
It will be interesting to see if baking times, and especially the tastes, vary with the flours.
Let me tell you that as a side for a freshly cooked batch of Anasazi beans with onions and bacon, the bread is so satisfying.
Ah, but that’s another story to tell…
Pueblo Bread (Pueblo Indian Cookbook – pg. 10)
Ingredients: 9 cups flour, 2 packages dry yeast, ½ cup warm water (110-120 degrees), 2 tsp. salt, 4 Tbsp. melted lard or cooking oil, 2 cups water
Preparation: Soften yeast in warm water. Mix melted lard or oil, salt and yeast in large bowl. Alternately add flour and water, a little at a time. (I did 2 cups flour, ½ cup water), beating thoroughly after each addition, kneading in last of flour until dough is very smooth. Shape in ball and let rise, covered with damp cloth in large greased bowl until doubled in size.
Punch down, and knead on floured board for at least five minutes. Shape into four balls, put in greased baking pans (I used 4-8 inch nonstick cake pans), cover with cloth and let rise for 20-30 minutes in warm place.
Bake in 400F oven for 50 minutes or until tops are browned and loaves sound hollow when tapped.