Friday, January 14, 2011

Agave Roasting: A Prehistoric Puebloan and Yavapai-Apache Tradition

More than just a food source, agave is a gift from the earth, 
a tradition of gathering people together.
by Sandra Cosentino �
Agave shoot ready to flower, early summer, Sedona
I had the special opportunity to attend an agave pit roast the first week of May, 2008, which was put on by the Coconino National Forest (assisted by volunteers from our local chapter of the Arizona Archaeological Society) at a rock art site south of Sedona. This is a several day process that starts with digging out the pit, gathering firewood, harvesting ripe agaves which can weigh over 100 pounds each. We gathered in a meadow near Beaver Creek on a warm sunny spring day and I quickly became immersed in the sense of community and joy of being outdoors together for a special occasion. It takes a community to do these gatherings.

To the Yavapai and Apache people, agave is life--a food with a spiritual meaning and a cultural identifying quality. In centuries past it was a nutritious, sweet food they savored and part of the year round cycle of harvesting the land. Apaches, as with other Native peoples, bring thankfulness, prayers, blessings, songs, dances and laughter to these gatherings surrounding the preparing and sharing of indigenous foods.

Here in the Verde Valley area, the traditional life of the Tonto Apache and Yavapai peoples was disrupted by the coming of the Americans in the 1860's. Interestingly, a revival of this tradition locally was stimulated by archaeological studies of prehistoric roasting pits that have been found at Sinagua (Prehistoric Puebloan) and Apache sites throughout the region.
See photos below by Sandra Cosentino taken at the agave roast.

starting the fire with wooden fire drill
The fire at our gathering was started with a bow drill the old-fashioned way and tended while it burned down to coals. Agave hearts were laid on top of the coals covered with wet burlap (wild grasses would have been used centuries past), then covered with mounded dirt and another fire lit on top for a few hours. For four days it simmered in the underground oven. When we opened the pit on day 4, it was still warm and the agave was tender and delicious with a flavor between sweet potato, molasses and pineapple. The taste took me back in time and connected me to this wild plant in a new and special way.

agave hearts before and after roasting (below)
Recent tests by New Mexico State University found that dried mescal leaves contain 85% soluble carbohydrates, 1% protein and 14% insoluble fiber and are roughly equivalent in food value to oats. The dried mescal had the added advantage of being easily stored over long periods of time.

In my almost three decades of hanging out with Native peoples, I recall so many times noticing how nurtured I felt by indigenous cooking. The foods are grown or harvested with gratitude and caring so the foods seem more alive. Not only are the simple foods of the land wholesome and delicious, but the ladies put a lot of joy and blessing into it that make me hum inside with a sense of well being.

Agave is also called mescal, and it is the use of agave that caused the Spanish to give Mescalero Apache their name. Mescaleros live in New Mexico and Texas today.

In this series of early 1900s photos by Edward S. Curtis below, Apache women are shown harvesting and processing mescal, or agave, for food.
Photos from the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.  
Information in section below with historical photos based on University of Texas, Austin website.

Add Wielding carrying baskets,
Apache women trek across a hillside to the agave field.caption
Cutting mescal.
Filling the pit. Apache women load dozens of trimmed agave hearts into an earth oven that has been prepared for the roasting process. Earlier, the women dug a large pit and lined it with flat rocks. A fire was then built on top of the rocks to heat them. Once it died down, a layer of moist grass was laid on top, and the oven was ready to receive the plant bulbs for baking. Once loaded, they will be covered with another layer of grass, followed by layer after layer of dirt.
The covered pit. An Apache woman loads a final basketful of dirt over the mound now covering the baking pit. The layers of dirt seal the heat inside the oven in which the plant bulbs will bake for 12 to 24 hours. When the bulbs are removed, they will be fire-blackened, but moist and tender. After drying and cleaning, they will be ready to eat. Agave and other desert plant hearts are high in carbohydrates, providing an important energy food for native peoples over thousands of years. 
The next 4 images below are of Yavapai people from the Verde Valley, Arizona who participated at the agave roast activities:
Monica and Damon Marquez tend acorn stew fire
Grinding wild lemonade berries on metate
Bird singers and dancers

Hopi from Third Mesa making Hopi popcorn the old way
with no oil, just rock salt

upcoming program:
Southwest regional flavors of the land: foods, cultures and circles of celebration... 
Crossing Worlds will be offering some "ecotours" in coming months featuring local foods, cultures, songs, stories and circles of sharing to extend this joy to you and to support local food producers. These will feature foods with thousands of years of history with the Hopi people who are masters of the heirloom corn still grown today by dry farming, foods brought to the "New World" by the Spanish, local high desert vineyards/wineries, Navajo traditional foods and their outdoor cooking tradition,  Churro sheep revival, new Santa Fe style Southwest cooking, Chimayo chilis, Taos Pueblo foods and more. Also here in Sedona are leading edge practitioners of organic raw food cuisine including amazing nutritious-delicious raw chocolate we will introduce you to for your good health and taste bud awakening (plus the local Sedona tradition of drum circles under the full moon). In winter or early spring we will explore some Sonoran desert foods and ecosystems in Southern Arizona. �

Crossing Worlds Journeys and Retreats
P O Box 3288
Sedona, AZ 863340

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