If you give a man a loaf of Pueblo bread, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to make Pueblo bread, he eats for life — or at least as long as he’s in the vicinity of an horno. Here in New Mexico, hornos — traditional outdoor adobe ovens — are in increasingly short supply, but if you’re lucky, Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo member and Native cooking maestro Norma Naranjo might let you borrow hers for a day.
Naranjo runs hands-on Native cooking classes out of her home at Ohkay Owingeh under the name The Feasting Place, where she typically teaches the foods prepared for Pueblo feast days. Feast days are the result of Catholic conversion; each pueblo was named after a saint, and Ohkay Owingeh, formerly known as San Juan Pueblo, celebrates the feast of John the Baptist every June 24. Classes are about four and a half hours long, admit no more than 15 people, cost $100 per person and are mostly hands-on, no matter people’s level of cooking prowess. While participants chop, stir and knead, Naranjo talks about the history of Pueblo cuisine, explaining how the Native diet changed after the Spanish arrived. Classes typically begin with empanadas, Spanish hand pies that for feast days are often made with prunes.
“I often wondered why prune pies were so popular,” says Naranjo. “It was because when women were taught how to bake in quantities and get ready for feast days, the only fruit that grew wild along the ditch was plums.”
The majority of the class is focused on cooking in the horno. Beehive-shaped hornos are found across New Mexico, especially at pueblos. And while they are traditional, they are not, as Naranjo points out, actually indigenous.
“When the Spaniards came, our diet changed because we never were bakers,” Naranjo explains. “The horno is not Native American. It’s Moorish.” Clay brick ovens, called hornos morunos in Spanish, are still used in Morocco and are similar to the wood-fired pizza ovens used in Italy. To heat up an horno, a wood fire is started inside and reduced to ashes, which are then swept out. The oven is allowed to slowly cool from about 700 or 800 degrees Fahrenheit (Naranjo admits that she’s burned her eyelashes before) to the desired cooking temperature. The whole process takes about two hours.
“I demonstrate how the horno gets cleaned out if you’re going to be baking,” she says. “You scrape out all the ashes, and then I test it with newspapers — that’s my temperature gauge. I put it in there for five seconds, and when it comes out a certain color, I know it’s the right temperature. It’s an art really.”
Cooking in an horno requires nuance. For meat, explains Naranjo, you put the fire on the edges of the oven and place the meat in the middle, but bread requires that the oven be heated evenly and then carefully swept out, or even wet-mopped if it’s too hot. “I have a special mop that I use,” laughs Naranjo. “Husbands give their wives jewelry — my husband gives me mops and brooms.”
Though Naranjo is now the culinary doyenne of Ohkay Owingeh, working as both a caterer and an educator, her background is in public service. “I was a social worker for the U.S. government,” she says. “I worked nationally. I worked statewide. I worked locally. When I worked nationally, we worked a lot with Indian Country, setting up child protective teams and educating tribal leaders about child abuse and neglect — a lot of our leaders were in denial that this ever happened in their community.” After she retired, a chance gig catering a friend’s wedding turned into another gig, and then another. “It just took off,” she says.
Now she teaches classes out of her home, a HUD home that she and her husband have lovingly renovated, including the sprawling kitchen where she teaches and two gigantic hornos in the backyard — one is big enough to hold 30 loaves of Pueblo bread; the other is twice that size. Many of the ingredients for classes, including squash, white and blue corn and fresh chiles, come from Naranjo’s own family farm in nearby Santa Clara. Recipes change class to class. Sometimes Naranjo teaches on how to make fry bread and Indian tacos; sometimes enchiladas. She’ll often make dishes —such as green chile or red chile stew — ahead of time to fill out the meal and give people a broad sense of the local cuisine. By the end of class, participants will have filled up her massive clay ovens with their creations, which they get to both feast on afterward and take home to share.
“It gives people an understanding of how things changed 500 years ago and how we’re still doing things,” Naranjo says.
Not everything prepared during Naranjo’s classes could be called traditional — much of it is very much otherwise. She often makes what she calls Pizza, Rez-Style, which is essentially pizza topped to each participant’s liking and baked in the horno, or the similar Crostini, Rez-Style, made with slices of Pueblo bread baked according to Naranjo’s old family recipe. But students also roast vegetables and meats, scorch chiles in the ashes, prepare green chile stew and make blue corn chile rellenos.
“When the oven is ready, then the whole class brings everything they’ve made, their empanadas, the pizza, the bread, the squash and everything will go in there to cook at once,” she says. Things come out one by one, and when everything is ready, no matter what day it is, they feast.
Group cooking class: $100 per person. Special on-site dinners and lunches for up to 40 people (or more for off-site functions) can also be arranged. For more on The Feasting Place and Norma Naranjo, see thefeastingplace.com, call her at 505-927-0456 or write to P.O. Box 4221, Espanola, NM 87533.
Tantri Wija is a writer and filmmaker from Bali, Indonesia, and Santa Fe. She currently writes the “Taste” column for the Santa Fe New Mexican and food articles for its many annual magazines.
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