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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Indian Cooking
byJon Hammond Tehachapi News

A member of the American Indian tribe native to the Tehachapi area gave a cooking demonstration last week, showing how her people utilized the wildflower they call Koovoos, which flower guides today refer to as spring gold (Lomatium utriculatum).

Janice Williams, a Nuwa (Kawaiisu) tribal member, and I teach classes on Nuwa language, basketry and other cultural practices. Janice is known for her delicious cooking, especially her homemade tortillas, so she demonstrated her techniques last week in order to incorporate koovoos, which is flowering now.

Janice and her family, including parents Ed and Clara Williams and her five siblings, were raised on the Mendiburo Ranch in the area now known as Mountain Meadows. The homestead was off the grid and cooking was done on a wood stove, while kerosene lamps provided lighting.

Janice's parents were among the transitional Kawaiisu, people who spoke both English and Nuwa and lived in a contemporary way, but continued to practice traditional skills, and supplemented their diet with venison, rabbit, acorn, pine nuts, koovoos and other traditional foods.

Janice learned to make tortillas and cook them on the wood stove when she was only 7 years old.

Obviously the pre-contact Kawaiisu didn't make tortillas, but they learned the technique in the 1800s from Spanish or Mexican people and adapted it to their own culture.

"We made fresh tortillas most days," Janice explains. "Mama taught us girls so she wouldn't have to be the only one making them. With a big family like ours, fresh homemade tortillas went fast! It took me a while to learn to make them round. Daddy used to tease me about the shape of my tortillas, saying they looked like Texas or Nevada."

At last week's class at Phil Wyman's Grand Oaks Ranch on Jeffrey Road, Janice showed how she took La Pina flour and mixed it in a bowl with a small amount of baking powder and salt, then added shortening and kneaded it with hot water. "You need to use hot water or the tortillas end up tough and doughy, and if you use too much baking powder, the tortillas aren't flat, they're thick like pita bread," she cautioned.

Janice then made balls of dough about the size of a chicken egg and flattened them into tortillas, demonstrating both the older way of using just your hands to pat them out and stretch them, and also the newer way of a rolling pin on a hard surface.

They were then placed on a very hot flat griddle — a tortilla pan Janice has had for nearly 40 year since she first married — and turned back and forth a couple of times to cook both sides, a process that only took about 20 or 30 seconds between each flip.

While Janice's tortilla pile grew, freshly picked koovoos were sorted, washed and then brought to a boil for a few minutes. The water was then drained and the koovoos was mixed with some bacon and a little bacon grease that had been fried earlier.

Then it was time to eat, a meal that consisted of the tortillas, koovoos, pinto beans and ham hocks that Janice had prepared the night before, and an eight-hour beef roast that Del Troy brought.

Traditionally the Indian people ate with only their fingers, using the tortillas as a kind of table utensil to scoop up the beans. The combination of flavors is hearty and delicious ... mmmmm.

I can imagine how happy the Williams family would be at dinner time in their little house in the hills above town during koovoos season, when a steaming pot of koovoos was served with beans, homemade tortillas and maybe some venison their dad had brought home. We'll be having more demonstrations of Indian cooking — there's a Go Native Day being planned now for September at Mano Lujan's Red House BBQ that will offer the public a chance to sample a variety of American Indian cooking. I'll keep ya posted.

Have a good week

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