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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Navajo Cake Takes Teamwork To Make And Eat
by Larissa L. Jimmy - Navajo Times
credits: photos by Larissa L. Jimmy - Navajo Times

WHEATFIELDS, AZ — Wood burned inside a three-foot-wide pit, crackling like a bowl of Rice Krispies. The treat to be baked inside: alkaan (Navajo cake).

According to the apron-wearing ladies who huddled beneath the tent a few feet away from the fire pit, alkaan is typically made during a kinaaldá - the morphing ceremony when a young Diné girl crosses over to womanhood - and is made a certain way followed by songs and prayers. Both the cake and ceremony represent Changing Woman, who was the first to have her kinaaldá.

However, there are different ways to make a Navajo cake, and different reasons.

Darlene Teller, from Chilchinbito, Ariz., demonstrated one way that the Diné treat can be made during the 4th annual Life Preservation Summit, held July 18-20 at Wheatfields Lake.

Teller, who works at Chilchinbito Community School as a language and culture teacher, said that the fire pit must be started at least the night before and if done in the wintertime the fire may need to burn for a couple of nights. But due to unexpected rain that poured through the area the fire took longer than expected to heat up the pit.

Like Giada De Laurentiis' cooking show "Everyday Italian," Teller's show could be called "Everyday Diné." Only this show was live and everyone could participate.

Teller described each tool, material and ingredient that would be utilized in the processes of making alkaan. The tools included an Idistsiin (stirring stick), which is made from seven greasewood branches bound together by a string, large mixing bowls, parchment paper, a large pot for boiling water, corn husks, aluminum foil, Tse daa shjee' (bottom part of the grinding stone) and Tse Daa shch'ini (Top part of the grinding stone), which are used to grind the corn kernels to make the corn meal.

The basic ingredients for Teller's version of alkaan included: 50 pounds of already ground white corn meal, germinated wheat, six pounds of brown sugar, raisins, and boiling water.

According to Teller and the ladies who seemed to have perfected the skill of making alkaan, the common way to make the traditional cake for a kinaaldá is without the brown sugar, raisins and germinated wheat, which are all replaced with human saliva during the ceremony.

But if you use the three ingredients, here's how to do it.

The water is poured into a large bowl. The corn meal is then added.

As the mix is stirred - always clockwise according to Navajo belief - germinated wheat is then added, followed by raisins that have been sitting in a pot of brown sugar. This whole process is known as taa'niil (mixing).

"You have to do this while (the water is) still hot," said Teller, otherwise you might get lumps.

After the hot ashes have been completely removed from the pit (in this case by the guys who stood by for the next process), the parchment paper, which has been drenched in water, is placed on the bottom and the sides like a lining.

Next come the corn husks, which are placed on top of the lining. Each corn husk, according to Teller, should be placed downward, so that the inside of the corn husk is facing the earth and the outer layer is facing the sky.

The cake batter, which for this cake had been thoroughly mixed by most of the girls in attendance, is then poured on top of the corn husks, almost filling up to the top of the lining and then covered by the parchment paper and aluminum foil.

Two sheets of steel are then placed on top of the cake and then insulated with dirt. The hot coals still been burning off to the side after being removed from the pit are then placed on top of the corrugated steel. The alkaan sat inside the pit overnight.

Loretta Cowboy, from Wheatfields, said the reason she came to Teller's demonstration was so that she could "learn more about making Navajo cake" because she was makes her differently.

However, the only difference between Cowboy's and Teller's recipes is that Cowboy doesn't use brown sugar.

Margie R. S. Begay, of Wheatfields, who looked on from the side, said she thinks there is a lesson that can be learned from something as simple as Navajo cake making.

The socialization that forms during the whole cake process creates a bond between the individual and those who assist. Therefore, Begay said, a person will never be alone.

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