Navajo Comfort Food

Post by Charnell

Lordie, how Quincy Tahoma longed for mutton stew!

Friends said he craved it all his life, especially during his earlier years at the Santa Fe Indian School where mutton stew was nowhere to be found.  Once in a while, during Tahoma’s high school days, the superintendent ordered the slaughter of sheep for a Navajo-style feast. When eating mutton and hearing the familiar language around a campfire, it almost felt like home.

Tahoma’s 1942 painting of a mother and child herding sheep, Courtesy of Charlotte G. Mittler

Home — so long ago and so far away from Santa Fe, he might have mused. As a small boy in the early 20th century, Tahoma had known the nomadic life of the Navajo as they followed their sheep from lower to higher ground according to the season. The Saganitso family that adopted Tahoma didn’t have to travel quite as far as other Navajo because they claimed a vast spread of land near Arizona’s Greasewood Lake, providing ample grazing for their cattle and sheep. The family relished the open space and living in the quiet land. 

During those long days of tending sheep, Tahoma observed the colors of sky, clouds, and rocks. He memorized the shape of yellow-flowered rabbit bush and the spiky yucca plants, and these images came to life in his paintings of the Navajo herding their sheep.

1949, Watching her flock, Courtesy of Richard and Shelley Nielsen

Closeup of the 1949 painting

In a beautiful 1949 painting of a young Navajo woman watching her flock, Tahoma created an endless parade of sheep.  The detail of sheep in the distance is incredible, as is shown in this closeup of the painting’s left side.

A century ago, Navajo owners carefully tended their sheep, which were valued for their wool, their hides and meat.  And even today, the tradition continues.  This elderly Navajo woman shown below watching over her sheep by day, may well have had mutton stew for dinner in the evening.  Yummm!

Watching her sheep in Canyon de Chelle, photographed by Charnell in 2006

Here’s an article about traditional Apache and Navajo foods.

Here’s a recipe (unfortunately no longer available on the Internet), that is rather challenging if you don’t read Navajo. It includes easy to read instructions if you are a sheepherder far from canned goods, too!

However, logically it calls for

  • 2 lb. lean lamb or mutton
  • 6 potatoes
  • 1 bunch of carrots
  • 1 cup celery sliced
  • 1 onion chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste

You can learn about more of Tahoma’s personal likes and dislikes when you get your copy of Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Books are going like Frybread at an Indian Fair, so get your pre- order in now. Just send us a message.

Everyone has a food that reminds them of home. What is your favorite childhood traditional food?

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10 Responses to Navajo Comfort Food

  1. Just saw a tweet saying there’s a dedication in Tuba City today. Guess what they’ll be eating?

  2. Roxanne says:

    Since my border collie and I are taking herding lessons, I’m curious if dogs were used in tending flocks in Tahoma’s culture.

  3. pen4hire says:

    Yes, they were. There are frequently dogs in Tahoma’s pictures of herders. But although he was a master at drawing horses, he didn’t do too well with dogs–sorry to say. That might indicate that he wasn’t around dogs as much as horses.

  4. Kristen says:

    I’ve never had mutton stew. One of my favorite childhood food those was Indian fry bread drizzled with a little bit of honey.

  5. Sheryl says:

    These paintings are so colorful and beautiful to look at. Mutton stew, on the other hand…not one of my faves, but since my sons adore lamb, I might just have to treat them to it

  6. Lamb/mutton stew was definitely not a traditional childhood food for my family, but that doesn’t stop me from eating and loving it as an adult! Our traditional meal would have to be pork or kielbasa with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes – probably as comforting to me as the mutton was to Tahoma.

  7. Lovely images. And it’s wonderful that you included this recipe and the article on Native American foods. It all ties together nicely.

  8. Sue Givens says:

    I promise to bring some mutton to Santa Fe for our feast! The story unwinds so beautifully. Thank you so much.

  9. pen4hire says:

    Mmmm, Sue, so far we’re having fry bread and mutton stew, right? Anything else on the menu?

  10. Pingback: A Native American Thanksgiving »

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