Arizona Desert Yields Bounty of Native Ingredients
Churro Sheep Back Home on the Southwestern Range
September 2005 — Connoisseurs of lamb who drop by the Turquoise Room restaurant in the historic La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Ariz., and order one of the lamb dishes off the menu are in for a very rare treat. “Everyone who has the lamb here, especially the lamb lovers, just goes absolutely crazy about it,” says John Sharpe, chef and owner of the restaurant. “They say, ‘I’ve never tasted anything like this. It’s absolutely amazing.’”
“While some of these things are not the greatest culinary ingredients in the world, what is important is to make people aware that there is a whole plethora of food here in the Arizona desert…. The people I serve are absolutely fascinated.”
Churro sheep are 30-50 percent smaller than Merino, Suffolk and other commercial breeds that dot the lush, green meadows in picture postcard views of New Zealand, England and other more hospitable locales. Those coddled animals couldn’t last for a week on their own in the harsh, rocky high deserts of Arizona. But the Churro breed, descendants of sheep from the Pyrennes Mountains of northern Spain, have adapted to the region and its sparse offering of herbs and shrubs. “The flora is very, very limited and is very specific to that area,” says Sharpe. “It’s not something that a New Zealand lamb or a California-raised lamb would be eating. So the meat has a very distinctive flavor. The Churro sheep is what it eats. The meat is very mild, very aromatic, almost wild. And the flavor can vary dramatically from one animal to the next, depending on what it has eaten.”
Churro sheep have another unique attribute. “They have no fat layer,” says Sharpe. “It’s the weirdest thing. You get the meat and go, ‘Holy cow! Where’s the fat?’ ” With fatty, commercial breeds, meat from animals that are more than six months old is classified as mutton and has “an awful pungent smell.” In contrast, “even a year-old Churro lamb has light colored, very sweet meat.”
A Search for Local Suppliers
Sharpe buys his lambs from Colleen Biakeddy, a Navajo woman whose family has raised Churro sheep for centuries. It took some effort to find her and his other suppliers of local ingredients. In fact, when he and his wife, Patricia, moved to Winslow in 2000 to open a restaurant in the newly renovated La Posada Hotel, which was built by the Santa Fe Company in the 1930s as one of the nation’s last great railroad hotels, “there was literally nothing in this area whatsoever” in the way of local purveyors of locally harvested foods, Sharpe says.
A native of England who spent a couple of decades before he moved to Arizona running a succession of restaurants in the Los Angeles area, Sharpe was determined to change that. “I was originally a working class boy from the north of England,” he says. “After World War II, with my dad in our garden, we had chickens and vegetables and we grew everything that we ate, winter spring, summer and autumn. Being a professional chef in a metropolitan area, you grow away from that. You pick up the phone and — who cares what month it is — if you want baby zucchini, you get it. But I guess I’m older now and I’ve been there, done that. I’ve come full circle.”
He began seeking out local suppliers when he ran several restaurants in Orange County south of Los Angeles. “I would drive regularly down to San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente and get a lot of my stuff directly from farms,” he says. In those years, he also began developing an interest in Native American culinary history, hosting Native American Thanksgiving feasts at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana .
Upon arrival in Winslow, Sharpe began to develop alliances with local producers and their advocates, most notably Gary Nabhan, director of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University in nearby Flagstaff. Nabhan previously co-founded the non-profit conservation group Native Seeds/SEARCH, helped set up the Traditional Native American Farmers’ Association and wrote a book, Coming Home to Eat: The Sensual Pleasures and Global Politics of Local Foods, which recounts his adventures during a year in which he subsisted on food items that were indigenous to northern Arizona.
“Gary asked me to sit on the advisory council for the Center for Sustainable Environments,” says Sharpe. “With the help of the school and him and many of his contacts, we were able to start a farmers market in Flagstaff in the summer of 2003. That made a big difference. It brought in a lot of the contacts that he has had over the years with Native American tribes, the Tohono O’odham in the Tucson area, and the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni.”
Churro Sheep as a Cash Crop
Sharpe now buys seasonal vegetables directly from some of the farmers whose fortunes have been revived by the Flagstaff farmers market. And from an entrepreneurial Native American producers cooperative called Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), Sharpe buys tepary beans, cholla buds, acorns and saguaro cactus syrup, “which is quite amazing stuff.” Each year, Sharpe makes a few gallons of his own with cactus fruit harvested by local foragers, laboriously extracting the pulp and boiling it down with sugar, saving his home-made syrup for desserts. He buys larger quantities from the cooperative for use in sauces.
“TOCA is doing very well and is extremely instrumental in helping the Tohono O’odham people benefit from their agriculture,” Sharpe says. In contrast, the Hopi and Navajo tribes of northern Arizona “are very, very slow to adopt new things.” Regarding their Churro sheep, for instance, “Its very difficult to get them to understand it as a cash crop,” he says. “Right now, they take $100 for an animal, no matter how much it weighs. When I tell them that Colorado rack of lamb sells for $18.95 a pound, they can’t believe it. I tell them that if they work collectively and keep the quality of the breed consistent, I can find through my network sufficient chefs to be able to get at least what the New Zealand lamb market gets, which is $8-9 dollars a pound.”
The Center for Sustainable Environments has had seminars “trying to get them on the bandwagon, so to speak. Through connections with the Navajo tribe, we’re working hard to encourage ranchers and shepherds to raise Churro sheep rather than the usual mishmash of cross-bred stock that they have on the rez. There is now a registration drive and a documentation service that verifies and registers the Churro breed so that we can be assured of a pure-bred product when we buy the meat or when the weavers buy the wool.”
Meanwhile, Sharpe is cultivating other local suppliers of unique regional ingredients. “I have someone who grows Hopi corn for me. They are tiny little three- or four-inch ears of corn, tiny but very sweet. I put them on a vegetable plate and people freak out. I tell them this is what Hopis have grown for hundreds of years. This is what corn used to look like.”
Tepary Bean Cassoulet
Sharpe makes extensive use of the tepary bean, a drought-tolerant, indigenous variety that for centuries was harvested by Native Americans from wild plants that reseeded themselves every year in the dry washes, which capture rare desert rains. Tepary beans are now cultivated and sold commercially by the TOCA cooperative.
In an interview from the kitchen of the Turquoise Room in mid-September, Sharpe explained how he was making use of local ingredients on hand that day. “Right now, I’m going to make tepary bean cassoulet with meat from the [Churro lamb] shoulder, smoked ham and bacon.” With this Southwestern version of cassoulet, a classic Provencal bean stew, Sharpe planned to serve a grilled churro lamb chop or lamb leg medallion, elk sausage, and duck leg confit.
He braises Churro lamb ribs with chipotle chile and prickly pear cactus barbeque sauce. And he serves butterflied leg of Churro lamb seasoned with garlic, wild sage, and three-leaf sumac, a native plant, also known as skunkbush sumac, or rhus trilobata, that is “quite acrid, with a high acid level, that is very good on lamb.”
Sharpe acknowledges that some of the local ingredients he serves in his restaurant are curiosities that aren’t destined to become a part of the everyday diet of modern Americans. Acorns, for instance. They are admittedly somewhat bitter, but used judiciously, they are an interesting addition to his menu, Sharpe says. “I’ll put a few in posole so you’ll get a bite of it. We will also grind some acorns into a flour with mesquite beans and use it in corn muffins, which are really interesting. The acorn flour gives it a different dimension. I’ll serve the muffins with some of the stew dishes.”
Visitors and Locals Benefit
“While some of these things are not the greatest culinary ingredients in the world, what is important is to make people aware that there is a whole plethora of food here in the Arizona desert, stuff that is really a part of the tradition of this land: the blue corn, the squashes, tepary beans, the sumac, the wild sage. All of these things have been here for thousands of years. For people who are really interested in food history, the people I serve, travelers who come here from all over the world, they’re absolutely fascinated.”
His local suppliers, many of them direct descendants of the people who first discovered and learned how to make use of these ingredients countless generations ago, also benefit. “There are people who still forage for some of these foods and they will bring it down to me,” Sharpe says. “I pay them in cash and they leave happy. It may not be a major source of financial support for them, but it helps them out.” As interest in the indigenous foods of the Southwest increases, their harvests could become a more important source of income in the future, while keeping ancient culinary traditions alive and well.