In the kitchen, cousins Kandis Quam and Elroy Natachu busily stir kettles full of wheat dough, honey and sugar. Their arms strain against the weight of the heavy mush, but the fruits are worth it, they say, to sustain both bellies and culture.
For three years, Quam and Natachu have taken a trio of ancestral staples and shown community members from Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, to Flagstaff how to prepare them.
The pair will demonstrate three traditional Zuni foods at the 27th annual Zuni Festival of Arts and Culture May 27-28 at the Museum of Northern Arizona. Presented in tandem with A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in Zuni, the festival brings lectures, fine artists and craftspeople. Learn more at MUSNAZ.org.
Both visual artists as well, Quam and Natachu have a full plate.
During a recent phone interview, Quam recounted how this passion started as a craving for the foods her mother and aunts used to make. But it quickly filled a void in the community of Zuni, where she noticed foods like he’balokya — a baked wheat pudding — were fading.
“We used to sell the wheat pudding … Now the people we’ve taught, they kind of put us out of business,” Quam said with a laugh. “It makes me happy people know enough so they make it really well — that’s pretty much the reason why we started doing it.”
During the Zuni Festival, the duo will demonstrate three dishes: a bread-like chili patty, he’balokya and how to parch corn, or ali’kwi:we.
“It’s literally like corn nuts—but healthy,” Quam said of the process of drying corn that’s been aged for a year or more. Anything less than that and it’ll crack teeth, she added, noting her personal experience with young corn.
These traditional foods have been wedged into the Zuni diet for centuries. When people would farm or travel miles to hunt, he’balokya kept them energized and nourished, noted Quam. Also without refrigeration, ancestral Zunis innovated storage for beans, corn and squash crops.
After the Spanish introduced wheat, Quam explained Zunis adapted he’balokya, adding sugar and water.
First, Quam makes the dough and Natachu makes the sugar mixture — but those two processes are easy, she said. The difficulty is mixing since the mush turns, essentially, to concrete.
She advised makers should get at least two people in on the rotation — one to old the pot and another to stir to the right consistency and let it set. Once it’s cool, it is molded and baked.
“It’s a nice sweet treat — it’s really good with coffee,” she added.
Quam and Natachu are able to add their own flairs to these staple dishes from toppings, to adapting the steps in the process.
“I think it’s kind of natural to put your own spin on things — a little salt here, a little piece of garlic there,” Quam said. “We’re always learning how to make it taste better.”
She is particularly proud of one recent happy accident. She let the wheat dough sit by the stove for a long time, and Natachu fiddled with the sugar mixture, too.
“I probably shouldn’t say this,” Quam started in earnest, “but without any ego, it was the best pudding I’ve ever ate.”
Over the course of the last three years, Quam noted this process has enabled her to be more appreciative of her ancestors who made these foods nearly every day — on top of caring for family members and working hard.
This appreciation seeps into her visual work as well, which combines traditional motifs and modern elements of graphic design and bold color. Quam said when her inspirations flow, she’ll hold on to them for a year or more, making sure it’s something she really wants to do.
“I love to put a Zuni spin on it,” she said. “Even if it’s an abstract nod to my family and where I come from, that’s what I like to do. Because I know I stand on the shoulders of giants, so I want to acknowledge that.”
From visual art to edible offerings, Quam and Natachu forge forward to inspire an entire community to embrace that same strength.
“We come from really strong people, and we want to keep doing so and encouraging other people to keep the tradition alive, to carry on the torch,” Quam added. “No matter how old you are or where you came from, or how your past has been, we just want to encourage [that] and keep the tradition alive.”