Sunday, September 3, 2017

Oven Bread

In New Mexico if you go to a Pueblo Indian event, you're bound to encounter the delicacy known as oven bread, rounds of fresh-baked white bread with a very distinctive texture and flavor unmatched by any other bread product I've had. You know it's oven bread by sight, texture and taste, and there's nothing else like it.

Yesterday we picked up some oven bread at the Acoma Pueblo feast day celebrations at their mesa-top Sky City village, Haak'u, one of the oldest continuously occupied Native American sites in North America.

Acoma is the second-best known pueblo in New Mexico, second only to Taos.

I'd never been to Acoma before, but learning about it and what went on there is something that you do in New Mexico, in large part because Don Juan de Onate's nephew Don Vicente de Zaldivar's merciless slaughter of some 800 Acoma and the enslavement of 500 more in January, 1599, as punishment for their resistance to his conquest of their mesa-top city and as revenge for their defensive killing of Onate's nephew (Zaldivar's brother Juan) and about a dozen other Spanish soldiers the month before. And we learn about Onate's order to amputate the right foot of every captured male over the age of 25. Everybody hears about the Acoma Massacre, and to this day, Onate is considered a monster everywhere except in the New Mexico Spanish  community where he is regarded highly as the "last conquistador."

Oven bread is one of the many other legacies of the Spanish conquest in New Mexico, one that has been preserved and continues.

While we hear about the Acoma Massacre, little is said about an analogous episode at Taos Pueblo and surrounding areas in 1847 carried out by American conquistadors. Hundreds were killed, dozens were hanged in the plazas of Taos and Santa Fe, San Geronimo Church and most of the Pueblo of Taos was destroyed, and the entire town of Mora was burned to the ground -- among other atrocities.

But because it was the Americans doing the dirty work of killing and burning, of course little would be said about it. Much as is the case in California where the massacres went on and on and on, but today hardly anybody knows about it.

Acoma on Feast Day is crowded, crowded, crowded. We got there relatively early, traveling from Albuquerque in a van with a bunch of Cherokee elders and a 9 year-old granddaughter of one of them. It seemed already crowded when our driver was hunting for a place to park the van, but little did we know how crowded it would get before we left.

We stood in line at the cultural center at the base of the mesa to wait for the shuttle to take us up to the village, but many others made the climb on foot. I was reminded a bit of the Tome Hill pilgrimage on Good Friday (Ms Ché did it a few years ago) that is a tradition among the Hispanos and Catholics of the region -- as is the much longer pilgrimage to Chimayo.

Well, this was Feast Day at Acoma, San Esteban being the patron saint, though I didn't see him mentioned except at the mission church on the mesa. This was to my eye an all-Indian event. There wasn't even a hint of Catholic observance that I saw.

Ms. Ché said she encountered a number of her friends from other tribes at Acoma, and of course she's Cherokee as were most of those we traveled with from Albuquerque. So it wasn't just Acoma natives celebrating their feast day. Oh no. Indians from all over were there as were a sprinkling of Anglos. Fewer than I expected at any rate.

We've visited a few pueblos but not on feast day, and nearly every visitor at those times has been Anglo. But on Feast Day, I'd say a good 80% or more of those in attendance were Native, Anglos were a distinct though not unwelcome minority.

Especially if they were spending money. There were many, many booths for food, drink, jewelry and pottery sales, and many had wonderful things things to buy and offered easy credit card purchases. The only problem was that there was no wi-fi or cell phone service at the mesa top, and so it was functionally impossible to make credit card purchases. Unless you came with a bunch of cash, you were out of luck. Oh well!

I had enough for a big round of oven bread and a couple of slices of "pie," but that was about it.

Hundreds and hundreds of Indians arrived fully dressed for the celebrations and most eagerly joined the dances through the streets, It was a spectacular vision, and yet... solidly grounded in culture, history, and spirituality. Sometimes these dances are performed specifically for Anglo audiences. I don't want to say that robs them of their spirituality, but in a sense it does. The dancers go through the motions so that the Anglos can say they've been to an Indian dance... but they haven't really.

We've had several opportunities to "really" experience Pueblo and Apache dance as guest observers of Indian friends not participants, where the dances are performed ceremonially for/with other Indians, not as a show for the white folks.

Yesterday was one of them.

There were so few white folks while we were there, I'm sure I stood out among the attendees.


Nobody pointed and laughed though...(that I know of) -- whew.

The Acoma Pueblo "Sky City" was largely destroyed by the Spanish in 1599 but it was very quickly rebuilt and reoccupied. The stories of the Acoma Massacre suggest a nearly complete extermination and enslavement of the survivors, but it apparently wasn't quite like that. Not all the Acoma lived on the mesa-top; in fact, most didn't. The defenders of the mesa were vanquished and survivors were punished, but most Acoma were not involved in the fight, and apparently they were left more or less alone. They returned to the mesa after the Spanish went back to their seized pueblo they called San Gabriel and the Acomas rebuilt the village by 1601.

In 1629, construction started on the enormous San Esteban del Rey mission church which dominates a corner of the mesa.

It is said that the church was built over the main plaza of the village and the round kiva that was within it. Could be. Spanish were frightened of kivas and native beliefs and tried without success to stamp out every sign of native religious practice. In the abandoned pueblos near our place in Central New Mexico, mission churches were built near kivas, and the kivas were used as trash dumps. In others, the kivas were burned and filled in. Very few pueblos maintained their kivas, and Spanish padres forbade their use for ceremonies. This would be a precipitating factor in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

Acoma participated in the Revolt, and both priests at San Esteban were martyred. Unlike many other pueblos in New Mexico, however, the San Esteban Mission Church at Acoma was not destroyed. Instead, they say it was proudly preserved by the Indians as an example of their remarkable work of building on the top of the nearly inaccessible mesa.

Acoma provided a refuge for Indians escaping the Revolt as well as those escaping the Spanish on their return to New Mexico in 1692-3. With the help of many allies, Acoma held out against the Spanish until 1698, and even then maintained a fierce resistance to Spanish impositions.

But we weren't there yesterday so much for history -- although I did want to visit San Esteban and I did -- as we were there for a contemporary experience of a thriving (well...) Indian Pueblo community.

They say there are five or six thousand Acoma today, and I swear they must all have been atop the mesa -- they and all their friends and family too. Nearly all the houses were occupied, and nearly every Dodge Caravan in New Mexico had been commandeered to transport families with trays and boxes of food up the newly built (1950's) road to the turn around at the top of the mesa.

As we were waiting for the shuttle back down, a trio of Franciscan padres appeared -- I assume they hiked up from the valley below.Would they be conducting services at the church? Would they lead the procession of the saint through the streets? I dunno. We didn't stay to find out.

When we left we went down to the Sky City Casino for lunch. And contemplation.

Today we had oven bread for breakfast.


  1. Your oven bread story immediately made me think of Mexican Bolillos. But not the Bolillos that are commercially available everywhere in California, but the very first I ever tasted at Rancho de la Puerta in Tecate Mexico in 1966. Like your New Mexico delicacy, they were baked in large adobe hornos, looking much like a small igloo. They sold postcards of drawings of these hornos. The recipe may include honey or lard or other ingredients, but it is mostly just flour and yeast. I am convinced that it is the adobe horno that gives it its unique texture and taste. I have not tasted it since. Also available at the resort that season were white and purple grape juice. All of the entrees were entirely vegetarian. It was a true health mecca. They even had a medicine ball laying around the ball court to play with. Shuffleboard. And no electricity after 8:00 p.m. just kerosene lanterns.

    1. Yes. Our local market bakes their own bolillios, but for a long time, the baker seemed to misunderstand what they were and how to do it. What came out of the oven was catch as catch can at best. I wouldn't call them bolillos at any rate!

      Except on special occasion, oven bread is rarely baked in hornos anymore. It's so popular, you could never have enough for consumption and sale at feast days let alone at weekend markets, so most oven bread is baked in large capacity commercial ovens these days. It's not the same as horno baked, but it's considered a good (enough) substitute.

      Unlike bolillos, oven bread is not available commercially at all. You can get it from Indians on occasion -- weekends, market days, feast days, etc. -- but otherwise... nope.

      We have a booklet originally issued in the 1930s that details how to build and use your own horno based on New Mexican models. Not so much around here but elsewhere in New Mexico, many people besides Indians have and use them simply because their baked goods are the best. Unique. Nothing else like it.

      Rancho de la Puerta in 1966 sounds like a wondrous experience.