We often regard sheep as fearful animals, but when I and my dog, a mix of two sheep herding breeds, stumbled upon five Navajo-Churro sheep, four of them with the most impressive array of horns—four on each head—we learned otherwise. They didn’t turn and run, but stood their ground, stamping their hooves with such ferocity that we quickly retraced our steps. Clearly, this was a sheep to be reckoned with.
The Navajo-Churro is America’s first sheep. Since it’s arrival from Spain 500 years ago it has had time to adapt to the harsh, dry conditions of the American Southwest. It was nearly wiped out at one point, and it’s only recently that the pure strains of Navajo-Churro sheep have been returned to the Navajo nation where they once dwelled primarily.
There is an organization that is dedicated to maintaining the integrity of the breed, and fans of the Navajo-Churro exist in pockets all over the US. This small, handsome animal has always been valued both for its fiber as well as its meat. Today the Navajo-Churro is very popular with weavers all over the country as well as with traditional Navajo, Hopi, and Hispanic weavers, because of it’s long fleece and the wide array of its beautiful, natural colors.
Every year in June, a conference, called ‘Sheep is Life’, takes place in the Navajo nation at Canyon de Chelly, one of the most extraordinary spots in the Southwest. It offers an opportunity for people who care about the Navajo-Churro to come together and share their knowledge. Here you will find sheep, children, boarder collies, weavers, outsiders like myself, native Americans, sheep breeders, and one time, a cheesemaker from Corsica, who showed the Navajo women how to make cheese from the sheep milk.
This diverse group of people meets in the cool of a shade house, a structure of young saplings and branches that is put up as a temporary shelter from the sun. The meeting begins with the elders chanting long prayers. Native food is shared, and much talk and information is exchanged over a number of days.
Leon Tsosie, a Navajo sheepherder and painter who lives in Piñon, Arizona, told me that he was raised with sheep, and has been with sheep since he was a boy. His grandmother used to tell him that when he was around, the sheep grew better, and that he “helped make them sheep.”
I had always heard that the small size of these sheep naturally relates them to women, as they’re easier for women to handle and slaughter than a larger breed would be. The diminutive stature of the Churro is also significant in that it provides just enough, rather than too much meat, which is important where there is little or no refrigeration. But as for the slaughter, Leon explained that it’s not just women who do it, but everyone who helps unless, there’s some family superstition that deems otherwise.
“Today,” says Leon, “my sons and daughter help with the killing of the sheep. My stepdaughter, who is 14, cleans the guts and is learning to skin them. She’s very good and she doesn’t resist it. My sons have their own knives— knives with wooden handles made of hickory wood.”
Among traditional Hispanics and Navajos, mutton, which is more flavorful, is preferred to lamb. In fact, a Hispanic sheep farmer told me he had never really eaten lamb until he started raising the sheep commercially, and since only lamb is what his Anglo customers will eat, not mutton, he eats it too. But he never ate it growing up certainly.
Leon says they eat both on the reservation. “If it’s winter, we’re eating mutton since the lambs are now large. In the spring and summer, we eat lamb,” is his pragmatic explanation. It makes sense. But how often? “Sheep are slaughtered maybe once a month, and for special occasions, such as weddings, funerals, birthdays, meetings, or celebrating a baby’s first laugh. The one who makes the baby laugh first provides a sheep,” says Leon. It is thought that to pass out meat on this occasion will make the baby more generous.
Navajo-Churro lamb is highly regarded in Anglo culture as being especially lean, sweet, and flavorful. Leon, who has both Churro and Rambelais, says they taste about the same, but that might have to do with what the sheep themselves are eating in the first place. An elder medicine man, Mike Mitchell, says that the sheep are flavored from the inside, from their diet of wild sage and grasses. We, of course, usually add sage and other herbs to an animal that has been fed a diet of hay and grain. Leon confirmed that adding herbs to an already herb-flavored animal wasn’t something he did.
“How is the lamb cooked,” I wanted to know.
“It’s grilled and roasted and cooked into stews,” Leon says. “The ribs are baked in the oven or over an open fire. The backbone (and neck) is made into ‘backbone stew’, which is cooked with potatoes and vegetables but no chile. “Chile is only used when its grilled.”
“The chest meat (yiditsa) is saved for whoever butchers the sheep —it’s considered the best part.” I wasn’t quite sure what part this is exactly, though.
Suzanne Jamison, who works closely with the Navajos on their sheep project, says that a favorite delicacy consists of the cleaned intestines, wrapped up, then roasted. Called acheé, which means “telephone wires”, it is especially popular with little kids. She also describes a dish that is cooked in the sheep’s stomach. “Traditionally all the parts are used; nothing is wasted,” Suzanne says.
Sometimes it’s considered superstitious to use the first three bones in the neck, Leon says. “Don’t use the first three bones on the neck because it means you’re stingy or you don’t like the person who’s eating with you.” But he admitted that his mother never did this because she considered it wasteful. Another superstition is that you have to cut the ribs all the way through, “or your wife might divorce you.” Leon cuts his ribs all the way through.
Leon’s friend, Gary Nabhan, says that it’s not uncommon on the reservation to have a mini trailer or pick-up truck set up as a kitchen to make a lamb version of carne asada. Thin slices of lamb are cooked over makeshift fires with caramelized onions, and roasted green chile, then eaten with tomato and lettuce on thick tortillas or fry bread. (Incidentally, this is exactly how the men from Chihuahua, Mexico who are working on my house, cook their lunches.)
In the Anglo culture, we like the taste of the Churro lamb very much, but we cook it in whatever lamb dishes we are accustomed to cooking. I have attended nearly countless Slow Food events in which Navajo-Churro lamb has been served. Fortunately, appetite both for this delicious meat and for the handsome wool of this desert-adapted sheep, have conspired to bring its population back in numbers, both in the Navajo nation and in small pockets throughout the United States.
Deborah Madison, a chef and writer, is the co-leader of the Slow Food San Francisco Convivium
Article first published in Slowfood 3