Tortilla Memories by Aleta Campbell


My mother, aunts, and uncle were raised on the Indian reservation near where I now live while my grandparents worked on translating the bible and putting the legends of the people down in writing.

I asked my aunt to share some of her memories of the food from that time in her life.

How did growing up on the Indian Reservation influence your food habits and your ideas of eating together and hosting people for meals?
Hmm… interesting question. How in the world do you separate your family influences from your outer community experiences or influences? Instead of figuring it out, I’m going to describe what I remember of potlucks at church when I was small. I grew up on the Tohono O’otham (formerly Papago) Indian Reservation.
On the reservation, we had a potluck at every holiday. What I remember is the food more than the “fellowship.” That was probably because I was a kid. I’m sure that my parents remember interacting with people because adults talk more than kids. We kids love food, then we play!

What I remember is that it was all “dewicious.” When the Indians made chili, they did not mean chili beans or Texas style chili with hamburger in it, chili meant what the Mexicans call “chili con carne.” Some people made it extremely hot, some mild and some in between. Some made the chunks of meat large, some small, and some in between, no matter, the end result was wonderful. Sometimes somebody would bring a stew, but not often, usually meat came as chili.

Another staple was beans, and by beans, I mean pinto beans. I don’t think they were cooked with a lot of different spices, just salt and pepper; perhaps some also put in cumin? I do not remember the beans ever being “refried” back then, just brought in the juice they were cooked in. They were usually served with a slotted spoon so you could avoid getting too much juice on your plate; that would make the paper plate disintegrate too quickly. When I was little I associated refried beans with “Mexican” food, enchiladas, etc.

Another staple was tortillas. Very infrequently someone would bring cowboy tortillas. These are small, thick tortillas that the Indian men would make when they were out on round up; they were probably small because they had to fit in a pan over a campfire. I love cowboy tortillas; I think I could make them because you don’t have to make them so big and round and thin, but they are not what I think of when I think of T.O. tortillas. The usual tortillas made by the Tohono O’otham Indians are large, about 16 inches in diameter, and extremely thin. They were soft and pliable, with dark spots where the dough had bubbled up and resulted in a scorched area or burn. The tortillas were best the first day, okay on the second day if they were well protected from the air, and stiff and hard as cardboard if they dried out. After growing up eating tortillas like this, it makes most commercial tortillas seem like dry, puffy, clammy, gummy leather. The tortillas were often cooked outside over a wood fire and had a delicious quality that cannot be duplicated by other means. When I moved north, then east-ish, the tortilla landscape was bleak and something had to be done about it. That’s a story for another time.

Okay, back to the potluck fare. Another frequent item at a potluck was potato salad made with DILL pickles, salad dressing or mayonnaise (I couldn’t tell), sliced celery and chopped boiled eggs. Yum! . I don’t remember the salad being very yellow, so I don’t think that mustard was included, but, then again, I was a kid and couldn’t tell. My first encounter with sweet pickles in potato salad made me want to spit it out in surprise. You can keep your sweetened untamed masses! My father-in-law grew up in East Texas and his mother made potato salad with sweet pickles and I could hardly put the stuff in my mouth. Dill, people, DILL! It’s gotta be dill!

Sometimes someone would get confused and bring a lettuce salad. What?

Other people would be even more confused and bring a jello salad. What? What? Huh???? People!

If all the stars were lined up just the right way, someone would bring tamales! Tamales! Okay, that’s a Spanish/Mexican word, but the T.O.’s OWN tamales! I had never heard of green corn tamales until I had moved off the reservation and was in my early twenties. The tamales that the T.O.’s make are made with the red chili I mentioned before inside the tamale; not pork, not olives, not anything but red meat in red chili sauce. I’m sure things have changed by now, but we are talking about the potlucks of 40 to 50 years ago. The tamales were usually large and had several corn husks wrapped around them. Not the tiny ones you can buy in the frozen section of some stores. When he was a child, my husband sometimes ate tamales that came from a CAN!!!!! That’s beyond words to me. Tamales were always the star of the show when they showed up.

Another very infrequent item was cholla cactus bud salad. I tasted this as a kid and decided that I probably didn’t want to live off the land quite THAT much. It’s a real traditional item, though, and my Mom and Dad thought it was a WONDERFUL treat. Mom never made it herself. I think the thought of wandering around in the desert, harvesting buds from cholla cacti, and brushing off all the spines without getting any in your hands/eyes/mouth, whatever, was a little intimidating. She had four kids and so much linguistic work to do! Who has time to search the desert for edibles?

Occasionally someone would bring yeast rolls which were heavenly. When the potluck was in Santa Rosa, the church ladies would get together and make yeast rolls which they then baked in the adobe dome oven on the church property. THAT was wonderful!

I think one of the things that made the food so good was that many families were still cooking on wood-burning stoves or over an outdoor fire. The smell and flavor of the wood permeated the food. We cooked on a gas stove and food didn’t have the same flavor.


Well, I’m drawing to the close of my most vivid memories of church potlucks from childhood.

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