by JESSICA DUNN
Squanto, of the Wampanoag tribe, helped the starving pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony 387 years ago. He lived with them and taught them how to fish and plant corn and other local vegetables.
The American Indians originally cultivated about 60 percent of the foods we eat today, said Forrest S. Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs. Those foods include corn, potatoes, tomatoes, chocolates and coffee beans.
While mainstream America has taken these native foods and created new recipes with them, the Navajo Hogan, a Salt Lake City restaurant, keeps Native American food traditions alive with their fry bread and Navajo taco.
The concrete building at 447 E 3300 South looks plain at first glance, with only a big yellow and red sign adorning its gray walls. The inside has a few simple, metal tables and chairs and a long counter in front of the open kitchen. The walls are decorated with Native American murals, strings of dried chili peppers, tribal maps, painted animal hides and various weaponry and trinkets.
Bill and Marcie Espinoza, originally from New Mexico, opened the Navajo Hogan in 1989. The building first housed the Espinozas’ arcade for the teenagers attending nearby Granite High School. One night, though, as Marcie was making dinner, Bill had the idea to sell the traditional Navajo taco that his wife made. He wanted everyone to have to opportunity to enjoy it. She refused at first because she had a full-time job, but after some persuasion from Bill she was convinced.
The restaurant’s main menu item is the Navajo taco. The traditional is the most popular, made with fresh fry bread topped with homemade chili beans, cheddar cheese, chopped lettuce, tomatoes and onions. The Navajo Hogan offers about 10 other variations as well, including vegetarian, chili cheese, blue corn and chicken.
Most North American tribes were never taught how to make bread but they experimented and learned to prepare fry bread, Cuch said in an e-mail. After surrendering to the U.S. Cavalry, Native Americans were issued rations of “salted pork or bacon, refined flour, salt, sugar, and lard,” Cuch said. They had to use the white settlers’ food to create the bread.
“The Indians mixed the flour with water and salt and made a dough,” Cuch said. “With the grease from the bacon or lard, they place the dough in the grease and created grease/fry bread.”
The Navajo Hogan also makes a sweet fry bread with cinnamon and sugar.
Mutton stew is also a staple of the Navajo tradition, Cuch said. The Navajo Hogan makes a limited amount of mutton stew with vegetables every Saturday and is served on a first come first serve basis.
Regulars come in every Saturday for the stew. Some will even call in advance to reserve their bowl, Bill said.
Mutton stew comes from the Navajo tradition of herding sheep. Their eating habits are different from other tribes, even within Utah. The Utes, the Native American tribe that Utah is named for, don’t have any well-known food traditions, Cuch said.
The food diversity stems from the Utes’ nomadic background as opposed to the Navajo’s early settling. Mormon pioneers eventually forced the Utes to change their ways. The move to a reservation restricted their eating habits and food sources.
“[The Utes used to] eat more wild game, including deer, elk, buffalo, antelope [and] trout,” Cuch said. “They learned to plant and eat corn from the Hopi.”
Though the Utes’ eating habits have changed from their traditional ways, Utahns still have the opportunity to try the Navajo taco and mutton stew at the Navajo Hogan.
Bill smiles and greets a pair of his regular customers and writes down their order from memory. He cooks their Navajo tacos according to each of their specifications, even cutting one into quarters.
People from all around the world have come to eat at the Navajo Hogan, especially during the 2002 Winter Olympics. There have been customers from New York, Alaska, Japan and Australia, Bill said.
Similar to Squanto, Bill is teaching and spreading the Native American ways and knowledge, all while feeding new people traditional Navajo foods.