Kathy Stevenson’s story in Sunday’s Salt Lake Tribune previews tonight’s episode of the PBS food show, “Lidia Celebrates America,” which will air at 9 PM MST on KUED Channel 7. One segment of particular interest was filmed on the Navajo reservation and will feature chef Freddie Bitsoie preparing traditional Navajo-Churro lamb with juniper. The episode will also feature the blessing of a new home built by Design Build Bluff students for a Navajo family.
The Navajo-Churro sheep is a heritage breed that is listed on the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste. It is also the focus of one of four Presidia projects. “Loosely translated into ‘garrison,’ Slow Food Presidia (Presidium, singular) are local projects that work to improve the infrastructure of artisan food production. The goals of the Presidia are to guarantee a viable future for traditional foods by stabilizing production techniques, establishing stringent production standards, and promoting local consumption.” (from the Slow Food USA website).
This multipurpose and hardy traditional breed of sheep is sacred to the Navajo (Dine) people, and its long wool is especially prized for weaving. Despite its value, the breed was nearly wiped out due to the Navajo War, federal range management policies in the wake of the Dust Bowl, and introduction of “improved” breeds, according to The Return of Navajo-Churro Sheep to Loom & Table by Gary Paul Nabhan. Luckily, champions of the breed led an effort to save them beginning in the 1970s. Utah State University professor Dr. Lyle McNeal was instrumental in rebuilding herds and reintroducing them to the reservation in recent decades. The Presidium project is now led by Gary Nabhan (Northern Arizona University) and Guy Chanler (Slow Food Northern Arizona chapter).
In her article about the upcoming PBS show, Stevenson describes Chef Bastianich’s journey: “To get to Bluff, Bastianich flew into Salt Lake City, then hopped another plane to the Four Corners region before driving to the reservation. ‘The surroundings were so beautiful,’ she said. On the reservation, she met the recipients of a new home constructed by Design Build Bluff, a 10-year-old program through the University of Utah’s architecture and planning department. Students design a house for particular family one semester, and then go to the Four Corners region to build the house the next semester. The homes are all made with sustainable materials and equipped with solar power. During the episode, Bastianich discovers how the Churro sheep came to the region and how industrious the Navajo are at using all parts of the animal, including the wool for blankets. Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie, from Gallup, N.M., shows Bastianich how to prepare lamb and blue-corn “polenta” made with ash. …”
Tune in tonight to share the journey, learn some of Chef Freddie Bitsoie’s cooking secrets, and more about the Navajo-Churro sheep.