One time while we were living with mom, the boys butchered a goat. They were teen agers and butchering is a lot of work so they were just planning to use the meat. Navajos do a lot of things with a sheep and very little is wasted but it takes a lot of time to process the animal properly. Being teenagers they didn’t want to put that much effort into it. (As time goes on, more and more of the young people are growing away from traditional ways and coming to value more the modern ways of the cities, I think. Today, I find the teenagers still liking the stew and roasted meats, but being a little bit scornful of some of the older ways of preparing the products of butchering. It makes me sad. But that is waaay off the topic. )
When I found out they were planning to just dump the intestines etc out for the dogs, I ran out with a dishpan and bowls to catch them so we could have some of the good traditional dishes. They caught the blood when the sheep’s throat was slit and I kept the “innards” These dishes are a lot of work to prepare, but they are certainly worth it. Mom was too old to do so much work. Her daughters, Helen and Dorothy were not there. So I did it for her.
I caught the intestines and stomach in the dishpan and brought another bowl for the bow to put the intestinal fat in. Someone carried both inside and we stretched the lacy white intestinal fat across the lines that Louie put up in the house. When it is first removed from the sheep it is soft and flexible like fine lace curtains. Hanging it up makes the fat solidify to a soft candlewax consistency. We had about three lines of lacy fat each piece about 18 inches wide and equally long when it was stretched across the lines.
I took the stomach and pushed the vegetable matter out of it. Then I turned it wrong side out and scrubbed and scrubbed it in clean water. Traditionally you don’t use any soap, but I used a light solution of dish soap just after the first couple rinses when the water was running clear but before the last couple rinses. (Okay. I’m a cleanliness fanatic.) When the stomach was clean and well rinsed inside and out, I laid it in a bowl.
Then came the most tedious job, straightening out and washing the intestines. First all of the contents of the intestines have to be pushed out into the trash and discarded. This requires a gentle touch because they tear easily. Ideally, you want the entire length of the intestine intact. Then the long intestines are washed again and again, until the water runs clear. Again, I used a light solution of dish soap in one of the last washing. Then I rinsed again and again. This is hard to do because the sheep intestines are only about as big around as my index finger and the clean water must be poured into the top end over and over and over. Until the water came out clean at the other end, the cleaning wasn’t finished.
While I was cleaning the intestines, Mom was preparing the stomach. She sat by a makeshift table to chop potatoes and onions in very small pieces. She also chopped the heart and other inner organs as well as some of the hanging fat into very small pieces. This was all mixed with the blood and pushed into the tied off stomach. When it was full Mom tied off the open end and put the stomach in a pan of water to boil. You can also roast it slowly but it takes a while longer with al the raw vegetables and meat inside. Stewing it is quicker.
I took the hanging curtains of fat from the lines and folded them into slim strips about ½ inch wide and three or four inches long. I had about four or five of those—maybe more. I don’t remember. Then each strip of fat was wrapped with the clean intestines and tied at the end. Depending on how long you make your strips of fat you can have five or six or eight. This is one of my favorite dishes, second only to ribs grilled over a pinion and juniper fire.
When the goat was cleaned and quartered we were ready to begin dinner. The front and back quarters were hung up by the roof in the cool of the shady side of the house. The ribs and meat from the back bone and neck were trimmed up and readied for cooking. The back bone was sectioned up and put in a kettle with the neck meat trimmings, potatoes and onions to make stew. The ribs were divided into manageable sections to roast. When the fire was a bed of hot coals, the ribs were placed on the coals. The strips of fat and intestines were placed on the sides where they could roast slowly. All this time, the stomach had been simmering beside the stew over the stove in the house. When the stomach was cooked through, as a final step, it was placed on the edge of the bed of coals to attain the flavor of the wood smoke and a little additional roasting on the outside. And of course, the inevitable big coffee pot with a huge stack of naaniskadi (tortillas). If there didn’t seem to be enough tortillas a few more would be cooked on a bed of coals at the side beside the ever present long green chilies. These toasted tortillas had an extra bit of flavor from the open fire so everyone tried to grab a piece of one of them first.
When the ribs were roasted, the ak’aa doo ac’hee had dripped all of the liquid fat onto the coals and crisped the enwrapping intestines, we were ready to eat. There wasn’t a lot of anything, but there were a lot of things. And everyone got a bit of each. The stomach was sliced and the rich blood and vegetable ‘sausage’ held its shape like meat loaf. The stew from the backbone was more soup than substance, but everyone got a bowl full with some potatoes and meat. The stew was soaked up with the tortillas. The ak’aa doo ac’hee was carefully shared out. Some of the younger kids didn’t like them so I could make sure Mom and I got a whole piece. (After all, I did the work, Mom was deserving) Her teeth were not very good and she had trouble eating the crispy intestines and chewy fat so she cut a few small bites of then gave tiny pieces away to the babies who came looking for a bite. And of course everyone got a couple ribs.
By the time were sitting down to eat it was dusk, but, ooooh, was that good. By full dark there was nothing left but the legs hanging in the coolness in the eave of the house. Everyone helped to clean up and we were ready to go home. Notah looked like he had taken a bath in mutton fat since he carried a rib around with him most of the evening. If he lost it to a passing dog, (They would very politely but persistently remove the rib bones from his hand if a vigilant kid or adult wasn’t watching them closely.) he would cry and someone would give him another. And when the sun was gone we would sit by the glowing fire and remember that good meal we had eaten. And dream about the prospects of another tomorrow.
Finally the littlest babies had fallen asleep on various laps and the bigger kids and some of the teens were trying valiantly to stay awake. It was time to head off to bed.