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Earth Notes: Cooking with Tall Woman

Charlotte Frisbie

A book published in 2019 called Food Sovereignty the Navajo Way: Cooking with Tall Woman, highlights Navajo culinary and farming practices over the course of two decades through the research of anthropologist Charlotte Frisbie.

Tall Woman, also known as Rose Mitchell, lived a very long life in the traditional Navajo way in Chinle, Arizona. She herded sheep, wove rugs, delivered babies, and fed her large extended family. Charlotte Frisbie stayed with Tall Woman on and off through the 60’s and 70’s, documenting her detailed knowledge of how to gather, grow and prepare traditional foods. Years later, Frisbie went back to Chinle to work with Tall Woman’s descendants and complete her research.

From planting through harvest, Tall Woman kept close watch on fields of corn, beans, squash, and melons. Weeding, watering, and other farm work was done mostly by hand with help from all the family members. Corn, always held in highest regard by many southwestern Tribes, was carefully tended with attention to keeping each variety separate from the other.

Frisbie noted that Tall Woman had a stock of specific tools and utensils to prepare food. She made cornmeal mush with stirring sticks made from greasewood branches. A type of bread known as paper bread was spread by hand on a hot stone cleaned with a grass brush. Corn cakes were baked in pits, and kneel-down bread was cooked in an earthen oven. Tall Woman used culinary ash from juniper needles to add color and key nutrients like calcium to mush, hominy, and other dishes.

At the request of the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department, Charlotte Frisbie published a book of Tall Woman’s farming and cooking techniques, along with her recipes. It’s much more than a cookbook – it’s treasured knowledge for many Indigenous people and Tribes working to revive healthy traditional foods.