AZ Wood burned inside a three-foot-wide pit, crackling like
a bowl of Rice Krispies. The treat to be baked inside: alkaan (Navajo
According to the apron-wearing ladies who huddled beneath the
tent a few feet away from the fire pit, alkaan is typically made
during a kinaaldá - the morphing ceremony when a young Diné
girl crosses over to womanhood - and is made a certain way followed
by songs and prayers. Both the cake and ceremony represent Changing
Woman, who was the first to have her kinaaldá.
However, there are different ways to make a Navajo cake, and
Darlene Teller, from Chilchinbito, Ariz., demonstrated one way
that the Diné treat can be made during the 4th annual Life
Preservation Summit, held July 18-20 at Wheatfields Lake.
Teller, who works at Chilchinbito Community School as a language
and culture teacher, said that the fire pit must be started at least
the night before and if done in the wintertime the fire may need
to burn for a couple of nights. But due to unexpected rain that
poured through the area the fire took longer than expected to heat
up the pit.
Like Giada De Laurentiis' cooking show "Everyday Italian,"
Teller's show could be called "Everyday Diné."
Only this show was live and everyone could participate.
Teller described each tool, material and ingredient that would
be utilized in the processes of making alkaan. The tools included
an Idistsiin (stirring stick), which is made from seven greasewood
branches bound together by a string, large mixing bowls, parchment
paper, a large pot for boiling water, corn husks, aluminum foil,
Tse daa shjee' (bottom part of the grinding stone) and Tse Daa shch'ini
(Top part of the grinding stone), which are used to grind the corn
kernels to make the corn meal.
basic ingredients for Teller's version of alkaan included: 50 pounds
of already ground white corn meal, germinated wheat, six pounds
of brown sugar, raisins, and boiling water.
According to Teller and the ladies who seemed to have perfected
the skill of making alkaan, the common way to make the traditional
cake for a kinaaldá is without the brown sugar, raisins and
germinated wheat, which are all replaced with human saliva during
But if you use the three ingredients, here's how to do it.
The water is poured into a large bowl. The corn meal is then
As the mix is stirred - always clockwise according to Navajo
belief - germinated wheat is then added, followed by raisins that
have been sitting in a pot of brown sugar. This whole process is
known as taa'niil (mixing).
"You have to do this while (the water is) still hot,"
said Teller, otherwise you might get lumps.
After the hot ashes have been completely removed from the pit
(in this case by the guys who stood by for the next process), the
parchment paper, which has been drenched in water, is placed on
the bottom and the sides like a lining.
Next come the corn husks, which are placed on top of the lining.
Each corn husk, according to Teller, should be placed downward,
so that the inside of the corn husk is facing the earth and the
outer layer is facing the sky.
The cake batter, which for this cake had been thoroughly mixed
by most of the girls in attendance, is then poured on top of the
corn husks, almost filling up to the top of the lining and then
covered by the parchment paper and aluminum foil.
Two sheets of steel are then placed on top of the cake and then
insulated with dirt. The hot coals still been burning off to the
side after being removed from the pit are then placed on top of
the corrugated steel. The alkaan sat inside the pit overnight.
Loretta Cowboy, from Wheatfields, said the reason she came to
Teller's demonstration was so that she could "learn more about
making Navajo cake" because she was makes her differently.
However, the only difference between Cowboy's and Teller's recipes
is that Cowboy doesn't use brown sugar.
Margie R. S. Begay, of Wheatfields, who looked on from the side,
said she thinks there is a lesson that can be learned from something
as simple as Navajo cake making.
The socialization that forms during the whole cake process creates
a bond between the individual and those who assist. Therefore, Begay
said, a person will never be alone.