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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Piki Bread: Food, Art and Tradition
by Clifford Fewel - Navajo-Hopi Observer
credits: photos by Vinny Joy - Navajo-Hopi Observer

Joyce Saufkie and her family keep the art of making piki bread alive on Second Mesa


Blue-corn flour, cream-colored with specks of purple, rests in a white plastic bowl in the kitchen of departed elders, where Joyce and Morgan Saufkie sip coffee. Joyce is up early on a warm Friday to greet visitors and to bake piki bread for them.

With her are granddaughter Maria Saufkie and Maria's boyfriend, Julian. Morgan says a quick hello, greeting the visitors with a careful eye, and repairs to a sunny window seat in the front room near Joyce's basket-weaving. Morgan and Joyce have been married 58 years.

In the background, Hopi radio KUYI out of Pueblo, N.M., issues a steady rhythm of chanting, drumming and singing in celebration of the Butterfly Dance, one of many feasting occasions on the tradition-rich Hopi calendar.

The Saufkies live a short distance from this former dwelling of Joyce's late parents. They come every so often to keep the place ready for family and friends when gatherings grow too large to accommodate them in their own place, just up the road, where the Piki House sits.

First, there is batter to make.

Joyce scoops a heaping spoonful of greasewood bush ash from a ziplock baggie. She gets the ash from a guy named Glenn. The little bit of ash, which she wire-whipps into the pale flour, transforms the entire mixture to blue-gray, as if by magic. After waiting a few moments for water to boil, Maria stirs the mix into the hot water until it has the consistency of hearty gravy, and a blue-gray sheen.

On the 70-mile drive from Winslow to Shungopavi Village, the vast, flat summit of Second Mesa rises 1,200 feet. Homes seem to sprout from the high-mesa sandstone.

Joyce and Maria laugh at a retelling of a story originally told by John Sharpe, chef-owner of the Turquoise Room, of his failed attemps and the attempts of other world-class chefs to reproduce the paper thin rolls of piki loaves.

On page 27 of his "Turquoise Room Cookbook," Sharpe writes, "Only the Hopi make piki bread...(it) is virtually impossible to duplicate."

He adds his own recipe for Hopi Hummus, a version of bad-dap-suki - a soup-like concoction from beans, corn and salt - which the Hopi use as a dip for piki bread. Sharpe's hummus employs fresh-cut corn, tepary beans, garlic, sunflower oil and more for a thicker spread to be eaten with bites of piki.

Wearing a colorful apron bearing the logo and old-time artistry of the Bluebird Flour Co., Joyce takes the mixture offered by Maria and tests its consistency by hand, scraping it again and again onto the inside rim of the bowl. She says rainy weather and drying wind will affect the consistency and flavor of the finished product.

Under ideal conditions, the finished product will be a translucent blue sheet, as thin as parchment paper.

Joyce sets the long sheet onto a crisp white linen and rolls it into neat loaves eight to nine inches long, filled in the middle by shreds that flake off in the process. A colorful print cloth protects the loaves before they are packaged - 27 to 35 loaves at a time, said Maria - for delivery to community centers, family homes, and to the Turquoise Room when they need it.

Later, Joyce, Maria and Julian drive a white pickup down a dirt road toward the Piki House. The ten foot by ten foot shack with two aluminum chimneys at opposite corners has a lacy blanket strung over the door to discourage sun, dust and flies from entering.

Inside, Joyce takes a seat while Maria readies the cloths and prepares the fire pit for sticks of cedar, which Julian chops outside. Joyce prefers cedar for its steady heat, but mostly because it doesn't pop and burn her the way some woods will.

Hopi kids know the best way to get a roll of piki bread is to bring a stick of firewood to the cook. Piki bread is sacred to the Hopi, said Joyce, and people use it to celebrate every special occasion. When a girl becomes engaged, 50 to 100 boxes of piki will be made and included with the yeast bread, cakes and pies she takes to the home of her beloved. At social dances girls offer piki bread to their partners.

"It's also used for every-day meals," said Joyce.

"Used to be..." Maria responded.

While Maria tends the fire, Joyce walks over to her family home. Under a covered patio Joyce's oldest daughter, Juanita, Maria's aunt, is patting neat balls of white dough into tortillas. She browns them on the griddle of an ancient iron stove. While Joyce takes a break inside, Juanita counts Joyce's progeny using two hands: six children, 16 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren, with one on the way. Before returing to the Piki House, five generations pose on Joyce's steps: Joyce, 74, Juanita, Maria, Edie, 26, and Charlie, 2.

At the Piki House, Joyce moves to the chair facing the fire and places both hands onto the rectangular black stone as it arrives at baking temperature, which she guesses to be about 350 degrees. As with the entire process, there are no thermometers, no measuring cups and few utensils. The silvery flue draws cedar flames under the stone (the wood burns at the right edge of the stone, not directly underneath), and Joyce begins to stir the batter. She gathers the blue blend in the cupped fingers of her right hand and swirls the mix a few times before wiping against the rim of the bowl, over and over.

The Piki House warms with the fragrance of burning cedar. There is no fan to regulate the heat, as it would make the piki dry. Maria and Joyce say baking in winter is just right. In the summer, Joyce must vie for the cooler early hours with her four daughters, each of whom lives nearby. Switching seamlessly between Hopi and English, Joyce and Maria make ready to bake and roll. Joyce opens a small plastic bag containing a white mixture of Crisco oil and pig brains, which will lubricate the stone.

"They don't make beef brains no more," Maria said. "So we have to buy this from the Keams Canyon Trading Post."

With a vague wave, she adds that the block of sandstone, which they have used for the past 15 to 20 years, "comes from a certain place up that way."

The role of the Hopi men in the piki process is to support the bakers with snacks and juice while the stone is hot, and to enjoy the end product. Plain, dipped in water or served with slices of watermelon, the men devour piki bread in great quantities, said Joyce's daughter, Mary, who joins the group as the baking begins. She tells how her four-year-old granddaughter, too young to be near the hot stone, mimics the process using mud, water and newspapers. Mary laughs when telling how her granddaughter will look up from her feverish endeavors to ask her grandfather to bring her some juice, please.

Joyce is ready and so is the stone. She gathers the batter, smears it across the searing stone, releasing the excess onto the side of the bowl before gathering and spreading more and more layers onto those already spread. As the layers cook they rise at the edges and separate from the stone. With delicate precision, Joyce tugs the blue-gray sheet until it lifts clean from the stone.

Joyce says she retains all feeling in her palms and fingers, despite the intense heat, explaining that her swift motion and the insulating properties of the wafer-thin layers prevent injury. It is obvious that practice has a lot to do with it. She places onto the large white cloth each broad sheet of piki bread; surprisingly pliable, the sheets roll easily into loaves.

Fresh piki bread is chewy and smoky tasting. It begs for a topping. The Hopi Hummus as crafted by Sharpe at the Turquoise Room is rich, robust and offers a thick, moist counterpoint to the crunch of the piki bread. Up on Second Mesa, everyone has their favorite way to eat piki. Mary enjoys a piki picnic lunch with water, Spam and onions.

"I like it plain and I like it with bean sprouts," Maria said.

Joyce said, "I eat it with water and beef jerky." To which Mary added, "Some people even put peanut butter on piki." To which Joyce smiled and added, "Oh, that's good, too!"

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