and her family keep the art of making piki bread alive on Second
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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,"
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,