Memories > Mohave Sketches 3

Author: Carroll S. Farley

Illustrations: Doris Lightwine
Copyright © 1973, C. Farley & D. Lightwine
Foods of the Mohave

Mohave Foods - Lightwine The Mohaves had a wide variety of food.  Their most important single food was mesquite bean pone.  The plentiful beans of the mesquite tree were picked like green beans, when the pods were thick and meaty and the beans were very small and tender.  They were dumped into huge arrowweed baskets about six feet high and two or three feet in diameter.  The baskets were on stilts so the beans would not spoil or mold, and the basket tops were thatched.

The hot days caused the moist beans to ferment, turning from alcohol to vinegar, like ensilage or sauerkraut.  This made them a more palatable food.  In a few days, after the fermentation odors had disappeared, the beans dried out flinty hard, and would keep indefinitely.  Later they would be ground on a metate into a flour, salted, and mixed with water to the consistency of thick dough.  This dough would then be rolled out thin and cooked over the coals like tortillas.

Squash was another important food of the Mohaves.  They prepared it by cutting out the stem with a sharp flint knife and then they cut the squash into one long continuous strip, about an inch wide, as they rotated the squash.  When the strip reached two or three feet in length, it was tied in loops and hung from the rafters of the shack to dry.  It would then be ready to cook with meat as a winter vegetable when needed.

Mohaves ate a wide variety of meat: deer, antelope, jack rabbit, turtle, chuckawalla tail, fish, quail, duck and pack rat.  Most large game, as well as turtles, were pit barbecued.  Although the Mohaves were kind to each other they had no regard for pain in animals.  When they barbecued a turtle, they Mohave Indians - Lightwine would place it on its back in a pit of live coals, and laugh with glee while it kicked.  When it quit kicking, they would shovel dirt over it and let it cook for hours until it was tender.

Pack rat broth was given to sick people like we give chicken broth.  One of my sources told of an experience he had: The Mohaves always wanted to feed their visitors well.  Once in a Mohave home he was offered turtle and chuckawalla tail, which he refused.  Finally, they showed him a pot of extra-large cooked wheat, and he decided to try some.  It was very good and he ate quite a lot.  However, he was puzzled by a flavor he had never tasted before.  It was sort of a pungent, spicy taste, but he could not identify it.  When he had had his fill, his host asked if he would like some rat.  The squaw then took a stick and pulled a large pack rat from the pot of wheat.  Holding it by its tail, she peeled off its skin with the hair still on it and the entrails still in it.  The meat was a delicious pink, but the guest suddenly lost his appetite, and almost lost his dinner.

The Mohave had a unique farming method.  They grew corn, wheat, beans, squash and melons.  They did their planting when the annual late spring run-off came.  There were many sloughs from the flood water.  At the moment the flood waters reached their crest, the Indians planted their seeds at the water level in the silt along the sides of the sloughs.  In the long hot days that followed, the seeds sprouted fast and the roots followed the receding water through the loose silt.  The growth was rapid and the harvest was usually abundant.

More Fun Than A Popcorn Party

Spring came early along the Colorado River in Mohave Land.  Thousands of small and large cottonwood trees dotted the river bank.  Soon after the first green leaves shouted, "Spring is here," the trees became festooned with the white angular tents of the tent caterpillar.

Gathering Caterpillars - LightwineA couple of Indian maidens and a band of laughing children would go to the river bank with a large buckskin bag.  The boys shinnied up the slender cottonwood saplings until the trees bent over near the ground, so the others could rip open the caterpillar tents and fill the buckskin bag with squirming, fuzzy worms.

Then they went back to camp, where the women had built a fire of ironwood or mesquite, two local hardwoods that made long-lasting coals.  One of the squaws had spread a layer of clay over a large flat woven tray or very shallow basket.  When she saw the happy throng approaching camp, she patted an even layer of coals over the clay.  One of the maidens shook the coal-covered tray back Toasting Caterpillars - Lightwine and forth like an old fashioned popcorn popper while another maiden took large handfuls of worms from the bag and sprinkled them over the live coals causing a sudden flash of fire as the hair burned off of them.  Then the worms went into a frenzy of squirming that brought shrieks of delight from the excited children.  The maiden continued shaking the worms back and forth over the coals until they puffed up about three times their original size.  When they were completely toasted, they were dumped into a basket, and the process was repeated until all the worms were cooked.

What a delightful delicacy--if you were a Mohave.
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