A’AGA Something to be told or talked about

Billy Allen


This hot, socially distant summer will be remembered for a long time. In my house (Ñ ki ed) the only thing getting a constant workout is the remote. I need a reason to pry myself off the sofa. A visit to Hatch, New Mexico might just do it. The smell/aroma of roasting green chile is like perfume to many O’odham.


Working out the remote, I came across “Gordon Ramsey: Uncharted.” The episode was about India, which has been a leading exporter of spices like pepper, chile, and cardamom. Indian Chef Shri Bala had Ramsey taste a very spicy Indian dish with a predictable result. Milk eased his pain. “Nature has given us more spices because of the climactic conditions. You’re in the spice hub,” said Chef Bala. Hot chile makes people sweat and cools us down. Probably why I’itoi put chiltepin plants on Baboquivari or Vav Giwulk and timed the summer rains to cool the earth or jeved. To earn money for school clothes in the 1960s, we went with our ba:b or ba’ba’a (maternal grandfather) to “chop cotton.” He was over 60, but still led a “chopping crew.” At lunch (12 noon, 105˚plus), he would savor his sandwich with a bite of chile, and sip steaming coffee as sweat poured down his contented face.


Chile went to India from Native country. Grown for more than 8,000 years throughout Mexico, Central and South America, and right here in southwestern United States, the chiltepin is the “mother of all peppers.” It is the way-way-way-back grandmother of most cultivated chiles, and the only wild chile native to our country. The best known population is the Wild Chile Botanical preserve in the mountains a mile away from Tumacacori. Renowned ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan, who co-founded “Native Seeds/SEARCH,” wrote that a Tohono O’odham man told him Tumacacori means “place of the little round chiles.” The O’odham word for chile is ko’okol. The root or base word is s-ko’ok which means hot/spicy or hurt. Interestingly, the Greek word for chile also means a bite or a hurt. This taste for chile or ko’okol may go back all the way back to the Huhugam. As O’odham of the akimel, they raised a lot of maize, beans, and squash, some of which was traded with our southern cousins whose items of trade were saguaro seeds and syrup, dried fruit, agave cakes and fibers, gourd seeds and wild chiltepin. (Olas ko’okol or round chili.)


Food/cultural appropriation or borrowing kind of boils down to, “What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is ours.” The Indigenous Americas introduced new foods to the Old World such as chocolate, tobacco, tomatoes, chiles, corn, onions, peanuts and potatoes, to name a few. India-Indians made chiles “theirs,” just as we O’otham have made some things “ours” that were not traditional—wheat or pilkan has been here less than 400 years. (In the real old days, che-mait would have been corn for us until wheat arrived.) Traditions come and go, and evolve.  The “food trinity” for Italians is a base mixture of onions, celery, and carrots. Louisiana’s trinity is onions, celery and bell peppers.  Some Asian cultures begin with ginger, scallions, garlic. O’odham tables often have this trinity: chile stew, potato salad, and pinto beans.  Spaniards introduced cattle and chickens and Germans get credit for introducing potato salad and most of the ingredients. Pinto beans worked their way to us from Central and South America. Our traditional desert bean is the tepary/bawi or buf.  It’s just like us:  brown, likes heat, requires little water, and is wrinkled (Well, some of us).


Our record-breaking heat wave has finally ushered in the jegos, and GRIC has been experiencing power outages. No power—no TV—oh no!  Two solutions: grab some ko’okol’ and go outside to cool off, or jump in the car and head to Hatch.