The shepherd and the chef: A Navajo rancher chooses her customers carefully

Published in Indian Country Today in September 2005.

In late September, I met Colleen Biakeddy, Navajo, for a meal in the Turquoise Room at La Posada Hotel,  an historic landmark in Winslow, Arizona. As we traversed the lobby on the way to the restaurant, we passed the stairs to the ballroom and a wide gallery leading to a Mediterrean-style walled garden surrounded by guest rooms. The modern art collection of the inn’s current owners added splashes of color to the adobe walls.

According to a note on Turquoise Room’s menu, Biakeddy, shown below, is the sole supplier of lamb to the restaurant, which is separately owned and managed by British chef John Sharpe, pictured at bottom. The eatery caters to locals, tourists traveling nearby Route 66 and — because Sharpe used to own successful Los Angeles eateries — the occasional Hollywood celebrity. Recent sightings include Harrison Ford, who was passing by in his private planes and put down at the local airport so he could stop in for some of Sharpe’s fare.

Sharpe’s personal style — casual, classy and creative — matches that of his food. Sometimes Sharpe actually resembles his food. When I visited him in the restaurant’s kitchen, I noted that the confetti pattern on his trousers looked just like the imaginative dishes he turns out, with their decorative sprinklings of yellow corn kernels, green chili strips, and narrow ribbons of red and white tortillas.

At that moment, he was up to his elbows what he calls Southwestern Cassoulet, an adaptation of a classic meat, sausage, and white-bean dish from southwestern France. He stirred a liberal helping of artistic license into his version: it showcased Native ingredients, including earthy brown Tohono O’odham tepary beans and Biakeddy’s Navajo Churro lamb.

The meat was a revelation. Its texture was fine, and the flavor was clean and fresh, with bright, grassy overtones and none of the pungency usually associated with lamb and mutton.

“Churros are a product of their environment,” explained Sharpe. “They even taste different from one ranch to another. Navajos manage their animals the way farmers back home in England did. The sheep only graze, so a farm’s distinctive groundcover — its particular mixture of grasses, wildflowers and herbs — flavors the meat of its animals. In contrast, commercially raised sheep from New Zealand or Colorado are fed pellets, grain and a standard blend of grasses, so they all taste the same.”

Absolutely right, said Biakeddy, as we enjoyed our meal: “An animal is what it eats. In my area — Big Mountain — we’re blessed with varied soils, from clay to sand. This allows many types of plants to grow. We also have springs and natural formations that collect rainwater and snowmelt. So our sheep drink pure water and eat a wide range of vegetation.”

The Spanish brought the small, hardy Churro to the Southwest in the late 16th century, and Navajo people began herding them shortly thereafter. In a misguided attempt to improve Churros during the mid-20th century, the federal government encouraged Navajos to crossbreed them with larger, heavier animals. Some families, like Biakeddy’s, held onto a number of purebred Churros and now have Churro flocks. In 2002, Slow Food, an Italian gastronomic organization that identifies fine foods around the world that are worthy of special preservation efforts, awarded the breed a spot in its Ark of Taste.

Churros are well adapted to the Navajo homeland’s arid climate; however, to be at their best, they require a vigilant shepherd. To produce fine-textured meat, Biakeddy encourages her sheep to get just enough exercise: lots of walking up and down hills, with no running allowed. To guarantee good flavor, she helps them avoid physical stress — from injuries, for example — and watches their diet.

“They’re picky eaters, which is fun to observe,” said Biakeddy. “When cheat grass is in season, that’s all they want. When the wildflowers bloom, they try to eat them exclusively. Right now, some have discovered prickly pear fruit. You have to be in their care continually — persuading them to eat other plants.” She laughed and added, “They keep me busy.”

Biakeddy’s flock, which varies in size from about 60 to twice that after the lambs are born in the spring, is both a small-scale commercial venture and what she describes as her contribution to the world. “I don’t take credit for my sheep,” she said. “I owe everything to my people, who kept them alive. The animals, in turn, were the backbone of our survival. This is the most profound thing I could do, given my ancestry. There are things within our tradition that cannot be taken for granted; they are so important you must cherish them every day.”

As a result, Biakeddy manages the economic side of the operation — called Biakeddy and Family — with great caution. John Sharpe is the only chef she currently supplies. “He understands the significance of this sheep and conveys it to his customers, who are the kind of clientele that expect something special,” she said. “It would be easier to load up the animals, take them to market and not know what the outcome is. Working with John, I do know. I follow my sheep from breeding season to the plate. I have upheld my responsibility.”

When Navajo Churro sheep were placed in the Ark of Taste, they became a fad, and prospective purchasers started contacting Biakeddy. She proceeds with care in these situations. She considers the person’s experience and capabilities — and his or her character — before parting with an animal. “You don’t make a lot of money with Churro sheep,” she said. “They have to function as part of your daily life, as a way to manage your terrain. You can’t buy your way into them. But for people who comprehend this — Navajo or non-Navajo — they’re wonderful.”

Going forward, Biakeddy will expand her enterprise modestly. She may sell goat meat or beef, since she also has small herds of angora goats and cattle; and there are also sheep byproducts, like cheeses, to consider. Supplying another restaurant is a possibility, as is selling via the internet.

“I don’t live with modern amenities, which is fine for taking care of sheep, but difficult for business,” she said. “Buyers have a hard time getting hold of me. So, I’m looking into marketing online.” Because she produces a limited amount of meat, she would offer it seasonally — leading up to Easter and Christmas, for example.

As demand grew, she could then increase supply by helping her neighbors develop flocks. There’s some room for growth in the size of her herd — but not a great deal. “There’s the weather and my physical strength to consider,” she said. “I’d say keep it close, keep it local.”

Always, her goal is finding demanding customers: “I want to market to people who push me to keep up the quality of the meat — people who won’t let me have a day off. Which is exactly how my parents and grandparents taught me.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph by Stephanie Woodard.

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