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Cooking Up Culture on the Tohono O'odham Nation: Avocado & Agave Pudding

By Julia Munson and Rebecca Cohen, FoodCorps service members

An excited chorus of “Are we cooking today?” greets us when we walk into the cafeteria of Indian Oasis Elementary School (IOES). A group of students swarms around us, jumping up and down and offering bear hugs.  At IOES, one of the schools we teach in as second year FoodCorps service members, students have proven that contrary to belief, children are not picky eaters.  In fact, they are some of the most open-minded taste-testers you can find. Especially if the dish in question is something they helped cook with their classmates.

We serve on the Tohono O’odham Nation, a reservation roughly the size of Connecticut where saguaro cacti, creosote bushes, and mesquite trees dot the dusty landscape. We spend much of our time at IOES as part of our service site Tohono O’odham Community Action’s (TOCA) School Food and Fitness Program. TOCA’s programming focuses on creating cultural revitalization and sustainable community development on the Nation, and the elementary school is perhaps the most important place to start.

Over the past year and a half we have worked with TOCA staff to develop a culturally and seasonally appropriate gardening, cooking, and wellness curriculum for the after-school program. Students in our classes have prepared, eaten (and loved!) snacks ranging from no-bake saguaro seed (bahidaj kaij) cookies to brown tepary bean (wepegĭ bawĭ) quesadillas. We’ve harvested cholla cactus buds (ciolim) on a hill behind the school to top our skillet pizzas and picked baby O’odham squash (ha:l ma:mad) from the garden (oidag) to cook up in calabacitas. We’ve heard the story of how the white tepary bean (to:ta bawĭ) formed the Milky Way from a traditional storyteller and learned about O’odham 60-day corn (huñ) from local farmers.

Cooking with 20 to 30 5-8 year olds is no small feat; it requires a lot of planning, a fair amount of pre-class preparation, a willingness to get messy, and a lot of support. As co-service members, we can split the group into a more manageable size to make sure that fingers don’t get too close to cheese graters and that the agave doesn’t end up on the rug rather than in the blender. With two of us, we can monitor multiple smaller groups, so each student has a chance to participate in preparing our recipes.

Today, the recipe is avocado chocolate pudding. Rebecca lifts an avocado in the air in front of our fidgety group and asks if anyone knows what it is. “My mom likes those,” one student pipes up. “I eat that in wock-a-moley,” another exclaims. Julia displays a photo of an agave plant to the students and asks if anyone has seen these growing in the desert around their homes. Agave syrup (a’ud sitol) is a traditional O’odham wild food that also happens to be low on the glycemic index. In early spring, families and neighbors come together to harvest and roast the spiky plants in large pits until their centers become soft, smoky, and sweet.

We break up the students into small groups, assigning measurers, avocado scoopers, agave pourers. At first, they look up at us with wrinkled noses when we tell them that yes, these green avocados are going to make chocolate pudding. But the excitement of getting to watch the ingredients transform in the blender quickly overpowers any lingering reservations. They notice the contrast between the bright green of the avocado and the dusty brown cocoa before it swirls into an exact look-alike of the chocolate puddings lining the grocery store shelves. Though the kids feel like they’re getting away with a special treat, the avocados in this recipe are full of protein and healthy omega-3 fatty acids--making this a fantastic alternative to processed puddings as an afterschool snack.

When we serve it up, the response is that the pudding is “better than pudding cups!” It gets a “one thousand!” on a scale of one to five. As class ends, students line up with chocolate-stained mouths and outstretched hands, asking for extra recipes to bring to aunts and uncles, grandparents and siblings.

AVOCADO AND AGAVE CHOCOLATE PUDDING

Ingredients: 2 ripe avocados ½ cup cocoa powder 2  tsp vanilla extract ½ cup agave syrup ½ cup coconut milk bananas or other fruit for dipping

1.   Chop the avocado into a few medium-sized pieces and put it in a food processor or heavy-duty blender.

2.   Add the cocoa powder, vanilla, agave syrup and coconut milk to the food processor and blend on high for about thirty seconds, or until pudding reaches desired consistency.

3.   Taste the pudding to see if you want to make any adjustments. If you want it sweeter or more chocolatey, you might want to adjust the measurements to your preference.

4. Serve with cut fruit for dipping!

Makes 6 servings.

Interested in being a FoodCorps service member? Applications for next year are open now through March 30th, 2014.