Dreaming of 'ach'íí'
Meat market keeps serving the delicacies dearest to Diné hearts - and stomachs
By Marley Shebala
(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)
Sweetmeat Inc. is one of those reservation border-town businesses that deserve to be declared a Navajo Nation treasure.
The No. 1 reason could be its little-known battle with the New Mexico Livestock Inspection Board and U.S. Department of Agriculture to keep producing 'ach'íí'.
(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)
The Navajo delicacy is in such demand the company has a hard time keeping it on the shelf, but it is not considered food under federal meat inspection guidelines.
The No. 2 reason is the company's single-minded commitment to producing the meat most prized by its mainly Navajo customers - mutton.
R.G. "Squeak" Hunt Jr., Sweetmeat owner, said along with Navajos, his customers include Zunis, the Rio Grande Pueblos, and Apaches. Utes also drive in from southern Colorado.
Hunt, a tall man with a cowboy drawl, added, "We're getting quite a large group (of people) from the Middle East, Bavaria and Poland." The meat market specializes in fresh and roast mutton, cut to suit Navajo tastes. It also sells sheep liver, heart, and two varieties of 'ach'íí'.
His wife Carla, who is as talkative as her husband, added that some of their 'ach'íí' customers include Asian and East Indian doctors who work at the Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock.
She whipped out several rolls of their product and discussed the subtleties of making 'ach'íí'. Using a very sharp knife, she cut off a roll while explaining that one roll consists of a length of small intestine wrapped 25 times around a section of colon.
This is the old-fashioned variety of 'ach'íí', preferred by the older generation of Navajos because it's "chewy and there's more texture," Carla said.
History in a name
"Sweetmeat" is a name sometimes given to select parts of an animal's innards, but this had nothing to do with the Hunts' choice of a name for their enterprise, Squeak said.
The company name is based on a Navajo term for something that is particularly good - "likan" (it is sweet).
Squeak recalls hearing elders especially use the term when they once again were able to eat mutton after years of going without following the herd reductions of the early 20th Century.
The Navajo name for his store, written over the door, has nothing to do with its English name, though. Squeak, who speaks Navajo, said his customers call it Tsé yaa ak aha', which means "Grease under the rock." Carla pointed to another pile of freshly cleaned intestines, glistening on a large aluminum cookie pan, and said it would be used to make another variety of 'ach'íí', made with small intestines wrapped around stomach fat instead of colon.
She noted that 'ach'íí' made with stomach fat gets "real crunchy" when it's cooked, and said they added this variety to their line in order to supply the growing demand from their customers.
One sheep yields about 25 rolls of 'ach'íí', and Squeak estimated they go through about 1,000 sheep a month. He, his son R.G. "Skeeter" Hunt III, and three other workers butcher sheep three times a week.
When asked what the initials R.G. stand for, Squeak solemnly said, "Real good-looking." Carla rolled her eyes, saying, "Raymond George."
R.G. "Slim" Hunt Sr., Squeak's father, established the business in 1958 in the same low-slung cinderblock building it still occupies along U.S. 64. It's hard to miss because there's an old-fashioned wooden wagon, painted green, sitting atop the roof.
Squeak pointed to the back where the original slaughterhouse still stands, renovated over the years to meet modern food safety standards. Its stainless steel interior is much easier to clean, he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave Sweetmeat a higher rating than the University of New Mexico's scientific laboratory, he said, but "those federal inspectors still don't understand culture." In a separate interview, Scott Bender, a Navajo Nation veterinarian stationed at Chinle, said that when the New Mexico Livestock Board turned over meat inspection to federal authorities in mid-August, the feds tried to shut down Sweetmeat because federal regulations listed sheep intestines as a "non-food" item.
"They were unfamiliar with 'ach'íí'," Bender said.
It was a real struggle to persuade the USDA to allow them to continue producing and selling 'ach'íí', despite its similarity to sausage, Squeak said.
Carla shook her head in disgust, still amazed the federal agency was so dense, noting that Navajos aren't the only people who relish sheep intestines - Hispanic people also eat 'ach'íí', which they call "burnita." The Hunts filed a written appeal of the USDA order, and the agency relented and allowed the 'ach'íí' production to continue.
Squeak said he's also requested the USDA to allow Sweetmeat to expand its product line and sell the stomach, blood and head from the sheep they slaughter.
The stomach and blood are in demand by Navajo customers who use these parts to make blood sausage, he said, and many Navajos enjoy slow- roasted sheep's head.
Squeak said he buys sheep from all over the reservation but the demand for Sweetmeat's mutton is so high that he buys sheep by the truckload from Utah, Idaho, California and Texas.
Squeak noted that they get a lot of business during the Navajo Nation campaign season, fairs and when schools celebrate Native American week or graduations.
He took down a framed 2006 certificate of appreciation from the Navajo Nation's Department of Fish and Wildlife for their support of the annual youth hunt.
Sweetmeat has been a major sponsor since the agency started its youth hunt, and converted a horse trailer into a portable refrigeration unit to hold the carcasses of any deer the kids bring down, said Gloria Tom, Fish and Wildlife director.
Each year Squeak hauls the trailer up the rugged dirt road to a campsite in the Carrizo Mountains, where the hunt takes place, and praises the young hunters for their efforts.
Then he hauls the carcasses back to his store to hang and process. A week later, the child can pick up his or her meat, which Sweetmeat has cut, packaged and frozen free of charge.
As the couple looked over several freshly butchered sheep carcasses that were hanging in their meat locker, Squeak wondered aloud about the changing Navajo lifestyle that he's witnessed in his 56 years.
It seems like people aren't herding as many sheep and that means they're not butchering as much as they used to, he said.
He said he'll often hear his Navajo customers, usually the elders, tell their grandchildren that they used to have that kind of sheep or that color of sheep.
Squeak said he usually gives the wool to elderly Navajo women if they ask him because he knows they'll use it to weave rugs.
Sweetmeat has always been and will be a family business, but the Hunts like to think it also helps to keep a part of Navajo life alive that is connected to sheep.
Over the doorway to Sweetmeat is a hand-painted sign: "WHOA! Mutton
Next year the company will celebrate 50 years.
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