Birds sing and cedar smoke fills the air. From afar you can hear the chatter and laughter of Pueblo women as they bake their weekly supply of bread and other foods in an outdoor earth oven called an horno and carry on a tradition passed down through generations of Pueblo bakers.
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish in Pueblo territory in 1540, corn was a staple crop. Men and women planted the corn near their villages, harvesting it in the fall. After it was harvested, the women ground the kernels into corn flour, which they used for baking bread indoors. They made piki bread from finely ground blue corn and lime, which was smoothed out onto a flat, hot rock to cook. They also made corn tortillas from ground-up yellow corn that was mixed with water, flattened into a round shape, and also cooked on a flat, hot rock. Pueblo people still eat piki bread and corn tortillas today, although they are now prepared using modern cooking equipment.
In the old days, Pueblo women sometimes also baked bread outdoors in a cooking pit – a hole dug in the ground about a foot wide and a foot deep, with a vent on the side. The floor of this pit was plastered over with clay (and re-plastered after each use). To use the cooking pit, they first built a fire, using cedar or pinon wood. They let the fire burn for several hours, and then removed the cedar and ash. Then they quickly placed the bread on a layer of damp cornhusks. To keep heat inside the cooking pit during the baking or cooking time, they used a flat stone as a cornerstone.
You can still see similar cooking pits being used for baking and cooking in some Pueblo villages and other communities throughout New Mexico today.
The Spanish brought wheat with them when they came to Pueblo had never seen before, and had to be taught how to use. Pueblo men learned how to plant and harvest wheat in their fields, along with their vegetables. Once the wheat was harvested, Pueblo women learned new ways of preparing it for baking. Bread was the first food that Pueblo women made from wheat. But now, instead of baking their bread in a cooking pit, the women were taught how to build and use an above-ground horno, or beehive-shaped outdoor oven.
The construction of Pueblo hornos is much the same today as it was in early times. Individual Pueblo villages, as well as individual families, have their own unique style of constructing a horno. Some use sandstone that is cut into brick size; others use lava rocks of varied sizes and shaped; and still others use adobe bricks made out of a mixture of straw, clay, and sand. The floors of hornos are constructed by laying two layers of brick on the ground, in a circle. The middle area is left empty, to be filled in later with smaller pieces of rock. Forming the wall and roof of the oven requires expert placement of each brick and stone. Each piece is placed one at a time on the top edge of the floor; mortar is added; and the horno is then molded into a beehive shape. A 1’x1’ doorway is left open at the bottom, as is a small vent near the top. The inside floor and outside of the oven are then covered by layers of adobe plaster. With annual re-plastering, hornos last for years.
Hornos are passed on for generations in Pueblo families. New ones are built when a new family requests one, or when it has been damaged. Some families build hornos that vary in size according to whether they need them for family use or for community activities.
How to Use a Horno
Depending on what the bread baking is for, family use or for an activity within the village, Pueblo women would be very busy making dough the day before the actual baking. Bread loaves are placed in pie pans or on cookie sheets and covered. These loaves of bread that are going to be baked can number from four to forty.
On the morning of the bread baking, gather cedar wood for the fire. Build the fire inside the horno, and monitor it so that it lasts for at least 45 minutes to 1 ½ hours. Allow the fire to die down, and use a shovel to remove the charcoal and a damp mop to sweep out the ash. Test the oven temperature (Pueblo women often used a quarter-sheet of newspaper or cornhusk). If it burns up quickly, use the damp mop again to cool down the inside floor, or leave it alone so that heat can escape on its own.
When the temperature is right, place each loaf of bread inside, beginning from back to front. Once all of the bread loaves are inside, cover the doorway with a homemade door or a sheet of galvanized steel. (In the old days, Pueblo women used to seal the doorway with adobe and rock each time they baked). Look and feel for any escaping heat, and cover leaking areas with a damp burlap sack.
After 30 minutes to 1 hour later, remove the door cover and carefully take out the baked goods. Bread is one of the many different food items that can be baked inside an outdoor oven. Cookies, corn for stew, meat, corn pudding and chile are other mouth watering examples of what can be baked in a horno.
Oven Bread Recipe
1 package dry yeast
Dissolve yeast in ¼ cup of warm water. Mix and set aside. Mix shortening, honey or sugar and salt in large bowl. Add 1 cup very warm water, and stir well. When mixture cools to room temperature, mix well with the yeast mixture. Add 4 cups of flour, stirring well after each cup. Knead dough on a floured surface until it is smoothed or softened (about 15 minutes). Place dough in large bowl; cover with cloth; and put in warm place until dough doubles in size. Knead again. Divide dough into two equal parts. Shape each into loaves or rounds. Place the loaves on a well-greased cookie sheet, cover with cloth and allow to rise in a warm place. Place loaves in a preheated 400-degree oven and bake until lightly browned (about 1 hour). Use oven’s middle rack and place a shallow pan of water on the bottom of the oven.
This recipe yields 2 loaves of sweet smelling oven bread. Enjoy it with a bowl of green chile stew or with butter.
An Enduring Tradition
For centuries Pueblo women and men have made bread, a main diet staple for their families. In the beginning, bread was cooked on a flat slab of rock and then baking was done in a dugout oven. With the arrival of the Spanish, baking bread changed with the introduction of wheat grain. Bread baking was done in a beehive shaped above ground oven called horno. Cooking methods may have changed, but the feeding of one’s family has not. The proud tradition of baking bread in a horno, is still passed on from one generation to another.