Ariz. Cafe Makes Healthy Fare For Native Americans

The Desert Rain Cafe in Sells, Ariz., has been open for two months. During that time, the café, which is run by the Tohono O'Odham Nation, has already reached one of its owner's goals: to bring back local culture and help slow a health epidemic by serving tasty food.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

We're going to take a trip now to a one-of-a-kind cafe. It's in southern Arizona, on Indian land. The cafe's only been open for two months, but it's already reaching its owner's goals to bring back local culture and help slow an epidemic - all while serving tasty food.

NPR's Ted Robbins paid the cafe a visit.

TED ROBBINS: The Desert Rain Cafe is in the only shopping center next to the only supermarket in Sells, Arizona, capital of the Tohono O'Odham Nation. The most popular item on the menu: a stew of beef short ribs and dense, white lentil-size tepary beans. It's Tohono O'Odham comfort food, and as she eats it, Marie Preston utters some of the sweetest words a cook could hear.

Ms. MARIE PRESTON: It reminds me of my grandma. It's good. It's good. It reminds me of her cooking.

ROBBINS: Back in the kitchen, cooking grandma's food is unfamiliar territory for Annette Garcia.

Ms. ANNETTE GARCIA (Cook, Desert Rain Cafe): This is new to me. Yes. I was working at other restaurants, but nothing like this. Nothing similar. My own traditional foods, I have never touched.

ROBBINS: For many decades, federal policy was to assimilate the O'Odham into the rest of society. That included subsidizing non-native foods like white flour and lard. The result: between half and three-quarters of the tribe has been diagnosed with diabetes. And along with the loss of health came a loss of culture. O'Odham culture is in agriculture, so ceremonies and stories - how the stars were created, for instance - center around traditional food.

Mr. TRISTAN READER (Co-Director, Tohono O'Odham Community Action): And the Milky Way is made out of white tepary beans that coyotes scattered into the sky.

ROBBINS: Tristan Reader is co-director of TOCA: Tohono O'Odham Community Action. He says in the 1930s, the tribe was growing a million-and-a-half pounds of tepary beans a year. Eight years ago, TOCA couldn't find a hundred pounds. So the group planted a community garden, then a 125-acre farm. Now it's opened the Desert Rain Cafe.

(Soundbite of clanking sound)

Unidentified Woman: I need two side salads.

ROBBINS: The menu is a mix of pure tradition, like the beans and short ribs stew, and modern interpretations like squash enchiladas or a grilled chicken sandwich glazed with prickly pear and chili sauce. Tristan Reader says every recipe has at least one traditional ingredient, all grown in the desert.

Mr. READER: Think of the difference between a regular tomato and a sun-dried tomato. The flavors get concentrated in that sun-dried tomato. Well, these are all crops that develop with very little water, and so the flavors tend to be concentrated.

ROBBINS: Alice Marquez(ph) is the prep cook. She's making a fresh salsa.

Ms. ALICE MARQUEZ (Prep Cook, Desert Rain Cafe): This is made with cholla buds, pineapples, jicima, and the dressing is orange juice with rice vinaigrette and olive oil.

ROBBINS: Cholla buds are harvested from the cholla cactus, one of the thorniest plants in the Sonoran Desert. Cooked, they have the consistency of okra, with lots of fiber and calcium. The buds taste a bit like asparagus with a hint of citrus. Alice Marquez has grown to like the food at the cafe. She used to work at the tribe's casino near Tucson. Until she started working here, she says she had little knowledge of her tribe's ceremonies, and she ate a lot of fried and fatty food.

Ms. MARQUEZ: Pizza, hamburgers, chicken - just, like, basically, anything-with-fat food until I started working here. Now I can't really eat fast food.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARQUEZ: And that's good for me, because I've been losing weight. I lost weight, a lot of weight.

ROBBINS: The Desert Rain Cafe just began staying open for dinner and offering take-home meals. It's not making money yet, but it is beginning to accomplish the goal of bringing back native cuisine to Native Americans.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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