When Bill Steen and I wandered down from Nogales to southern Sonora, we spotted piles of the oldest “pumpkins” in the Sonoran Desert, the green-striped cushaw squash and big cheese pumpkin. They don’t exactly look like classic Jack-o-Lanterns, but their flavors are good and their uses many. The former, what Sonorans call calabaza de las aguas, is often crook-necked like a heron or egret, striped with lime greens, creamy whites, yellows and oranges, and has a stem on its end that looks all the world like an over-sized cork. The latter, which they call segualca, is a squat, deeply ribbed oval with dark orange-red flesh. But there is another native term associated with these squashes that reminded Bill and me of an entire realm of local self-sufficiency in the Sonoran Desert that is all but forgotten today.
Fortunately for our region, there are young Sonoran women and men who still practice the tradition of “putting up squash” for use in later seasons. Minerva Perez Banda of La Higuera, Sonora, is one of the young women who still keeps this old way alive, as well as the lexicon that goes with the practice. Bichicori—the term for a special sort of sun-dried squash—is part of her lexicon, and it echoes a more rural and artisanal past in our binational region. This folk name came into Spanish and English from the Yaqui, or Yoeme, language, and yet it was in such widespread use in Sonoran Desert communities at one time that few think of it as “Indian” at all today.
Among Sonorans, bichi means naked, stripped-down, or skinned out. Cori is related to an ancient term for woven, plaited, or twined utensils, such as utilitarian baskets called caritas, made from Sonoran palm fronds. But bichicoris are made from a skillful “untwining” or braiding apart of the flesh of a winter squash. A skilled butcher or apple corer can take a paring knife with a sturdy handle and dissemble an entire squash into a long string of loopy curlicues that are then hung from a clothesline or bobwire fence to dry in the sun. Another Sonoran term for the same sun-dried vegetable is tasajo de calabazas, which was recorded in the Sonoran language called Nevome as soicpigui in 1720. There is even an ancient Sonoran verb for the art or act of preparing squash as sun-dried curlicues, ictuburhida.
We met Minerva by accident, in the little rancheria of La Higuera. Bandas was born in the very same adobe building that now serves as her kitchen. When I first ventured into Sonora as a 19-year-old, bichicoris were everywhere in the fall, looped over clotheslines in the backyards of campesinos along with socks, panties, and other kinds of chonis. The goal was to “fabricate” or break down the abundance of recently harvested squash so that it could be dehydrated or sun-dried for later use in empanadas, caldos, cazuelas, and sopas. I also saw these curlicues hanging around O’odham rancherias in southern Arizona in the 1970s. In short, making bichicoris was a common cultural practice all across the Sonoran Desert for centuries.
Making bichicoris is parallel to the old country tradition found among Southern agrarians in the United States called “putting food by.” Our predecessors here in the Sonoran Desert had numerous means for storing diverse vegetables, fruits, greens, and grains between seasons. They buried them in deep pits in the sand, sort-of makeshift cold cellars. They dried them on top of ramadas and stitched them together into strings of sartas and ristras hung besides doorways.
And so, they were locally food self-sufficient in ways that perhaps we will never know again during our lifetimes, and they were proud of it. They realized that bichicoris and sartas of chile colorado are not only good to eat but also good to behold as forms of beauty. They even selected their varieties of squashes and apples and watermelons to last over the winter, thus the common heirloom names like Winter Banana or Winter Squash. They referred collectively to such fruits and vegetables as “good keepers,” subtly invoking a value that grocery stores full of frozen foods from who-knows-where have almost driven from our region.
But if anything has the remote possibility of bringing such values and delectable flavors back into our communities, it is relocalizing our foodshed. Food re-localization is not merely about “going out;” it is also about “coming home,” “putting food up,” and making sweet bichicoris with one another on a warm winter day.
When I die, I hope that someone will be kind enough to link my life to that ancient value which once permeated the Sonoran Desert, and put as my epitaph “All he wanted to be was a good keeper.” ✜