Chef Renetto-Mario Etsitty of Tertio Winebar on Slow Food and His First Friday Banquets
Lauren Saria Chef Renetto-Mario Etsitty of Tertio
3508 N. 7th Street
This is part one of our interview with Renetto-Mario Etsitty, chef at Tertio Wine Bar in Phoenix. Today, he dishes on the history of Navajo Kneel Down bread and the semi-secret First Friday feasts he's been serving for the past five years. Don't forget to come back Tuesday for part two when he tells us his favorite place for late-night dining and where you can view his art (that's right, he's also an artist with a fine arts degree from ASU), right now.
Last week, Etsitty prepared a special menu for a not-so-run-of-the-mill wine dinner at Tertio, the boozy, after-hours persona of the Seventh Street coffee shop Urban Beans. The day before the event, he wasn't crafting handmade pasta or charcuterie -- instead, you could have found him delicately folding spoonfuls of ground corn into fresh green corn husks. Each green bundle was placed into the oven to become Kneel Down Corn Bread, a Navajo version of a fresh corn tamale. When we stopped in, the smell of sweet roasted corn seeped from the husks as he peeled one open to reveal a golden brown bread. In this case, it would be served hot and fresh with dinner, but Etsitty explained that it could also be preserved though the winter and eaten, once it hardened, with coffee -- similar to Italian biscotti.
The name, Etsitty explains, references how Navajo women used to have to kneel down to grind the corn on a metate, or meal stone, and to the fact that the artfully folded corn husks resemble kneeling dolls. It's not a dish he learned to cook from a book, or in culinary school or class, but from his family while he was growing up on a Navajo reservation in northwest Arizona.
If you are lucky enough to get Etsitty talking -- he's a pretty soft-spoken guy -- about Navajo cuisine, know that you're in for quite a history lesson. The best part about it, though, is that he's not preaching about days gone by. This guy has plenty of stories to share from his childhood that help outsiders understand the importance of and relationship with food in his culture.
For example, he might tell you about gathering corn, squash, and tumbleweeds to eat. All "locally" grown, because they grew on his family's farm or came directly from nature. He might also tell you about hunting and slaughtering his own meat. To him, the Slow Food Movement isn't so much "slow," but the ways things should always be.
"A lot of these things are coming back," he say. "But that's just how I grew up."
Lauren Saria Kneel Down bread in the husk