to today's shallot, these traditional crops are tasty in salsa and
Tohono O'odham I'itoi onion is a dividing multiplier that
loves a dry climate. (photo by Lee Allen)
The subject matter in this story is enough to make you cry. We're
talking traditional crops, but not just any traditional crop, we're
talking onions, Tohono O'odham tribal onions that flourish in the
dry Sonoran desert of Southern Arizona where they go dormant through
the arid months, but come alive in both summer and winter rainy
There are two origin stories, the standard line being that the
I'itoi onion came from some bunching or multiplying onions brought
to the New World by missionaries from Spain in 1699 and traded for
beans. This precursor to the cultivated shallots grown today
got its name from the creator deity of the desert people.
"According to legend," said regional farmer and agricultural
consultant Bob Sotomayor (Yaqui), "One day, I'itoi (Creator of the
O'odham) gathered his people and gave them onions as a gift to be
planted and shared with all."
Regardless of historical background, the I'itoi was made for
desert cultivation because of its love of a dry climate. It's a
fast-dividing multiplier that grows a shallot or chive-like top
to go with the bulb bottom that has a peppery bite.
Bulbs are multipliers (Allium cepa), which means they propagate
themselves by division underground rather than from top-setting
bulbils. Mature bulbs are relatively small, about the size of hefty
The largest year-round producer of I'itoi onions in the state
is Crooked Sky Farms,
organic, non-GMO growers on 400-plus acres at several sites around
the metro Phoenix area that last year produced over two million
Owner Frank Martin (Cherokee) came from a family where his migrant
farmworker father had instilled the tradition of using heirloom
seeds, caring for the soil, rotating crops and other sustainable
farming practices as part of stewardship of the land.
Martin's onion patch began a decade or so ago when a friend
discovered a handful of desiccated and shriveled onion bulbs. "Four
looked promising, so I planted them and one became two, two became
four, and today I have millions. As long as you stick some back
in the ground when you harvest, you'll have onions for the rest
of your life."
On the Tohono O'odham San
Xavier Co-op Farm outside Tucson, Native growers continue to
grow this traditional crop on 850-acres farmed by more than 1,000
tribal plot owners.
Sotomayor, who offers agronomy and horticultural advice there,
said: "If you store the bulbs in a cool, dry place, at the proper
time, they'll begin to sprout small green shoots, a signal that
it's planting time. If you plant a small clump, say a 2-inch bunch,
it will quadruple in size in short order, especially if you plant
in well-cared-for fertile soil as they're heavy feeders like all
members of the onion family.
"If your soil is good and you furnish the water they need, you'll
get green shoots in excess of a foot and a half tall. While you
can eat both the bulbs and the greens, don't eat all the greenery
because the photosynthesis process needs the shoots to make the
consultant Bob Sotomayor says the Tohono O'odham I'itoi onion
is "the precursor to the cultivated shallots grown today."
(photo by Lee Allen)
While it may be a tedious process to peel the fully-matured
bulbs, Sotomayor said it's worth the effort for the mild, sweet,
aromatic quality that goes well in salsa and a number
of other recipes.
The Tohono O'odham San Xavier Co-op Farm maintains a specific
plot for I'itoi onions to preserve that particular traditional food.
"Smart idea," Sotomayor said. "Regular green onions are grown from
seed, which can be expensive. And at some point, somebody will probably
say, 'let's go GMO' with the onions found on grocery store shelves.
Because the I'itoi has no seeds to go GMO, it will remain a traditional
crop as other tribes begin to adopt it as their common garden onion."
I'itoi Onion and Goat Cheese
Courtesy Tohono Chul Park
|2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
||3 large I'itoi onion green tops (chopped)
|1 tablespoon baking powder
||4 ounces chilled soft goat cheese
|1 teaspoon baking soda
||1 large egg
|1 teaspoon sea salt
||1/3 cup chilled whole milk or half and half
|½ teaspoon ground pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, and sea salt in large
bowl. Add onions and cheese. Beat the egg and milk in a smaller
bowl and stir the mixture into the dry ingredients, mixing gently
until dough forms. Knead the dough until firm, then divide it in
half. On a lightly floured surface, flatten pieces into ¾-inch
thick rounds, then cut each round into six wedges. Bake scones until
the tops are golden (about 25 minutes).
Xavier Co-op Farm
The story of the farm, as with all life, begins with water. The
Santa Cruz River is the life blood of the people who settled in
this valley thousands of years ago. Agriculture and working with
the seasons of the river has been the way people have flourished
here for so many generations.