Preserving Traditional Crops: The Tohono O’odham I’itoi Onion
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 seasons.
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 O’odham tepary 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 garlic cloves.
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 onions.
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 farmingpractices 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 bulbs.”
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 Scones
Courtesy Tohono Chul Park
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon ground pepper
3 large I’itoi onion green tops (chopped)
4 ounces chilled soft goat cheese
1 large egg
1/3 cup chilled whole milk or half and half
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).