Once Upon a Time in the West / Recipe: Crispy Roast Lamb with Navajo Frybread
by Aaron Schuman
This essay was originally published in Hungry Still (published by Slideluck London / QUAD, 2014)
In 1993, when I was fifteen years old, I traveled with a teacher of mine to the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona, to visit her mother – the Navajo elder, matriarch and Native American rights activist, Roberta Blackgoat. The trip was sponsored by a grant that my teacher had received – intended to give several students a first-hand experience of Navajo culture – and as part of it, I was required to produce a formal project whilst there; I proposed making a photographic essay. This was the first time that I consciously expressed an interest for photography, the first time that I genuinely took it seriously, and the first time that I began to discover both the potential and power of the medium.
Before the journey, my teacher insisted that I couldn’t use an automatic point-and-shoot; she loaned me her Nikon F2 and its instruction book, and told me to teach myself how to use a manual camera. Furthermore, she explained that the relationship between photography and Native American culture was a long and very complicated one, and that I should look into its history before we traveled. For weeks, I poured over pictures in the library – by Edward Curtis, Timothy O’Sullivan, Paul Strand, and more – trying to get my head around both what they literally showed, and what they ultimately represented.
During the visit itself, my primary duty was to help with Blackgoat’s flock of Navajo-Churro sheep – a breed that was introduced to North America in the sixteenth century during the Spanish Conquest, acquired by the Navajo through trading with the Spanish soldiers and settlers, and subsequently the foundations of the Navajo economy and culture during the centuries that followed. In the mornings, I chased young lambs around the pen, separated them from their mothers, and then spent the rest of the day herding the adult flock through the pungent scrublands and dried out gullies of the high desert to the nearest watering hole, nine miles away. At night, I slept in the spare room (the rough stone house only had two rooms), which doubled as cold storage, where the meat and fleeces of recently butchered sheep were hung to dry.
Fifteen years later, as I wandered through the Almerian desert of southern Spain in search of the remnants of Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti Western” film sets, the smell of sagebrush in the air, the hot sun burning the back of my neck, and the feel of the cracked and dusty dry earth beneath my feet momentarily transported back to my time in the Navajo Nation. For me, the following meal subtly evokes my own personal experiences in both the American southwest and southern Spain, and also represents the underlying story of what really occurred “once upon a time in the west”.
The roast mutton/lamb recipe simulates the aromas, textures and flavours of the meat I ate (and slept beside) from Roberta Blackgoat’s treasured flock; but it is in fact an adaptation of one that my father often cooked when I was a child, and derives from an employee meal made of butcher’s scraps that he was given whilst working in the kitchen of a Philadelphia hotel as a teenager. Additionally, it should be noted that Navajo Frybread historically originated during “The Long Walk” of 1864, when the United States deported the Navajo from their homelands, and marched the entire tribe four hundred and fifty miles at gunpoint, into a barren internment camp that couldn't support their traditional staples of beans and vegetables. To prevent the indigenous people from starving, the U.S. government gave them canned goods, as well as white flour, salt, baking powder and lard - the ingredients of frybread. Nevertheless, it is estimated that more than two hundred people died during the journey, and hundreds more died in the camp itself. Today, frybread is regarded by the Navajo as an important symbol of this history, hardship and struggle, and provides an integral link between present generations and those of the past.
Crispy Roast Mutton (or Lamb)
- ½ lb – 1lb. Mutton or Stewing Lamb on Bone (per person), chopped into pieces
- 1 tablespoon of Vegetable Oil
- 1 pinch of Salt
- 3 cloves of Garlic
- 1 sprig of Rosemary
- 2 pinches of Marjoram (or Oregano)
Preheat oven to 350-400F / 180-200C / Gas Mark 5 or 6. Cut the mutton/lamb into smallish pieces (1-2 inch squares), leaving it on the bone. Put the mutton/lamb pieces into a roasting pan of appropriate size – not too crowded, not too roomy – drizzle with oil, and place in oven. Crush the whole garlic cloves. After 20 minutes, remove the mutton/lamb from the oven, and add the crushed garlic and sprig of rosemary to the pan. Sprinkle salt and marjoram (or oregano) over the lamb (I prefer marjoram; when it’s mixed with the rosemary, it mimics the aroma of sagebrush on the high desert pretty well…but oregano works too). Return the pan to the oven for another 10-20 minutes, until the edges of the lamb are crispy, yet the meat inside is still succulent. (This dish should be eaten with one’s fingers, so get some napkins ready as well.)
- 2 cups - Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
- 1 tablespoon - Baking Powder
- 1 teaspoon - Salt
- 1 cup - Warm Water
- Corn or Vegetable Oil
- Extra flour (for rolling dough)
Thoroughly blend the flour, baking powder and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the water, and work the flour into it, forming a sticky dough. Gently knead the dough into a large ball, place it in the bottom of the bowl, cover it with a damp kitchen cloth, and place it somewhere warmish (room temperature is fine) to rest for 30 minutes. Put the extra flour in a shallow pan, and lay some paper towels on a kitchen surface. Heat the oil in a cast-iron skillet or heavy frying pan – the oil should be at least 1-inch deep and very hot (the dough should bubble and immediately float to the surface when it is placed in the oil). Once the dough has rested, pull out enough for a small ball (about the size of a golf ball), dust and roll it in the extra flour until it begins to lose its stickiness, and then stretch and form it into a thin, flat disc (it doesn’t have to be too even in width, or perfectly circular). Poke a hole in the centre of the disc, and quickly lay it in the hot oil. Cook it until it becomes golden (not brown) on one side, then flip it over, and cook until golden on the other side (approximately 1 minute on each side). Remove the bread from the pan, and place on the paper-towels to absorb the excess oil. It should be dry, golden and crunchy on the outside, and warm and moist on the inside. Continue this process until all the dough has been made into flat frybreads. Place one frybread on a plate with several pieces mutton/lamb, and dig in!