Navajo casino serves up traditional frybread

By Alysa Landry
Hogback, New Mexico (AP) December 2010

Employees of Flowing Water Navajo Casino call her "Champion Frybread Maker." But Helen Moore, 70, has gone by many other names.

Moore, of Farmington, retired from both the Bureau of Indian Education and the United States Postal Service.

She also worked for eight years as a bilingual teacher at McCormick Elementary School in Farmington and did seasonal work at Navajo Agricultural Products Industry before taking a job at the second gaming facility to open on the Navajo Nation.

"I kept saying when I retire I want to work at a casino," Moore said. "And here I am."

Flowing Water Navajo Casino opened to the public last month. It employs 62 full-time workers, including two frybread chefs.

Moore spends eight hours per day doing something she learned six decades ago. It's also the last thing she pictured herself doing for a living.

"Ever since I was small I have been doing this," she said last week while mixing Bluebird flour with warm water in a heavy metal bowl. "I was the oldest in my family, and my dad was at war, so I made frybread for my brothers and sisters. Then I taught my daughter and son so they would know how to do it."

Dressed in an orange company shirt and traditional turquoise necklace and earrings, Moore measured the ingredients by sight and experience rather than with cups or spoons into a bowl while standing in the small kitchen off the casino's food court.

"This is who we are and what we do," she said, her fingers sticky with dough. Although Moore was referring to the frybread, a Navajo tradition stemming from the four years the people were in captivity during the Long Walk, she could say the same thing about the blossoming gaming business.

The casino, open from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m., seven days per week, serves a steady stream of patrons. Located next to the Hogback Chapter House and visible from U.S. 64, the casino houses 120 gaming machines in its 11,000-square-foot interior.

The constant tinny shifting of slot machines, the amusement park jingles and shimmering lights that promise big winnings provide the soundtrack to which Moore works. The juxtaposition of traditional and modern American Indian culture is not lost on the frybread chefs.

"We sell about 400 servings of frybread per day," said Alzado Gorman, acting food and beverage supervisor at Flowing Water Navajo Casino. More than half of those servings are sold with mutton stew, another staple in the traditional Navajo diet.

"We make frybread constantly," Gorman said. "That's what everyone wants."

Much of the casino clientele is American Indian, Gorman said. That's a given, considering the casino's location about five miles east of Shiprock in an isolated place near the hills in Hogback.

Other patrons wander off the main highway and travel the short, bottle-necked dirt road to the casino.

"Frybread goes with the stew," Gorman said. "We have a mostly Navajo clientele coming in, and this is what they are looking for."

That's fine for Moore, who makes an average of five batches of frybread dough per day. Each batch produces about 250 pieces of bread, and while she waits for the dough to rise, Moore responds to the near-constant demand from customers calling, "One frybread, please," over the counter.

Moore sells them for $1.04 each.

"It's our best seller," she said. "When we first opened, we were going at it left and right. We went through so many thousands we were running out of flour."

Demand decreased slightly after the initial rush, Moore said, but she still can work her way through three or four 20-pound bags of flour in a day.

The process of making frybread is deeper than clocking in for work every morning, however, Moore said.

"A lot of it is your mood," she said while stretching a ball of dough in preparation of dropping it into the deep fryer. "If you're angry or upset, the dough will not cooperate. If you come to work frustrated, the dough won't come out good. It's best if you're in a good mood. The dough will be soft."

Though working hand-in-hand to produce jobs and revenue in Hogback, casinos and frybread share an unappetizing history.

The Navajo people began making frybread when they were forced off their sacred land in the Four Corners in 1863 and were rationed government supplies of flour, salt, baking powder, lard and water.

Casinos also can be considered a response to the dictations of the dominant culture.

Indian gaming, which has gained momentum over the last two decades, began as a way to "preserve the general welfare of tribes striving for self-sufficiency through gaming enterprises in Indian Country," according to a statement released by the National Indian Gaming Association.

The association also seeks to maintain and protect sovereign governmental authority in Indian Country.

For Moore, however, her job at the casino is more about satisfying appetites as she serves up sizzling golden-brown frybread.

"It's all I do all day long," Moore said. "It's what I do."