Food is the engine that drives a narrative of generational and cultural divides in "The Frybread Queen," Native American playwright, novelist and poet Carolyn Dunn's latest work.
That food is Native American frybread, and the divide is over how best to make it.
At the center of the story is a man who has committed suicide. His mother, sister, wife and daughter gather to prepare frybread and other food for his funeral and try to decipher what caused him to take his life.
"Frybread is the metaphor for the clash of cultures in the play," said Dunn, who traces her heritage to the Cherokee, Creek and Choctaw tribes from what is now Oklahoma, Mississippi and Louisiana.
But the story takes place in Navajo country, and two of the characters are Navajo — a mother and sister. The two other women in the play — a wife and daughter — are Creek and Cherokee. The fault lines between their tribal backgrounds and generations are exposed as they clash over how to make the Native American comfort food.
The preparation of the frybread and the funeral give the play its time structure, but Dunn said she also included what she calls "frybread monologues," moments outside of the narrative where each of the women plead their cases for their recipes. Making the case for the recipe is a figurative way of pleading their personalities, their perspectives on how to make food, but also how to live life, Dunn said.
There is a bit of a mythology about frybread's origins. One of the theories is that frybread came about when the government began subsidizing Native American tribes with commodities like flour and powdered milk. "A lot of times it wasn't always the best," Dunn said. "Flour that had been sitting around for a while so it had a lot of bugs. The best way to kill the bugs was just to fry it up."
And while frybread has become a staple at Native American family gatherings and celebrations like Pow-Wows, Dunn said the food also has a dark side. It is wildly unhealthy to eat on a daily basis and serves as a reminder of the ugly history and perils of colonization by the U.S. government.
Nevertheless, Dunn says frybread is delicious. She has vivid memories of watching the elder women in her family making it and making it herself over an open fire in 110 degree heat near the Klamath River in Northern California. Of course, you can make it in your own kitchen and playwright Carolyn Dunn is kind enough to share her basic recipe with us.
But caution, she says, no measuring cups allowed. You just have to feel it.
Dunn's play, "The Frybread Queen," world premiers March 12 at the Autry National Center in Griffith Park and runs through March 27.
2 parts self rising flour
1 part powdered milk
Handful of salt
Mix the flour, milk and salt with warm water until smooth. Knead for awhile, then break apart into balls. Let rise in a warm spot for about an hour. When they've started to settle and flatten, fry in hot oil until golden brown on both sides. Serve hot as an Indian taco with cheese, chili beans, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, salsa and green chiles. Or drizzle with honey or cinnamon and powders sugar, and serve as a dessert.
Photos of the play are courtesy of Terry Cyr and were taken during its 2010 developmental production at the Masquer Theatre in Missoula, Montana and co-produced by Native Voices at the Autry and Montana Repertory Theatre.