Kevin Noble Maillard, New York Times
Art Coulson, a Cherokee writer based in Minneapolis, took a deep breath before attempting to define Native American fried bread.
“This is similar to what one of the justices of the Supreme Court said about obscenity,” he said. “I cannot define it, but I know it when I see it.”
Fried bread is one of the favorite but divisive family meals. As with potato salad or matzo soup, people can often only agree that everyone else is wrong. In indigenous cultures, toasted bread can cause violent clashes over ingredients and condemning whispers about technique. But it is also the subject of more serious scientific controversy about the dish’s colonial origins and its health implications.
A common history of toasted bread is that, before it became a staple of powwows and family meals, it was a survival food usually dating back to the Navajo (who call themselves dine). In the middle of the 19th century, when the US government forcibly evicted indigenous people from their ancestral lands to remote reserves, long-standing ways of eating changed.
With habitual game, fruits and vegetables out of reach, chefs adapted their diets using what they had: dry, canned, and dry food to government regulations.
“We were deprived of the natural abundance around us,” said Eliza McMullen-Chiotti, a Cherokee culinary specialist at New York University. “We came up with something to share with each other.”
Flour, salt, baking powder, and butter are the main ingredients in most toasted bread recipes, but the shape, taste, and color vary by region, tribe, and family. Ramona Horsfield, a Pawnee citizen and seven-time winner of the Indian National Taco Championship in Pavhaske, Oklahoma, grows pawnee blue corn in her garden and grinds flour using a special recipe for toasted bread. “It makes it sweeter, a little denser,” she said. “All my products are now sold from farm to table.”
Marcy Rendon, award-winning writer and White Land resident Anisinaabe in Minnesota, describes the fried bread she makes as “regular size.” She says she makes it healthier by mixing it with whole grain flour, and sometimes adding milk powder – “everything in the box.”
LeEtta Osborne-Sampson, leader of the Oklahoma Seminole Group, adds sugar to her family recipe, just like her grandmother did.
“She knew how much to invest to make it popular,” she said.
As with many convenience products, preference is determined by reference. Food awakens the senses, awakening memory, and the first sensations of taste and smell begin at home. Ben Jacobs, co-owner of Osage at Tocabe in Denver, knows the restaurant’s fried bread can’t compete with the version his customers grew up on.
“If we are in second place in your book, then we won,” he said. “We’re never going to be fried bread for your mom or aunt because that’s what you are associated with.”
The making of toasted bread is matriarchal in many indigenous families, and fidelity to a particular recipe is deeply associated with the “lady of fried bread” who made it. Jacobs, who adapted his recipe from his grandmother, said: “It gives me that connection, that connection with her that I had as a child.”
“I feel like I’m next to my grandmother because of the work I have to do and toasting bread is part of it,” he said.
When Hope Peshlakai was a child, her grandmother taught her how to cook in her tiny kitchen in Ganado, Arizona, part of the Navajo people. Peshlakai is now a chef in Mesa, Arizona, and keeps his cast iron skillet in the oven in her country home’s spacious, brightly colored kitchen – storage advice from her grandmother.
“I wish the world would meet her,” she sighed. “She taught me how to share myself and share my love through food.”
Years later, when Peshlakai and her husband had just started dating, an armada of his inquisitive aunts first wanted to see her fry bread.
“It’s like you’re planning your wedding,” she said. “Whatever you plan, make sure you know how to bake your bread the right way.”
As she cooks, Ponytail carries with her a piece of her grandmother, whom she called Yuka Effie. She inherited her 125-year-old toasted bread poker, a trident, which was used to turn bread over an open fire at arm’s length. She uses it on special occasions to channel her grandmother’s love of cooking into her own meal.
“I’m using it on my first tester,” she said. “So if things go wrong, I need to adjust myself, my energy and spirit.”
For various tribal communities, toasted bread is a meta comfort food that is more than the food itself. Many metaphors for bread demonstrate its universal appeal to society and survival. This is the bread of life, broken bread and dough for earning.
“We have not abandoned our culture,” said Osborne-Sampson. “We value this very much, even to the fried bread.”
Indigenous activists see it differently. Fried bread is neither a culture nor a tradition, as “fried bread can be made any season of the year with items purchased from Dollar General,” as Professor Devon A. Michesua writes in the journal Native American Studies. Citing the problems of diabetes, hypertension and obesity in indigenous communities, food sovereignty advocates are seeking to decolonize indigenous diets by eliminating the fatty and nutritious taste of toasted bread. From this point of view, toasted bread is the complete opposite of the vitality of indigenous peoples.
What to do out of this impasse with a beloved, difficult and misunderstood dish, which in many ways reflects the history of the diverse and vibrant Native America?
“We must honor the truth and pain of what was there, but also the heart of the one who created the fried bread,” McMullen-Ciotti said. “It’s beauty and pain next to each other.”
Fry bread with corn flour and coconut oil
Harvest: About 38
Total time: 1.5 hours, plus 4 hours of cooling and lifting
- 1 cup finely ground cornmeal
- 2 (1/4 oz) envelope instant dry yeast
- 1 cup raw sugar
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- Unrefined Coconut Oil for Frying (about 32 oz.)
1. In a large saucepan, bring 2 cups water to a boil over medium heat. While whisking, add cornmeal to boiling water. Continue whisking slowly until smooth. Reduce heat to medium, add 1 1/2 cups cold water and simmer, stirring constantly to prevent lumps from forming, until thickened, about 6 minutes. There should be a consistency of oatmeal. Remove from heat and let cool in a saucepan.
2. Add yeast, sugar and salt to the cooled cornmeal along with 1-2 tablespoons of water to moisten the mixture. Add flour gradually, stirring with a metal whisk or potato grinder, to get rid of as many lumps as possible. Sprinkle with water if necessary to keep the dough moist but thick. Cover with a damp cloth and let it brew for 3 hours.
3. When the dough rises, it should be firm and sticky. Heat 1 inch of coconut oil in a cast iron skillet to about 350 degrees. Check the temperature by tossing a small dough into the butter. It should sizzle slightly, but not splatter. Use two large, oiled spoons to make golf-ball-sized portions: scoop up the dough with one spoon and use the other to scoop it into the hot oil. Oil the spoons again in the skillet as needed to make new balls of dough. Work in portions, leaving room in the skillet as the balls will expand in hot oil.
4. Cook until the bottom is desired (light golden, golden or dark brown), about 3 minutes for golden brown. Use tongs to turn the balls over to cook the other side of the same color, 1 to 3 minutes. Carefully remove the oil, shaking off excess oil, and transfer to paper towel-lined plates to drain. Eat hot.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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