Fry bread: two sides of a powwow staple

The comfort food is seen both as a gift and a reminder of rations

World Of Flavor

August 23, 2006|By LIZ F. KAY | LIZ F. KAY,SUN REPORTER

Fry bread is a simple food with a complicated past.

For some, a bite of the Native American flatbread brings back fond memories of powwows and roadside stands out West. The comfort food is a staple at the Baltimore Powwow, where several vendors will be selling it this weekend.

"It's become an icon," said George P. Horse Capture, a retired adviser at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian who grew up on a reservation in Fort Belknap, Mont. He's written that fry bread is a divine gift in exchange for hardships such as racism and disease that native people have endured.

But others say the deep-fried bread is a painful reminder of government food rations at impoverished reservations and the current epidemic of obesity and diabetes among native people.

"Fry bread is emblematic of the long trails from home and freedom to confinement and rations. It's the connecting dot between healthy children and obesity, hypertension, diabetes, dialysis, blindness, amputations and slow death," wrote Suzan Shown Harjo in a column last year for Indian Country Today, a national Native American newspaper.

People native to North America have made some version of fry bread since Europeans arrived in the Americas - long before the U.S. government provided supplies of "commodity foods" such as flour and lard to people on reservations, said Fernando Divina, who spent more than a decade researching Foods of the Americas: Native Recipes and Traditions with his wife, Marlene.

They adapted a fry-bread recipe made by Marlene's mother, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, in their 2004 book, published in conjunction with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. It also includes other fry-bread recipes, including one that calls for whole-wheat flour and sweet potatoes or other foods indigenous to the Western Hemisphere.

Divina said fry bread, like all food, is best enjoyed in moderation. He prefers it grilled. "It could be a lovely adjunct and one that shouldn't go away. It's something that should be celebrated," he said.

Fry bread has made an impact on the cultural landscape beyond the festival food. South Dakota legislators recognized fry bread as the official state bread last year. The Cheesecake Factory restaurant offers a Navajo sandwich on warm fry bread.

"Everybody's fry bread is a little different," said Clark "Little Bear" Oxendine of Oxendine Catering. Like many of the Native Americans who live in the Baltimore area, the Pasadena resident is a member of the North Carolina-based Lumbee tribe. He will serve fry bread at the Baltimore Powwow both on its own and as a base for Indian tacos, fry-bread sandwiches with ground beef, lettuce and tomato.

Some people add corn and others try peppers, but the basic dough is usually flour and water and a leavening agent such as yeast or baking powder, he said.

Oxendine makes fry bread using a method handed down from his grandmother to his mother. He and his sons cook it four to five times a week at home and at nearly 30 events up and down the East Coast.

Sherry Haber of Dosha Native Foods has made fry bread at powwows since her father died in 1999. The Ferndale woman, also Lumbee, uses a paint mixer to make three coolers full of dough - using 12 bags of self-rising flour each - for powwows.

Haber coats her fingers with oil and oils a flat surface on which she will stretch tennis-ball-sized chunks of the dough into rough, rectangular shapes.

As she stretches, Haber rubs the dough with a finger to form a hole in the center. Oil leaks through it once the bread is dropped into a deep cast-iron skillet of vegetable oil, which allows the top of the bread to cook at the same time as the bottom.

(Oxendine puts a hole in his fry bread after dropping it into the oil. "That'll let the evil spirits out of it, so it'll taste good," he said.)

Haber lets her bread reach a golden brown on the bottom, flips it once and removes it with tongs. She and her sister Reneice Jacobs-Ramsay serve fry bread at powwows with powdered sugar or strawberry-pie filling, similar to the fried dough often found at festivals and state fairs.

The key is to serve it hot, said their mother, Dosha Jacobs, who started the business more than 20 years ago. "I like mine as hot as I can get it," she said.

Fry Bread

Makes 8 to 12 small breads or 6 to 8 large breads

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

1 1/4 cups warm water

corn oil, for frying (about 2 cups)

In a bowl or on a clean working surface, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour the warm water into the center of the well.

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