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Love in the Making: Frybread

Creator:
Published:
January 11, 2024
October 30, 2023
Read this piece to learn more about the cultural, historical, and familial significance of fry bread for Native Americans.|Follow this complete guide for how to host a dinner party.|Read this piece to learn more about the cultural, historical, and familial significance of fry bread for Native Americans.

For Alli, the passing down of rituals, such as making frybread, is an expression of love and creates a bond that flows through generations. It’s a way to learn about her family and the American Indian culture she belongs to, and in sharing it with her own children, she ensures this tradition remains a part of her family’s future.

The clink of cast iron, the soft pops of lard bubbling, the rhythmic pats of hands gently forming dough — and then the plop, sizzle, and crunch of a completed piece. The brown paper bag crinkles as it shakes, the oil is removed and the perfectly golden brown, crisped but still decadently pillowed frybread is ready to eat.

American Indians weave several threads of belonging together in their cultural identities: storytelling, ritual, tradition, and food, to name just a few. Frybread forms an important element of this tapestry. While today many consider it a staple of American Indian cooking, frybread only originated in the 1860s with the Navajo tribe. After families were forcibly displaced from their homelands, many experienced food scarcity since the new lands could not support their traditional diet. To prevent the indigenous population from starving, the government provided rations of canned food, white flour, sugar, and lard. Making use of what little they had, American Indians created frybread and demonstrated their creativity and perseverance in the face of oppressive hardships.

How exactly the recipe and tradition of frybread spread amongst tribes is a mystery not unlike the communication and sharing of resources between trees in a grove. Perhaps it was the natural solution for such limited supplies, or maybe it was simply the banding together of a people who shared homesick hearts and determination for their futures. Soon thereafter the recipe and process of creating frybread became an integral and proud centerpiece of American Indian cuisine.

When I was in college, a group of students formed an American Indian Student Association at Texas A&M. We all came from different tribes hailing from various parts of the country. As we introduced ourselves and shared our experience with our culture and heritage, one member mentioned missing his mom’s frybread. There was a collective sigh of longing as we each related our favorite way to enjoy it. Some used frybread as a taco shell with bison and onions as the filling, others ate it like a roll at dinner slathered with butter and honey, and I explained how my family always ate it alongside dried sweet corn. Dipped in the bowl of warm, comfortingly sweet corn, the frybread soaks up the juices and creates the most mouthwatering treat imaginable. 

Needless to say, we brought frybread to share at our next meeting; this was the first of many shared threads of our heritage that bound us together. Enjoying a beloved meal with those who appreciate it for similarly emotive reasons eased our ache of homesickness. In coming together to eat, we added these new friends to our community, to the people whom we would remember when we next ate frybread.

Frybread is such a fixture in my life, I have no recollection of the first time I made it; honestly, I have no memory of ever not knowing how to make it. When I asked my father when he learned, he considered and replied that it was during a feast at our tribe’s pow wow. He was taught by my namesake, Alice Crawfish, and she by her grandmother, the generations connected by this cultural practice.

Pow wows are composed of a wealth of cultural remembrances such as cooking at campsites, traditional dances, the sharing of craftwork, and the wearing of tribal regalia in performances. 

Hospitality and inclusion of all ages are important in American Indian culture. Robert Whitebird Sr., Quapaw chief, encapsulated this when he stated, “The children are the wealth of the tribe.” From a young age, children take part in the cooking, crafting, and dancing at pow wows. When I was just three years old, my great aunt took my hand to join the dancing. The story goes that, even when I danced out of my shoe, my feet kept moving to the beat and I didn’t look back. Taking part in the preparation and celebration creates a sense of belonging, a pride both in what you are capable of and what you have learned.

Frybread is a natural starting point for this inclusion with the tactile, sensory-filled nature of the recipe. A common refrain throughout my childhood was, “When your hands are busy, the conversation flows.” I’ve enjoyed wonderful talks while wrist deep in dough, sharing the process passed down to me. Now that I am a mother, I have the joy of guiding my daughters in making frybread. I see their delight in the texture, their attention to getting the consistency just right, and their pride in the finished product. In teaching them this process, I teach them about our family, our past, our future, and the love that binds us all.

***

This recipe is how I was raised to make frybread. Our tribe, the Quapaws or Downstream people, originally lived in Arkansas and were relocated to Northeastern Oklahoma. Many in our tribe use a similar recipe and enjoy the frybread dipped in dried sweet corn. As mentioned above, other tasty forms include bison and onions in a taco form or smothered in butter and dunked in honey. 

Fry Bread Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 2.5 cups of flour
  • 2 tablespoons of baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • Pinch of sugar
  • 1 cup of whole milk 
  • 1 cup of vegetable oil (you want the oil to be about an inch deep in the pan)

Instructions:

  1. Start warming the oil in the cast iron over a low fire’s embers or on the stove.  
  2. Mix the dry ingredients, then slowly add milk. Your mixture should not be soupy; you want it doughy but well blended.
  3. Sprinkle flour on your cutting board and pat the dough down to about an inch thick. Cut the dough into roughly 2”x 2” trapezoidal pieces (this should make about a dozen). Slice a slit through the middle of each piece. Carefully drop the pieces into the hot grease. The dough edges will bubble. 
  4. After a few minutes, slowly flip the frybread over with a slotted spoon. When golden brown on each side, the frybread is done. Drop pieces into a brown paper bag, lined with paper towels, to remove excess oil. 

Creators:
Alli Bobzien
Published:
January 11, 2024
October 30, 2023
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