- Jennifer Z. Major
Today's culture lesson: The joy that is fry bread.
One of the things I learned around the age of 12 was to just hush up and try the food that the nice person placed in front of you.
Never had falafel on pita with lots of tsatziki? Mmmm, that was a new thing I tried when I was 13, and wow, it's still a favourite!
Calamari? Umm, you mean "squid"?
Yup, I mean squid.
I accidentally tried some a few years ago...and?
Same with hummus, (say it with me, HUM-ess...not HUME-iss), refried beans, pad siu and...wait for it...Grapefruit Perrier.
But my pasty white palette was ill-prepared to fend off the nutritionally questionable, yet exotic, heavenly, delectable feast for the senses known simply as fry bread.
In 2012, while on an epic road trip with two Mohawk/Oneida/Tuscarora friends, we stopped in Oklahoma and they were losing it because the menu offered fry bread. We didn't exactly have a lot of fry bread in our neck of the woods.
Upon being served their "fry bread", their disgust was immediate. We were given what looked and tasted like pita bread.
I like pita bread, but this was supposed to be fry bread!
Wellll, it may as well have tasted like deep fried bugs, from how they reacted.
Once we got to Phoenix, we made a bee line for a LEGENDARY restaurant, The Fry Bread House. Before we got there, as we drove all across the city, ALL they talked about in the car was the Indian Tacos. I was polite. I ordered a chorizo taco. We said grace.
And people? From my first bite, I wanted to weep. I may have looked at that chorizo fry bread taco and whimpered "Oh my darling, where have you been all my life?"
I did not think it was physiologically possible for me to finish that thing, but I did. I also walked out of there with my shirt strategically covering the top button of my shorts.
I needed to be able to breathe.
We may have gone back to The Fry Bread House twice before we left Phoenix, a mere 3 days later.
I may have gained 59 pounds that week.
Fry bread is a staple of many Native American tribal cuisines, and it is debated until the sun is long gone as from whence it came.
But, for the Navajo, it came from a place of desperation and cruelty.
It came from Bosque Redondo, from Hweeldi.
The people (prisoners) were given rancid bacon, green coffee beans, flour, salt, lard and a bit of sugar, and from the last 4 ingredients, Navajo fry bread was born. Healthy or not, (not) it kept people alive until they could go home, and go back to their much healthier traditional foods.
Now, fry bread is a staple of pow wows and family gatherings all over the Southwest, and beyond.
For me, it's rare treat, meant to be savoured with either taco fixings, or as my partner in crime, pilot, navigator, and photographer, RCP, enjoys it? Dripping in honey!
It's a challenge, but I can definitely eat fry bread in a moving vehicle, specifically, Ted Charles' moving vehicle. Mmmm.
I can enjoy at a cook-out, too. I'm flexible like that.
At a restaurant in Window Rock or Chinle? Sure!
So there you have it. What started as a desperate attempt to feed their families with whatever they were given as rations, fry bread has become a symbol of Navajo history, of modern Navajo culture, and the survival of a nation.