Food for the Spirit
For the uninitiated and timid eaters, fry bread is a chewy concoction, flash-fried in lard, shortening or cooking oil to a toasty puff of dough. It is fluffier than a doughnut and about as big as a Frisbee.
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By Bart Ripp
Tacoma News Tribune
Fry bread is terrible for you. Fry bread tastes wonderful. Fry bread causes diabetes. Fry bread is an American Indian legacy.
Fry bread is the breakfast of champions.
You can make a mountain of excuses for fry bread and its nutritional value and culinary merit.
It is often embellished with honey, cinnamon, powdered sugar, fruit jam or, in the case of a restaurant item called a Navajo taco, it's a pile of chili, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and pinto beans.
You can even find fry bread on the menus of chain restaurants like the Cheesecake Factory.
Carol Rave is a Winnebago who lives in Tacoma, Wash. Rave's grandmother, Mary Graywolf, taught her to make fry bread on the Winnebago reservation in northeast Nebraska.
"She would take a big bowl of flour," Rave said. "If you're in a hurry, you just use baking powder. If you're not in a hurry, use yeast.
"Oh, hers (fry bread) was awesome, out of this world. In a large family, you can't have steaks and pork chops and those things. Just soup and fry bread."
Graywolf, who lived to be 96, said fry bread was linked to a higher spirit.
"My grandmother always told me to thank the Great Spirit for giving you the ingredients to make," Rave said. "Don't ever say no to somebody who wants you to make fry bread, because you're feeding them."
Nancy Games, a Puyallup and Tulalip from Yelm, Wash., also credits her grandmother for a legacy of fry bread.
"When I was young," Games said, "my grandmother Angie Frank in Nisqually cooked fry bread and beans. That was a staple in our household."
When Games was 12, she tried to make fry bread like her grandmother's.
"It was awful, all bumpy and lumpy and hard," Games said. "You have to work at it. You just can't get a package of dough and throw it together. And you have to be in a good mood when you're making it. Our people, anything they did was spiritual. You have to make it with love."
Games notes that fry bread is more a survival food than a native tradition.
"In the concentration camps called reservations, the agents would give you flour," Games said, "and that's what you used to make fry bread."
In New Mexico and Arizona, reservation residents set up roadside stands where fry bread is cooked over fires stoked by fragrant fires of mesquite and pinon.
Come summer, Games has a fry bread stand at festivals and other events.
"I make dough in tubs this wide," Games said, stretching her arms wide. "People come from ... all over and buy dough in 1-pound bags and take it home to freeze it.
"I wouldn't advise anyone to eat it every day. Fry bread causes diabetes and high cholesterol. But it makes a great treat once in a while."
Every once in a while, Ida and Percy Kanesta come to the Puyallup Tribal Health Authority clinic in Tacoma to sell jewelry from New Mexico and Arizona. Ida is half-Laguna, half-Navajo, and Percy is a Zuni. They have been married 56 years, Tacoma residents since 1963.
"We make what's called a pulled fry bread," Percy said. "We pull the dough to make it lighter."
Ida learned to make fry bread from her mother, Pauline Begay. She was 14.
"We never measured with cups or spoons," Ida said. "Just measure by the palm of your hand. You put in all the ingredients and feel the dough for the right texture.
"My mom's (fry bread) was the best. After I learned, she said mine was better. The fry bread is a spiritual food. It gives strength to your husband and nourishes your family."
Jackie Kalama is a fry-bread maker who cooks at the Tahoma Indian Center, a shelter. A Warm Springs Indian who lives in Tacoma, Kalama was taught by her grandmother, a Yakama named Grace Andrews Howard.
"I was probably 5 or 6," Kalama said. "We camped a lot in the mountains. We picked apples and pears and stayed in a house that was in a corn patch.
"It takes a lot of time to learn to make it right," Kalama said. "I've cooked for the leaders in programs at Nisqually and for the Puyallups. Everyone loves the fry bread."
Elders are not Kalama's only fans. There is Trino Savala, one of her 10 grandchildren. He is 3 and craves his grandmother's fry bread.
"When I make the fry bread," Kalama said, "that's all he'll eat."
Doris Eagle's Fry Bread
4 cups white flour
4 Tbs. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 quart milk, from dry milk powder
1 stick butter or margarine, melted
2 pkg. dry yeast
Mix dry ingredients, except for the yeast, in a large bowl. Mix warm water with dry milk power to make one quart. Add milk mixture to dry ingredients. Add eggs and melted butter. Mix well. Add 2 packages dry yeast. Mix all ingredients well.
Knead dough to a good consistency, and form into a ball. Grease a large bowl. Put ball of dough in bowl and let rise to the top of the bowl (takes 30-60 minutes). Punch dough down and let rise again to top of bowl.
Using an electric skillet or a large frying pan, heat enough vegetable oil to cook several disks of dough at one time. Bring oil temperature to 160 to 180 degrees. When hot, test oil with a little piece of dough. If dough sizzles and begins to brown, the oil is ready.
From large ball of dough, pull off a small piece and form a small ball. Flatten into disk about 1/2-inch thick and 4 inches in diameter. Punch small hole in the center and place dough in hot oil. Cook until brown on one side. Turn it over. When both sides are brown, drain on paper towels.
Enjoy with butter, jam, honey, cinnamon and sugar mix. Or top with chili, pinto beans, shredded lettuce, shredded American cheese, diced tomatoes and onions for an Indian taco, also called a Navajo taco.
— Doris Eagle is a Lakota. The recipe is at www.pbs.org/itvs/homeland/lakota2.html.
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