Fry Bread, Ennit?

“Once my people hunted buffalo in the plains that surrounded this place,” said Virgil, serving up his buffalo chili. “Now, I just have to go to Fred Meyer for it.”

fry bread

Virgil, my guide, was showing me how to make the most traditional of non-traditional Native American foods, fry bread. Fry bread, Virgil explained, is one of the great ‘poor’ foods of the world, an example of using what is available, or, more commonly, what those who are richer and in power allow you to have (“like all the unwanted parts of the pig that make Mexican cuisine so great”). In this case, the key ingredients of fry bread are government-issued flour and government-issued oil.

I first read about fry bread in Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues, which I found, weirdly, in the discount bin at Alice’s Bookstore, Melbourne, Australia. I say weirdly because this was years before I moved to the corner of the world the story takes place. I had no idea what fry bread was, but the characters certainly seemed to eat a lot of it. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven followed, and then the movie Smoke Signals, where I saw fry bread for the first time. It was nothing like I’d imagined. I thought of it as an actual loaf of bread, deep-fried, or something. In fact, fry bread resembles the snack called ‘elephant ear,’ which is usually sold at air shows and other lightheartedly redneck gatherings (I love air shows). Years later at a pow-wow in Olympia, Washington, I had it for the first time.

You can dust it with sugar, eat it at breakfast with jam, or make various other heart-stopping creations like ‘Indian tacos’ (fry bread with chili and all the fixings, which Virgil was making for us) or ‘Indian cheeseburgers’ (fry bread with cheese and beef patties). Variants of this idea abound globally. In Hungary the identical foodstuff is called Lángos, for example.

Fry bread is not good for you, and there is concern that it is contributing to the high incidence of obesity and diabetes in Native American peoples, but damn, it tastes good. I mean, deep-fried dough! What’s not to like?

me frying fry bread

There are as many recipes for fry bread as there are Indian moms to make it, but they are all basically the same idea.

Virgil’s Fry Bread

(Makes about 50 pieces. Fry bread is a dish to be shared, so always make a lot)

Four cups white flour

Four cups whole wheat flour

Dry yeast

2 eggs

1 Tb sugar

milk or water as needed

Warm the milk gently and add it to the yeast and flour to start the yeast going. At this point the directions get hazy. Make a dough out of it. Let the dough rise, and then punch it down. Let it rise again. Punch it down again. Crack open a beer. Heat up a bunch of oil in a skillet, and start making thin pancake-shapes out of hunks of the dough. Virgil informed me that some people insist on there being at least one little hole in the stretched out dough, ‘to let the bad spirits out.’ Virgil skips this step with the explanation that he just omits the bad spirits in the first place.

Fry it.

frying bread

8 comments to Fry Bread, Ennit?

  • Steph

    I used to get “Indian tacos” at powwows and small-town cafes in North Dakota. I love the scene in Smoke Signals where Lester’s mom “feeds the multitudes” by tearing all the fry bread in half. Please make this for the next MES potluck?

  • WarPig

    I’ve eaten a lot of fry bread over the years. I’m half Blackfoot, and I was stationed in Texas and Oklahoma for years, off and on. There was almost always a powwow somewhere in OK or TX, and fry bread, corn soup, “Indian” tacos (probably the tastiest and worst-for-you thing made with fry bread) were always available. I dunno if it accounts for the high incidence of obesity in Indians or not, but us kids on the reservation (I spent summers) ate tons of it and we were all skinny as rails.

    Oh, made some Spam jerky, same as yours except I use the Caribbean jerk spice instead of the black pepper, the way I like it. Tastes great. I’m gonna make some w/out spice just for night fishing. Catfish like it and the jerky lasts a lot longer in water than Spam chunks. A wise, old catfish can chew the regular Spam off a hook without getting caught, but he has to chew harder for the jerky and that’s when you get him. ;-)

    If you’re not averse to a gazillion calories, I have a recipe for Texas Fudge Cake (also called Texas sheet cake) you can try. Just lemme know here or by email.

  • I’ve never been much of a baker except for the occasional cheesecake, but I never turn down a recipe! Please do send it.

  • I’ve tasted the hungarian version in Budapest central market, served with very cheap white wine. Seemed to be the prefered midday snack for workers. You could also order toppings on it, sprinkled over the loaf while it was frying.

  • Mmmm. The main reason I like to go to fairs. Often the ONLY reason.

    Out east they call it “fried Dough” rather than elephant ears. New Englanders are a very practical people.

  • WarPig

    Here it is. I wrote this for a grandchild ho was learning to bake, so don’t think I am talking down to you.

    Texas Fudge Cake

    Preheat oven to 375

    Boil Together:

    ½ cup butter (one stick)
    4 heaping Tablespoons cocoa
    1 cup water
    ½ cup shortening (½ stick)

    Pour the above while still hot, over the combined mixture of:

    2 cups sugar
    2 cups flour (do not sift)
    2 eggs

    Mix and stir, adding:

    ½ cup buttermilk
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    1 teaspoon vanilla

    Place batter mixture in a well-greased, 13 X 9 pan or equivalent and bake for 30 minutes.

    5 minutes before the cake is done, boil together:

    1 stick of butter
    4 Tablespoons cocoa
    6 Tablespoons milk

    Pour this over 1 cup of confectioner’s sugar, stir until dissolved, add 1 cup chopped nuts (optional). Use this to ice the cake while it is still hot. Let cake cool for at least 1 hour before serving.

    This is an extremely heavy and rich cake that serves many people.

    This recipe came from my maternal grandmother, Pearl Hiles.

  • I made the Texas fudge cake for memorial day. It was worthy of awe. Now I’ve made Chris’s Russian tea cookies too. You guys a making a baker out of me.

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