“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.”
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?
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
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.