I’m relatively new to the contemporary Native American experience, but I have attended several powwows and even an indigenous theological conference (NAIITS) and, so far I’ve only found one aspect of Native America that has been really difficult to sit with: fry bread.
I also recently had a Native American friend over for dinner. I asked him what “Indian food” was and he gave me a list of indigenous North American base ingredients like squash, corn, beans, tomatoes, certain peppers, etc. I couldn’t articulate it at the time but his answer was somehow unsatisfying. And I think I finally have the answer as to why that is.
Maybe I should back up a bit here and explain why food is so important to me. As a Chinese American who went off to a college that was 90% white, I quickly learned that having your own food isn’t just a way to maintain your identity, but it’s also a vector for introducing and transmitting your culture to others. While the school cafeteria made admirable attempts at some non-traditional American dishes, they simply did not have the expertise to pull off a good Northern Chinese braised beef soup with Shandong style wide noodles—so I had to learn to make my own. And that was the beginning of my ethnic food journey.
The Chinese like to say that eating is a five-sense experience. Often you smell the food before you see it, then you see, hear, taste, and feel it. While the Western-trained mind likes to consider itself fully rational, I think we’re actually empirical before we’re rational. You sense the food before you think about it. Memories and emotional associations with food are instantaneous and involuntary. Being the chef dilettante, I love sampling cuisines and trying to reverse engineer them so I can synthesize techniques into my own repertoire. I don’t like everything new that I come across but I do know that every dish tells a story about the people it came from, how they live, and their history. And that’s why food is more than mere physical sustenance. It’s history, character, and memories.
While it’s admirable that restaurants like Tocabe in Denver, Colorado, are attempting to build a new Native Food genre around fry bread I have to question whether fry bread really is incontestably Native American at all. As my Indian friend explained to me, flour, from which they made fry bread, was a concession given to the tribes by the US Army to prevent the Indians from starving to death after having been forcefully removed from their ancestral lands and put on reservations with poor hunting. At its origin, fry bread, or at least the main ingredient for fry bread, was a charity and a concession.
The base ingredient of most fry breads is flour. Flour is not a naturally occurring substance in that you can just run it down, skin it, or pick it off a tree. It has to be processed at a mill, ground, purified, and repackaged. In short, it’s not indigenous.
I understand the Yankee Doodle aspect of fry bread, where Native Americans have turned a curse into what some might argue is a blessing. But here is where I have to question the exclusively native standing of this dish. I believe fry bread is a concept that was loaned to Indians so they could feed themselves; not an entirely original creation which pan-Indian culture was welcome to share with whites. I’ll make my argument this way: white people make fry bread too. Go to an outdoor event and set up two food stalls, both making the exact same thing. Advertise one as “Elephant Ears” and the other as “Indian Fry Bread.” See which stand makes more money at the end of the night. White people aren’t going to recognize elephant ears as fry bread, but they’d probably walk away from the fry bread stand saying “hey, this is just an elephant ear.”
I would love to take folks to a Native American restaurant and open the course with fry bread. I’d love to explain to them why we’re starting with a dish whose origin is the very definition of subsistence. I’d love to tell them about the bitter tears that are mixed with this fried flour.
I understand that culture is not static and that, for better or worse, the pan-indian movement has claimed this dish as it’s own. I’m not advocating the abandonment of fry bread. But I want to be able to branch out from there and I hope Native America would too.
Where do we go from fry bread? I think one of the reasons ethnic food is so interesting is because it’s tied to the land it came from. Unfortunately, that land has been taken from Native America. And the food was taken along with it. When Celilo Falls, located on Oregon and Washington’s shared Columbia River, was flooded in 1957 several tribes lost the ability to fish and smoke salmon in their traditional ways. This location was a trading nexus that attracted whites as well as First Nations people. Fifty-three years later smoked salmon is considered a northwest regional dish, rather than a native specialty. And where do you think white people got the idea to catch and smoke salmon? But like the grass dancer who gets snapped by white photographers at a powwow, who gets the credit for the end product?
A food genre is not simply a list of available base ingredients. It’s also a common set of preparation methods that encompass both the use of spices and ways of heating or chilling food. That’s why I think it’s so important to take back preparation methods like smoking. If Congress can rename America’s favorite fried potato strips “Freedom Fries” instead of “French Fries” why can’t we rename smoked salmon Yakima Salmon? Or maybe Celilo Salmon?
While you could attempt to forcibly rename elephant ears in favor of fry bread, the idea of frying dough is pretty wide spread. Smoked salmon is both a technique and a food source that has a specific geographical origin, easily proven as indigenous.
There are probably many other examples of cooking and preparation that were co-opted by the children of Manifest Destiny. While the conqueror could steal the land, he couldn’t live without it, and this means, in an ironic way, some of these indigenous recipes must have been preserved. I’m not asking white people to stop making or eating Indian food. I only request that identity of a cuisine to be rightfully recognized, not as vaguely regional, or folksy, but indigenous (and non necessarily pan-Indian, but down to the specific tribal origin). It’s here that I think non-natives like myself can make the most difference. By rejecting ambiguous and bland regional monikers for what is actually indigenous cuisine we can help draw attention to the true cultural and indigenous identity of the foods we’re so used to eating, and thereby expose ourselves and others to the stories behind those foods.
Many Americans have heard of Parmesan cheese, but my guess is that few have tasted the real thing: Parmigiano-Reggiano. In an attempt to defend the viability of indigenous foods from foreign and inferior competitors, the European Union has established the Protected Designation of Origin program. Anyone can call their cheese “Parmesan” but only qualified cheese houses within the Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and Bologna provinces in Italy can market their product as Parmigiano-Reggiano (a step that goes beyond simple trademarking). It’s an indigenous, artisan product whose identity is protected by law, and recognized for both its quality and place of origin.
Though it sounds every bit the pipe-dream, I’d like to see Native American foods protected and endorsed in a similar way. I’d like to be able to use Native American cuisine as a way to introduce both the history and culture of Native America to non-Indians. I’m convinced that the path to that end is a mix of reclamation and innovation but I can only ask the question of how to get there. Native Americans themselves will have to come up with the answer to that question.
I think we’ll eat in heaven. I don’t necessarily think there will be hunger in heaven, but I think there will be food. When I walk on the green grass of the New Earth, at the eternal picnic and barbecue, I want to be able to go over to where my native brothers and sisters are, and hold out my plate. I know they’ll be serving more than fry bread.