Art Coulson, a Cherokee writer who lives in Minneapolis, took a deep breath before he tried to define Native American fry bread.
“It’s kind of like what one of the Supreme Court justices said about obscenity,” he said. “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”
Fry bread is one of those beloved yet divisive family foods. As with potato salad or matzo ball soup, often the only thing people can agree on is that everyone else is wrong. In Indigenous cultures, fry bread can inspire fierce clashes over ingredients and judgmental whispering about technique. But it is also the subject of more serious academic disputes about the dish’s colonial origins and health implications.
The common story of fry bread is that before it became a staple of powwows and family dinners, it was a survival food, usually traced to the Navajo people (who call themselves the Diné). In the mid-19th century, when the United States government forcibly removed Indigenous people from their ancestral lands to remote reserves, longstanding foodways changed.
With familiar game, fruits and vegetables out of reach, cooks adapted their diets using what they had: government-rationed commodities of powdered, preserved and dry goods.
“We were stripped from the natural abundance around us,” said Elise McMullen-Ciotti, a Cherokee food scholar at New York University. “We came up with something that we could share amongst one another.”
Flour, salt, baking powder and oil are the basic ingredients of most fry bread recipes, but the shape, taste and color vary by region, tribe and family. Ramona Horsechief, a Pawnee citizen and a seven-time winner of the National Indian Taco Championship in Pawhuska, Okla., grows Pawnee blue corn in her garden and mills her own flour for a special fry bread recipe. “It makes it sweeter, a bit more dense,” she explained. “All of my product now is farm to table.”
Marcie Rendon, an award-winning writer and a citizen of the White Earth Anishinaabe in Minnesota, describes the fry bread she makes as “regular size.” She makes it healthier, she said, by mixing in whole wheat flour, and sometimes adds powdered milk — “whatever was in the commodity box.”
LeEtta Osborne-Sampson, a band chief in the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, adds sugar to her family recipe, just as her grandmother did. “She knew how much to put in to make it pop,” she recalled.
As with many comfort foods, reference determines preference. Food stirs up the senses, which awaken memory — and the earliest experiences of taste and smell start at home. Ben Jacobs, the Osage co-owner of Tocabe in Denver, knows the restaurant’s fry bread can’t compete with the version his customers grew up with.
“If we’re second place in your book, then we won,” he said. “We’re never going to be your mom’s or your auntie’s fry bread because that’s what you’re connected to.”
The making of fry bread is matriarchal in many Native families, and allegiance to a particular recipe is deeply connected to the “fry bread lady” who made it. Mr. Jacobs, who adapted his recipe from his grandmother, said, “It gives me that tie, that connection to her that I had as a little boy.”
“I feel like I’m around my grandma because of the work I get to do, and fry bread is a part of that,” he added.
When Hope Peshlakai was a child, her grandmother taught her to cook in her tiny kitchen in Ganado, Ariz., part of the Navajo Nation. Now a chef in Mesa, Ariz., Ms. Peshlakai stores her cast-iron skillet in the oven of the spacious, brightly painted kitchen of her suburban home — a storage tip picked up from her grandmother. “I wish the world would have met her,” she said with a sigh. “She taught me the virtue of sharing myself and sharing my love through food.”
Years later, when Ms. Peshlakai and her husband had just begun dating, an armada of his inquisitive aunts wanted to see her fry bread first.
“Like you plan out your wedding,” she said. “Whatever you plan out, oh, make sure you know how to make bread right.”
Ms. Horsechief carries a piece of her grandmother, whom she called Ucca Effie, with her when she cooks. She inherited her 125-year-old fry bread poker, a trident used for flipping bread over an open fire at arm’s length. She uses it on special occasions to channel her grandmother’s love for cooking into her own food. “I use it on my first tester,” she said. “So if it comes out bad, then I need to adjust my own self and my own energy and spirit.”
For diverse tribal communities, fry bread is meta comfort food, representing something larger than nourishment itself. Bread’s many metaphors demonstrate its universal appeal to community and survival. It’s the bread of life, bread broken and earning dough. “We didn’t give up our culture,” Ms. Osborne-Sampson, the Seminole band chief, explained. “We hold on to it dearly, right down to that fry bread.”
Indigenous food activists see it differently. Fry bread is neither culture nor tradition, since “one can make fry bread during any season with goods purchased from Dollar General,” as Professor Devon A. Mihesuah writes in the Native American and Indigenous Studies journal. Citing problems of diabetes, hypertension and obesity in Native communities, advocates for food sovereignty seek to decolonize Indigenous diets from the high-fat, high-calorie attractions of fry bread. From this view, fry bread is the antithesis of Indigenous vitality.
What to make of this impasse over a beloved, fraught and misunderstood dish that, in so many ways, mirrors the story of a diverse and vibrant Native America?
“We need to honor the truth and the pain of what was there, but also the heart of who created the fry bread,” Ms. McMullen-Ciotti insists. “This is beauty and pain next to each other.”