This frybread was made for an event in suburban Cincinnati. A doctor, looking at the amount of oil used, was horrified. I wondered, “Where’s the margarine?”
All Photos: Mary Annette Pember

I don’t know why but requests for frybread recipes always make me laugh out loud.

Maybe because they allude to a world of cookbooks and structured predictable living in which recipe ingredients and amounts are always available. In my experience, frybread is pretty much a make-do food, heavy on technique but forgiving on exact ingredients and quantities.

Historically, Native Americans received provisions, often including flour and lard, as part of various treaty agreements. Cut off from their traditional food sources of hunting and gathering, I often imagine that the first recipients of these items asked, “What the heck do we do with this stuff?” Someone finally suggested, “Why don’t we just mix the flour with liquid and fry it up in a pan. And hurry up “˜cause I’m hungry!!”

Thus frybread was born.

frybread boy

For Native Americans, the modern frybread boom as we know it today began with the Agricultural Act of 1949. The Commodities Credit Corporation made certain commodities acquired through price support operations available to needy people. Generations of Indians have been raised on “commodds” — monthly supplies of white flour, lard, peanut butter, white rice, canned mystery meat, processed cheese, dried milk and the like. (Check out this Indian music video on commodity food.)
Danny Metz, 3 — an Ojibwe boy digs into his mother’s frybread.

Most Native folks admit a love-hate relationship with commodds, which are imbued with some heavy-duty food irony. Viewed on the one hand as tangible symbols of our colonization they are also embraced as home-style comfort foods. I recall a friend in college carving a bust of Ronald Reagan out of a five-pound block of commodd cheese.

Like most poor folks’ food, frybread began as an entrée extender. A little bit of soup can feed a whole lot of people with frybread. It has since morphed into many forms, including tacos and even pizza. It can function as a snack or dessert. Just add more sugar and top with margarine and honey or jam. It’s good hot or cold, especially if you’re hungry.

frybread boy

Unfortunately, for a population that is particularly prone to type 2 diabetes, frybread is an especially poor food choice. Diabetes affects Native Americans disproportionately compared with other populations. It’s often described as an epidemic among Native Americans. The USDA commodity program, to its credit, has responded by making its foods healthier: less fat, more whole foods, etc. But truth be known, frybread is never going to be a healthy choice, even if made with whole-wheat flour (yuk!) and canola oil.

Satisfied frybread customer.

I was asked again this year to prepare “traditional Native American” frybread for a local social justice group in my suburban community. My community service spirit makes occasional appearances so I stepped up. They demanded tidy, demure frybread that would fit neatly on little plates, served with fancy honey.

A group member, Frank, who is an endocrinologist expressed genuine alarm at the amount of oil that was being used. He shook his head with worry, “Do you realize how much oil you’ve used?!!” I didn’t dare tell him that I was making a major concession to tradition by not setting out big tubs of margarine for slathering on the frybread.

Suburban ladies sampled the frybread, effetely noting its taste and texture. Their children stuffed their mouths and immediately got in line for seconds. One lady carefully approached me for the recipe, pen in hand, ready for a lengthy discourse. I restrained myself and gave her my mom’s recommendations.

Two cups warm water
1 packet yeast
a little sugar
a little lard or oil
dried milk
“flour to handle” about six cups
a mess of oil for frying and a really good heavy fry pan or old style electric frypan

Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the water, add the oil, work in the dried milk powder and flour with hands until it handles. Cover with damp dishtowel for about 20 minutes. Squeeze off a small ball of dough with your hand (depending on use, eg. tacos or dessert) flatten into circle. (This is all technique.) Ease into pan of hot oil about 1 inch deep. Bread should form a big air bubble in the middle before turning. Brown on other side and drain on paper towels or paper grocery bags.

Note: there are many different frybread “recipes,” some using yeast and some using baking powder. This is my family’s favorite, most requested by my dad who always insisted, with his mouth full, “Frybread isn’t very good for you, you know.”

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