More than just dough with fry bread

Jennifer Juan sits behind her fry bread stand in front of the San Xavier del Bac Mission. Photo by Chris Real/Arizona Sonora News Service
Jennifer Juan sits behind her fry bread stand in front of the San Xavier del Bac Mission. Photo by Chris Real/Arizona Sonora News Service

On the outside, fry bread is merely what its title says it is. A golden-brown fried piece of dough the size of a Styrofoam plate that can be sweetened with honey and powdered sugar or treated like a taco shell.

However, this fried piece of dough symbolizes much more than the total amount of calories ingested in one serving. Fry bread has been a staple in Native American culture and continues journeying into Native American popular culture today.

According to Smithsonian.org, the Navajo fry bread originated 144 years ago when Native Americans living in Arizona were forced to move by the United States government to New Mexico. The new land couldn’t support the agricultural lifestyle the Navajos were used to. The United States government issued out flour, processed sugar and lard which are the key ingredients in fry bread.

Despite its dark origination, fry bread has taken on a more lighthearted tone in today’s Native American community. For visitors venturing to the San Xavier del Bac Mission located 30 minutes south of Tucson, members of the Tohono O’odham Nation make fry bread for tourists eager to try a traditional Native American dish.

“We’re best known for the fry bread here because they say, ‘oh it’s the best fry bread we’ve had,’” said Jennifer Juan, who showed up at 10 a.m. to begin her fry bread preparation for the tourists.

Juan showed up by herself with all the toppings and necessities needed to make fry bread. She starts by tossing branches into a small fire pit where she boils the oil for the dough to be dropped in. A sign hangs out facing the church is in full Halloween swing with ghosts and pumpkins surrounding the varieties of fry bread combinations.

Some fry breads are mixed with red chili sauce, a sweet fry bread mixes honey and powdered sugar and another is similar to that of a taco. No matter what the combination is, fry bread has developed into more than just a piece of dough.

In the Phoenix area, restaurants owned by Natives specialize in serving specialty fry breads. Places such as The Fry Bread House, Arizona Fry Bread, Angelina’s Fry Bread and White Eyes Fresh Fry Bread are just some of the few establishments in the Phoenix area.

Fry bread has even found its way into Native American popular culture. In the mockumentary film More Than Frybread, director Travis Holt Hamilton sets up a fictitious fry bread contest between 22 contestants. Hamilton said his idea for the film came when he kept hearing on reservations that one person’s fry bread was better than another person’s fry bread. He added that this film shows a lighthearted sign of Native American culture whereas other films center around the darkness of living on reservations.

“One thing in Native cinema is that you have very serious, kind of dark, heavy subjects. This was a film that was quite lighthearted, a lot of laughter and I think the Native country needed the film,” he said. He said that his ultimate goal was to show the film in 100 reservations. Hamilton is also working on what would be the first Native American sitcom called Frybread, a spinoff from his movie.

“I’ve had the thought for a long time now that it would be great to be able to do something further with and develop into a T.V. show,” he said.

Another film where fry bread is seen as more than just bread is Smoke Signals. In Smoke Signals, one of the main characters wears a shirt with “fry bread power” on the front through the entire journey. In the same movie, the character goes on a rant about a fictional story of his friend’s mother passing out dozens of pieces of fry bread on their reservation.

Even though the tradition of fry bread varies from one Native community to another, both Jennifer Juan and Travis Hamilton agree that fry bread brings generations and people together. Juan said that she has heard fry bread traditions going back three generations and of families sharing fry bread during holidays.

“You can take a conversation almost anywhere when starting with fry bread. There’s so many conversations that can start from fry bread that can lead into, it’s actually quite amazing,” Hamilton said.

Indian fry bread ingredients:

3 cups all purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 ½ cups warm water

Oil for frying

Mix first four ingredients in a bowl. Add warm water and stir until dough begins to ball up. On a lightly floured surface, knead dough. Do not overwork dough. Heat oil to 350 degrees Fahrenheit in a frying pan or kettle. Lightly flour surface and lightly pat and roll out baseball sizes pieces of dough. Cut hole in the middle with knife so the dough will fry flat to ¼ inch thickness. Place in oil and cook until golden-brown and flip over and cook until opposite side is golden brown.

Recipe courtesy of foodnetwork.com

Chris Real is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach him at chreal@email.arizona.edu.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.