Fry bread as big as your face

My mother was the best cook in Nowata County. Sadly, the cooking gene passed me by.

When I called my mother to tell her I was going to work for a soup kitchen, she didn’t reply. A heavy silence lay on the phone.

"But I’m not doing the cooking," I said quickly.

"Oh, thank God," she said.

Although I am not a good cook, I have spent many hours in kitchens — trying, watching, cleaning and talking with friends and family around a kitchen table. The kitchen is the heart of a home; it’s where the best communication takes place.

Recently, I spent some special time in the soup kitchen watching Indian women make fry bread for 800 people. Native American Days at the Iron Gate soup kitchen were organized by

Cherrah Giles, an official with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She marshaled an army of Native American volunteers to provide the food, cook and serve authentic dishes, then clean the kitchen.

Fry bread was an important part of those meals. The cooks were Creek, Cherokee, Osage, Ponca and from other tribes. They were of several generations, many were related and all were friends. It was a happy kitchen, full of laughter with flour flying, dough rising into mountains and lots of prayer.

"We always pray before we cook," Giles told me. "And we pray while we cook. That’s what goes into fry bread — love and prayer."

That’s what brings us together as a people, she said. Caring about one another and feeding one another.

"And, praying is what keeps them from killing one another," she said, glancing at her mother and aunt at the stoves.

"We are fry bread divas," her mother proclaimed.

Each cook had her own recipe and style.  Some used self-rising flour, a little dried milk and warm water. Some used only warm water and Red Corn Native Foods Mix, produced by the Red Corn family business in Pawhuska. I saw no measuring going on.

The real artistry was the mixing, rolling, patting and cutting. After being lightly kneaded, the dough was turned out onto a floured counter. Some rolled it out with a rolling pin the size of a child’s baseball bat.  Some patted it out.

Then they cut the thick dough like biscuits. One cook used a tin can as a cutter. For fry bread the size of your face, another used a small saucepan. Some cooks, I understand, cut the dough with a butcher knife or pizza cutter. Still others don’t roll out their dough at all; they pat and stretch individual balls into large patties. Some cooked it immediately, some let the dough rise overnight at room temperature.

Just before the dough was dropped into hot oil, it was stretched slightly and the center of each patty was poked with a finger or a knife. That makes the bread crisper; the indentation better holds honey or the juice of beans and meat for an Indian taco. Others, as befitting a chef’s prerogative, did not indent their bread at all.

Making fry bread is both a skill and a fine art. That’s why there’s a new movie titled "More Than Frybread," a pseudo-documentary about an Arizona fry bread contest, and a funny play titled "The Frybread Queen." That’s why the annual National Indian Taco Championship is held in Pawhuska. That’s why it’s an honor to have Oklahoma Red Corn Native Foods fry bread mix available in the gift shop at the Native American Museum of the American Indian. That’s why South Dakota named fry bread the official state bread.

And yet, fry bread has a dark and painful history. From 1864-1868, the U.S. government forcibly evicted the Navajo from their homeland in Arizona to New Mexico. The 300-mile journey, at gunpoint, became known as The Long Walk. The Navajo subsisted on government-issued flour, sugar, salt and lard, which they transformed into fry bread. It is not a healthy food.

Since one piece of fry bread contains 700 calories and 27 grams of fat, nutritionists say it has contributed to diabetes among traditional people.

Now fry bread is a festive dish associated with fairs, powwows and special occasions. Making it, in large quantities, is part of the celebration. What an adventure I had in the kitchen with Indian fry bread divas. What an honor to be welcomed into a parallel culture that is so close yet separate. What a universal experience: a tribe of women cooking traditional foods.

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Connie Cronley is the author of four books, commentator for public radio 89.5 FM and a columnist for TulsaPeople.

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