Quite a lot of cuisine that identifies a culture comes from hard times.
Haggis uses all the parts of a sheep that no one really pays much attention to until there’s not much else to go around. Soul food comes out of the simple, and hardly adequate, rations of cornmeal and pork that enslaved people were expected to live on. And fry bread… well, that tells a sad story.
Every year, since 1872 or so, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe hosts a powwow that celebrates the 1868 arrival of the first Ojibwe people to a newly formed reservation — one result of a mind-bending collection of treaty provisions designed to free up northern Minnesota for logging.
Traditions are at the heart of the weekend events. Ceremony, honoring veterans, celebrating young people, homecoming, lots of dance, and… fry bread.
Fry bread burgers. Fry bread tacos. Fry bread with sugar and, well, just fry bread. It’s simple, not intended to be elegant, and, like a lot of culturally definitive foods, it came from hard times.
Its golden, puffy exterior, and the delight with which it’s sold and eaten — and the fact that it’s all-but-exclusive as far as menu items at powwow food vendors go — hides a tragic story.
The Dené, whom missionaries called the Navajo, were forced on the disastrous “Long Walk” to reservation land 300 miles away on a diet of flour, water, salt, lard and sugar, out of which came fry bread. It’s a food of displacement, and a reminder of the resilience of Native people whose outlook can make a celebration out of fried dough and hardship. Fry bread is history that never stops happening.
Like a lot of foods at street festivals, ballgames and state fairs, the cuisine at powwows isn’t elegant. But, unlike foods-on-a-stick whose only real reason for existence is to make it clear that, when planning your outing, walking around is more important than eating, powwow cuisine is a reminder that there is something more to food than convenience and nostalgia.
Putting s'mores on a stick doesn’t make them any better, even if it reminds people of the comradery of the campfire. Fry bread isn’t any better than it was in 1864, on the Long Walk, either. It hasn’t changed hardly at all.
But, more than nostalgia, and certainly more than a convenience, it’s a declaration. And what it says is, “We are the People, and we’re not going anywhere. Not ever again.”
Try it with honey. Gosh, it’s sweet.
Eric Daeuber is an instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Readers can reach him at email@example.com.