Fry Bread Nation: The Birth of a 'Native' Cuisine

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©2009 Renee Comet, Smithsonian Institution, & Restaurant Associates


To view a slide show of images from Denver's Tocabe and D.C.'s Mitsitam Café, click here.

When Ben Jacobs and Matt Chandra entered the fifth annual National Indian Taco Championship last spring, it was more than just their signature hominy salsa that caught the attention of their competitors. The cook-off, which draws entrants from around the country, pays homage to the Indian taco—heaps of beans, meat, and veggies piled on slightly sweet, wonderfully chewy fry bread, which is similar to puffy fried dough and made of milk, flour, and shortening.

"All the elder women came looking for us," says Jacobs, who together with Chandra took second place in the competition. "These Cheyenne and Arapaho women came saying, 'Where are the boys who can cook fry bread? I didn't know boys could cook fry bread.'" He adds, "It was a compliment because we learned to cook it from women." They used a recipe passed from Jacobs's grandmother to his mother.

Jacobs and Chandra—the owners of Tocabe, an American Indian fast-casual restaurant in Denver that serves stuffed tacos, sweet fry bread nuggets, and, of course, classic Indian tacos—are part of a larger movement that is bringing Native American foods to the fore. From the acclaimed Kai restaurant in Phoenix to Fernando and Marlene Divina's James Beard Award-winning cookbook, Foods of the Americas, to the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which sells traditional foods like wild rice and hominy, this long-overlooked is cuisine is slowly gaining traction in the broader culinary landscape.

Tocabe serves the kind of food that Jacobs, who is a member of the Osage tribe, ate as a child on summer visits to his grandfather in Oklahoma, where the family would feast on hominy stew, smoked meats, and corn bread. But when he returned home to Denver, there was nowhere to find traditional foods, except on special occasions. "You'd have to wait for a pow-wow or make it at home," he says.

The partners see their restaurant as an opportunity to educate the public about a cuisine that has received little attention. "Overall, American Indians have not pushed for that," Jacobs says. "We need to help push it." He adds that consumers' lack of experience with native cooking reflects a broader dearth of knowledge about American Indian culture. "People come in and ask questions about Native Americans in general," Jacobs says of the inquiries Chandra and he receive about reservation life and federal per capita payments. "They don't realize that there are 500 different tribes and that we don't know everything, but they ask and we try to find answers."

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©2009 Renee Comet, Smithsonian Institution, & Restaurant Associates

The sheer number of tribes—there are 564 recognized by the federal government—is part of what has made popularizing American Indian cuisine difficult, which is why Jacobs and Chandra have chosen to emphasize the ubiquitous fried dough, a staple across tribes. "Fry bread is an easy introduction," Chandra says. "It's universal." They then incorporate other traditional flavors—an Osage-inspired hominy salsa or pinto beans with green chiles—to communicate a broader native culinary perspective.

Tocabe also operates with a familiar model, increasing its accessibility. In a system reminiscent of Chipotle, Denver's great fast-casual restaurant success story, customers move through an assembly line, choosing among a variety of meats, beans, and salsas to top their freshly made fry bread.

Tocabe is not alone in its mission to bring attention to this oft-ignored cuisine. The organizers who planned the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., saw its café as a kind of living exhibition of Native American culture. However, like Tocabe, the museum faced the challenge of representing hundreds of tribes in a single institution.

"The assumption was that, of course, the cafeteria would serve native food, but we had a difficult time backing that assumption up," says Duane Blue Spruce, an architect who was heavily involved in the design and planning for the café. "We wanted to show that there are regional differences. Not only culturally, but in terms of food."

To achieve this, the organizers divided the Mitsitam Native Foods Café into five geographic stations, representing each region with a separate menu.

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Katie Robbins is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has covered food, culture, and lifestyle for a variety of publications, including Psychology Today, Saveur, Meatpaper, Tablet, and BlackBook, among others. More

Katie Robbins is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has covered food, culture, and lifestyle for a variety of publications, including Psychology Today, Saveur, Meatpaper, Tablet, and BlackBook, among others.

In her former life as a documentary producer, she reported on issues such as the New Orleans school system, America's health insurance crisis, and the U.S. Secret Service for organizations like PBS NewsHour, ABC News, and the National Geographic Channel. Learn more at www.katiesallierobbins.com.

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