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


©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.

"There were not a lot of native cookbooks out there," says Richard Hetzler, the café's executive chef. "So we started taking a different approach—looking at life ways. Were they foragers? Were they nomadic people? What would have been available?"

To develop the menus, Hetzler and his team took indigenous ingredients and the few recipes they could find and updated them. "A great example is the maple-brined turkey," Hetzler says. "We know that Native Americans cured items in salt, so essentially they were doing a brine, infusing the flavor, adding moisture," he explains. "They definitely had turkey. They had maple syrup. It works for us."

And it worked for the museum's administration and guests as well. "It was such an affirmation that the museum took it all the way," Blue Spruce says of the response he's received from Native Americans. "There's no hamburgers and hot dogs and pizza to be had in this café."

With ingredients rigorously sourced from vendors like the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, the café's organizers credit their success and the growing interest in American Indian food to a larger trend. "There's a huge push for food history and where food comes from," Hetzler says. Blue Spruce agrees. "We benefited from timing. I'm no foodie, but I'm aware of the tremendous focus on organic food and getting food from good sources," he says. "All of those things have kind of fed into people's acceptance of the food that we serve."

This interest in sustainably sourced food has fueled a large number of other Native American purveyors onto the scene. The Intertribal Agricultural Council has registered more than 500 "Made by American Indian Trademarks," which identify agricultural and food products made by federally recognized tribes. These products, a large portion of which are organic, free-range, or wild, range from sockeye salmon to buffalo and cranberry power bars to chocolate covered potato chips. The website Native Recipes also maintains a running list of restaurants that feature native foods. As these foods gain popularity, Blue Spruce hopes that consumers make another important realization. "These foods are probably foods you've had before, but you didn't realize that they had native or indigenous origins."

Of course, fry bread, which is also a popular option at the Mitsitam Café, is not without controversy. Traditionally made with lard or Crisco and deep fried, it is often blamed for increased rates of diabetes in the American Indian population, and because the recipe emerged from the federal rations distributed during the resettlement of natives to reservations, some view it as a remnant of the genocide of Native Americans and the subsequent loss of many of their cultural traditions.

Although the folks behind Mitsitam Café and Tocabe have wrestled with the debates over fry bread, they say that ultimately its legacy and popularity make it irrevocably tied to American Indian food.

"Part of it is just meeting expectations," Blue Spruce says. "It's such a common food at native gatherings. It has become accepted food within the culture."

"I want to eat fry bread. I like fry bread. I can't eat it every day," Jacobs echoes. "We just need to find a way to eat it healthily." To make it as healthy as possible, Tocabe's version substitutes a trans fat-free oil blend for Crisco and is not deep-fried but rather rapidly flash-fried.

Jacobs's love of fry bread and the gratitude he feels for the elder women who taught him to make it is evident from the t-shirts worn by his employees. "My heroes have always made fry bread," they read.

Jacobs and Chandra are committed to spreading that legacy. Like Chipotle, they plan to take a Denver fast-casual restaurant to a large scale. A second restaurant is slated to open in Denver in September, with hopes to expand to 13 in the near future. And for those far from Denver and D.C. who want to try Native American recipes, a new cookbook based on the foods at Mitsitam Café will be available in November. As Jacobs puts it, "Our goal is to be big."