Fry bread is to powwows what hot dogs are to baseball games. Whether anointed with honey or powdered sugar; piled with ground meat or stew; or layered with beans, lettuce, tomato, grated cheese, and sour cream to form an “Indian taco;” these puffy, chewy disks of fried dough are a beloved part of nearly every Native American gathering. Fry bread may be a simple food—a combination of flour, baking powder, and powdered milk fried in lard—but it’s a symbol of pride and a reminder of the painful legacy that America’s indigenous peoples endured.
There are several styles of fry bread, but Navajo fry bread is the most common. When the U.S. government called for the removal of the Navajo from their native lands in Arizona and northwestern New Mexico in 1864, those who survived the 300-mile forced march (known as the Long Walk) to the Bosque Redondo reservation in eastern New Mexico found the soil poorly suited for agriculture, and malnutrition, disease, and famine became rampant. The government supplied the Navajo with rations of canned foods, flour, various dry goods, and lard. Fry bread was born from these basic ingredients.
It may seem puzzling that a food derived from such tragic circumstances is so revered, but the Navajo see it differently. Powwows represent inter-tribal unity and celebrate Native American culture. As such, fry bread is a powerful symbol of resilience and resourcefulness. It’s also darn tasty.
(makes 10 rounds of bread)
• 3 cups all-purpose flour
• 1/2 Tablespoon salt
• 1 Tablespoon baking powder
• 1/4 cup nonfat dry milk
• 1 1/3 cups lukewarm water (approximately)
• Shortening or lard for frying
1) Combine and mix flour, salt, baking powder, and dry milk in a bowl. Add enough lukewarm water to make a soft dough. Knead thoroughly then cover with a dishtowel and let stand in a warm, draft-free place for one hour.
2) Pinch off an egg-sized chunk of dough and form into a ball. Then gently flatten into a disk, about ¼- to ½-inch thick, forming a small hole in the center to allow for even cooking. Work it back and forth from one palm to the other to make it thinner. Carefully stretch it to a diameter of about eight-to nine-inches (or use a rolling pin).
3) Heat shortening to at least one-inch deep in a heavy iron skillet. Drop disks of dough into the hot shortening and fry until golden. Turn over dough and fry until the other side is golden. The bread should puff up as it fries.
4) Drain each piece on a layer of double-thick paper towels and serve hot with honey or powdered sugar. For Indian tacos, fill with ground meat and garnishes.