I realize that featuring an obscure dish like fry bread tacos may not be representative of the US, in the sense that it’s not a dish of national acclaim or populace. Although America has always been a nation characterized by its diverse voices, there is one voice that has received little attention, if it has not vanished from our consciousness all together: that of Native Americans. That is why for our first journey to the US, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate post than one that celebrates the spirit of America as experienced through a people we so rarely get the chance to appreciate.
Food and its preparation are integral to Native American cultures. Dishes like fry bread embody the traditions of a shared community and provide generational linkages to a story of survival. Fry bread, although now ubiquitous throughout North American tribes, originated in 1864 when the Navajo people were forced off their land in Arizona to walk 300 miles to New Mexico by the US government (also known as the “Long Walk”). In this new climate, the Navajo could not easily sustain their diet of vegetables and beans, so in order to prevent starvation, they were given government rations of canned foods, flour and lard. Upon adding a healthy pinch of ingenuity, the fry bread was born and has since played a central role in Navajo identity.
Fry bread, a flat disk of flour and water fried in oil, is cherished by the Navajo, and eating fry bread has become emblematic of preserving their culture. Fry bread tacos are fry bread topped with meat, shredded lettuce and cheese and are served in restaurants and at powwows. In more recent years the fry bread has been getting a bad rap, being cited as the cause for the high rates of obesity and diabetes among Native Americans. This reality is aggravated by larger problems of limited access to health care and nutritional education on reservations, where many live below the federal poverty line. And although contemporary dialogues around Navajo identity has posited the fry bread as a conflicted symbol, one thing remains certain about the fry bread: it is more than just good eats. Stay tuned on Friday and join me in the kitchen when I make this truly American dish!
(Top photo) Antelope Canyon, a jaw-dropping beauty formed by mother nature and time. It is located within the Navajo Nation in Arizona and run by the Navajo Tribe; (Middle photo) The Navajo at Bosque Redondo, the end of the “Long Walk”; (Upper bottom photo) Employees at Tocabe, a restaurant serving up fry bread taco; (Lower bottom photo) A young member of the Navajo tribe at a powwow.