Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story

I knew nothing about fry bread – a dish integral to Indigenous American culture – until two of my food-centric friends brought it up at dinner one night. And for such a seemingly simple food, I’ve found it’s one full of contradictions: sustenance in the face of starvation, but nutritionally lean and cited as a contributor to health woes plaguing many Native American people; a signifier of a surviving Native culture, but also that culture’s genocide; Faith and Hope vs. Pain and Hopelessness. Fry bread is so divisive, though it is still a popular potable at pow wows, markets and fairs across the country, there are Indigenous American chefs who refuse to make it.

My ignorance is unsurprising; even though I grew up in the US, there is a dearth of information (and actual truth) in our formal education regarding the European occupation of Indigenous American land. So, when I saw Kevin Noble Maillard‘s book, Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story (recipient of the 2020 Sibert medal), I was excited to see how he took a story rife with complexity and shaped it for children.

Maillard, an enrolled member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, starts the story simply, detailing what fry bread is: “flour, salt, water, cornmeal, baking powder. Perhaps milk. Maybe sugar.” He guides us through the different iterations of the food’s physicality – it’s shape, colour, taste, even sound – all while illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal depicts “all different kinds of Native people” through her beautiful artwork (including members of Maillard’s own family – even the author himself!). The book delicately transitions from these tangible elements to fry bread’s deeper meaning within Native culture: Family time, art and craft, heritage.

The shift from heart-warming to darker truth is where Maillard truly shines in telling this nuanced tale. In a gentle-yet-direct way, he explains how this food was borne from necessity; its history is tied directly to The Long Walk, internment camps-cum-reservations, and Native American boarding schools. Following their forceful removal from fertile land that yielded abundant crops, Indigenous Americans found themselves on land that grew nothing and cultivated only pain and illness. Though fry bread is made from army-supplied rations, it’s truly the product of a people’s ingenuity and need to survive; the innate drive to live.

The most powerful part of this book is toward the end, with a spread beginning, “Fry bread is us. We are still here.” Maillard cites finding few picture books featuring – and authored by – Native people as his catalyst for making this book: “If we don’t have these books that reflect us, does that mean we’re not here?” As he notes, most education about Indigenous Americans takes place in elementary school; so, in its way, this picture book introduces real learning about Native cultures and is a defence against the stereotypes we Americans often grow up with. Say it with me: REPRESENTATION MATTERS.

It’s worth noting that, while fry bread is certainly a unifying element of Native culture, it is as varied as the people who make it. Within the “hundreds and hundreds” of tribes in the lower 48 states that incorporate this dish in their cooking, each one does it differently. Just as their language and dress and customs differ from nation to nation and tribe to tribe, fry bread changes depending on the maker.

Let’s read this book to kids and teach them Native people are not blanket stereotypes; not a costume, not a punchline, not a meme, and never just one thing. They are “brown, yellow, black, and white. Familiar and foreign. Old and new.” They are all shades and shapes, opinions and experiences, histories and futures.

And they are still here.

Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story. Words by Kevin Noble Maillard, Illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal. ©2019. Roaring Book Press, New York.

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