The Indian fry bread taco is as emblematic of oppression as it is a symbol of survival and cultural diversity — with a multilayered history stretching far beyond the Long Walk.

Pork braised in its own fat, grasshoppers, Pacific bluefin tuna, scrambled eggs, goat cheese. Anything can be wrapped in a tortilla of corn or flour and be christened a taco — as long as there is a tortilla involved. Never mind that some chefs have taken liberties with the taco’s foundation, substituting naan or seaweed or gossamer slices of yucca. As far as I’m concerned, those aren’t tacos.

But when I look at an Indian taco, made by topping platter-sized Indian fry bread with classic Southwestern ingredients — seasoned ground beef, pinto beans, cheddar cheese, iceberg lettuce, and chopped tomatoes — I see a taco. That’s because fry bread is essentially a flour tortilla with the addition of baking powder, deep-fried in oil until it becomes fluffy and bubbly with a golden brown exterior.

In Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, author Jeffrey M. Pilcher notes that evidence of corn tortillas and maize in the American Southwest goes back as far as the 1300s. Edward S. Curtis, the great visual chronicler of Indian tribes in the early 20th century, snapped photographs of Hopi women grinding maize on flat stone cookware, akin to the traditional Mexican metate, and preparing it into wafer-thin, tortilla-like blue corn piki bread, just as it had been done for centuries.

Then tragedy struck, changing a nation and changing a food. Or so one theory goes.

Fry Bread Fundamentals

What we know as fry bread is commonly believed to have been born on the Long Walk, the forced march led by Col. Christopher “Kit” Carson and the U.S. Cavalry in 1864 that relocated thousands of Navajos to Bosque Redondo in New Mexico. Along the way, displaced American Indians were forced to subsist on the limited U.S. government rations that were alloted them. Processed flour, salt, and sugar were combined and fried in lard to make a kind of bread that would become part of Native food culture for years to come.

But Holt Hamilton — the independent writer and filmmaker behind More Than Frybread, a 2012 mockumentary about an Arizona tribal cook-off — questions this accepted origin story.

“A lot of stories talk about it being introduced by the military, which may be true in some cases, but I don’t believe this story across the many reservations we’ve visited,” Hamilton says, referring to his travels across the United States and Canada for screenings of his comedy. “I’ve talked with people from Alaska who say it came from Russia with the early traders and was traditionally cooked in seal oil or such.”

It’s plausible that fry bread’s invention occurred concurrently in disparate locations, from Alaska to the Four Corners, as Native communities encountered these unfamiliar ingredients for the first time, brought by the American military and Russian traders, as well as European settlers. In Canada and points north, fry bread takes the name bannock, based on the Celtic word for an unleavened barley or oat cake that originated in Scotland and was brought by traders across the Atlantic. Indigenous North Americans, like the Chippewa, often added dried fruit or spices to the imported flour, then fried the dough in a small amount of oil over a campfire.

But even for the Navajo, Hamilton does not consider fry bread a spontaneous creation born from limited resources — that would be too tidy. Instead, he sees it as an evolution of an ancient tradition triggered by grim circumstance.

“I am starting to believe that with the Navajo it was something that transitioned from other tortilla-type breads that were learned from farther south,” he says. “Then, when the cavalry came in, ingredients like less-healthy flour were substituted [for the traditional corn masa] out of necessity and survival mode.”

His theory is reasonable, especially when you note that flour tortillas are typical of the U.S.-Mexican border region and the northern states of Mexico, including Sonora and Sinaloa. They’re a consequence of Spanish conquest replacing corn with European white wheat flour introduced during the colonial period of New Spain. Which means that Native American tribes in the area would have been aware of flour as an ingredient in cooking long before Kit Carson.

Plains Indians, such as the Lakota Sioux, actually ground timpsula (also known as the prairie turnip) into flour and fried the dough they made with it. Lewis and Clark witnessed Indians cooking with the tuber as early as 1805 during their expedition.

But even if fry bread wasn’t simply a product of the Long Walk and internment, the revised history doesn’t detract from the significance of the food’s back story. The elements of bread-making were already established when Carson rounded up the Navajo and tore them from their land. The captives simply utilized the new provisions of lard, sugar, and flour in a familiar way. As Pilcher, an expert in the subject of tacos and Mexican food and a professor of history at the University of Minnesota, explains, “People start innovating with ingredients when they have a lot of it around. In this case, government commodity programs may be part of the story.” They did what they could with what they had and, in turn, created something so powerful it nourished their bodies and their identities.

The Indian Taco Trail

In the 20th century, at fairs and pan-tribal celebrations — or as The Route 66 Cookbook claims, originally at the Ranch Kitchen in Gallup, New Mexico — fry bread mingled with Southwestern and Spanish-Mexican influences and was transformed into a taco equally confectionary and savory. The doughy base evoked a flour tortilla crossed with a zeppole. When made by an experienced hand (like the art of tortilla-making, it can take decades to master fry bread), it creates a hearty yet tender base for a whole range of wet and weighty toppings.

One of the striking characteristics of the Indian taco is that it resembles the San Antonio-style puffy taco, made from deep-fried corn masa dough that is given its shell shape with the use of spatulas and dressed with fillings similar to those used in the preparation of a fry bread taco. The puffy taco — itself not immune to a debated origin in the San Antonio kitchen of Ray’s Drive Inn, Caro’s Restaurant in Rio Grande City, Texas, or the stove top of everyone’s grandmother — echoes Mexico’s tacos dorados, or fried tacos.

Whatever the Native dish’s provenance, these days powwows are inconceivable without a fry bread or Indian taco stand. There’s even a major cook-off: the National Indian Taco Championship in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. It’s the stuff of proud Native identity and pop culture. Fry bread figures into song, art, and film, like Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals, in which Thomas Builds-the-Fire (played by Evan Adams) dons a T-shirt bearing the words “Frybread Power.” In many ways, fry bread is at the foundation of modern pan-tribal identity just as corn (and the corn tortilla) forms the bedrock of Mexican culture.

Still, the specter of oppression continues to hover over the seemingly innocuous food. Fry bread carries at least 700 calories and 27 grams of fat per serving, according to the USDA. Researchers at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases have been studying why Native Americans have incredibly high rates of Type 2 diabetes compared to the general population. It is believed that a cultural diet high in processed foods made from flour, sugar, and lard may be partly to blame. In response, some Native writers and artists have turned on fry bread. Creek/Euchee artist Steven Deo even went so far as to splash the phrase “Frybread Kills” across a 2004 public announcement-style poster as part of his Art of Indians series.

So the question has become, can fry bread be removed as a daily diet staple to improve health, yet maintain its cultural relevance and significance — and delectability — as an occasional indulgence? The answer appears to be yes when it comes to a new generation of innovative chefs and foodies, who are both elevating the Indian taco to a gourmet splurge and remaking it into a healthier alternative.

Taco Trendsetters

For home cooks, Hamilton and company are soliciting family recipes and creating a database on the World Wide Frybread Association website where, Hamilton says, “you can get a good piece of fry bread when you want to find one.” He’s advocating the use of healthier ingredients and decreased consumption, while continuing his grass roots effort to preserve this cultural signifier through the WWFA, which also hosts and encourages the establishment of fry bread cook-offs.

Photography: Courtesy Kachina Southwestern Grill
Photography: Courtesy Kachina Southwestern Grill

Meanwhile, in professional kitchens across the country, fry bread tacos have been experiencing a culinary renaissance, as chefs off the reservation have begun to offer variations from the standard to the upscale.

Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., goes the historical route. The taco, which has been on the menu since the restaurant opened in 2004, is capped with a serving of buffalo chili, something Richard Hetzler, Mitsitam’s executive chef, says he felt had to be there from the start. Since then, though, the kitchen has added a healthier topping option: chipotle chicken.

“I think [the Indian taco] represents the creativity and ingenuity that Native peoples had; it is a staple in Native communities today,” Hetzler says. “I think it showcases how Native Americans would take even hardships like being forced to reservations and make something exciting and fun out of it. To me it is a testament of their sheer will and tenacity on how they viewed life and their creator.”

Red Feather Diner in Albuquerque, New Mexico, serves their All Nations Taco with a heavy hand of ground beef, pinto beans, lettuce, diced tomatoes, onion, and cheddar-Jack cheese — sour cream and guacamole are optional. “In our diner, our fry bread is handmade to order,” owner David Red Feather says. “When we serve fry bread and our Indian taco, we are sharing our culture and heritage. We want to ensure that future generations will be able to pass on the tastes and flavors of our forefathers.”

The chic Kachina Southwestern Grill in Westminster, Colorado, also has culture in mind. The restaurant and food are “a celebration of the Southwest, both past and present,” explains restaurateur Peter Karpinski. “Our overall goal is to highlight, pay respect, and support key attributes that the Native American culture has influenced in Southwestern cuisine, which is displayed through modern interpretations.” Of their seven options, the Santa Fe Navajo Taco — served with charred tomato salsa, asadero cheese, and caramelized onions garnishing smoked poultry — is one of the most popular, with more than 900 orders monthly. That’s as commonplace as Kachina’s ingredients get, though. Duck confit, peach habanero salsa, Gulf shrimp, and cowboy beans are among the other available toppings.

Denver-based fast-casual restaurant Tocabe was featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and contributed a recipe for Osage Hominy Salsa to Guy Fieri’s latest cookbook, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives: The Funky Finds in Flavortown. Owners Ben Jacobs and Matt Chandra dole out a solid collection of fry bread tacos, including some with bison, as well as a choice of black, pinto, or chili beans.

The Fry Bread House in Phoenix, which offers chorizo and vegetarian taco options, has received plaudits from the highest echelons of the food world. The restaurant, helmed by chef Cecelia Miller, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, was honored with one of the James Beard Foundation’s America’s Classics Awards in 2012.

Off the Rez, a Seattle food truck, sells creative, accessible interpretations including a pulled pork taco. The slow-smoked meat is drenched in a house-made barbecue sauce and topped with a shot of slaw. Owner Mark McConnell says part of the Indian taco’s appeal is that, “it’s like a taco built on top of a doughnut.” However lighthearted such a statement comes off, fry bread’s unifying powers are at the root of McConnell’s business. “Fry bread brings me back to family gatherings and reminds me of sitting around enjoying good food with my grandmother.”

The fry bread taco was also the inspiration for the January 2013 Shiprock pop-up dinner in Philadelphia. Named after a reservation town in the Navajo Nation and organized by artisan jerky producer Marcos Espinoza (whose Jemez Pueblo-Hispanic parents own the Navajo Hogan restaurant in Salt Lake City), chef Lucio Palazzo, and artist Hawk Krall, the event featured Indian tacos with chili, pork spareribs, chicken ropa vieja, and black beans. Young urbanites and gourmands flocked to the happening.

No matter the arena, fry bread and the Indian fry bread taco foster community. As Johnny Greybird (played by James Bilagody) says, standing at a podium waving a doughy golden brown disk in More Than Frybread, “It’s more than just a piece of bread.” When you eat an Indian taco, you’re consuming a symbol of persecution and perseverance, of ingenuity and cultural sustenance. It’s a tasty and satisfying, if loaded, food. The product of centuries of cultivation, it’s well worth the occasional splurge.

Recipes:

Navajo Tacos Two Ways


From the October 2013 issue.

Explore:Food & Spirits