Fried goodness

Staff photo by Rachael OwenFry bread with strawberry jam and butter.

Rodeo-goers can always count on Indian Fry Bread to provide tasty delight.

But just as every tradition is laced with variation, no two pieces of Indian fry bread are alike.

The process of shaping the dough into rounds is done by hand, requiring both mechanical efficiency and nimble grace. The act of frying the bread is done by trained eyes, peering through bubbling oil for the right golden color, one that rivals wheat fields. And the recipe for the dough is never quite the same. The most authentic versions aren’t written down; they’re passed through tribal families.

“There’s no right or wrong way to make it,” said Alice Johnson, who prepares the fry bread for the Kinship Cafe at the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute. She prefers a simple recipe: nothing but flour, baking powder and salt. Between her appreciation for variation and years of experience, Johnson doesn’t need measuring cups. She judges the ingredient ratio by the size of the bowl.

“I didn’t even remember when I started making it,” Johnson said. “I had to ask my mom.”

It was Johnson’s mother who taught her the basics of fry bread cooking at the age of nine. The youngest of 10 siblings, Johnson said each of her family members use slightly different ingredients. Some include yeast. Others, like her mom, might throw in a dash of sugar.

Toppings can vary just as widely. “Fry bread goes good with anything,” Johnson said, listing everything from peanut butter and jelly to breakfast potatoes and sausage. Popular pairings include huckleberry jam or a pile of taco fixings­­ for an “Indian Taco.”

The last two fry bread styles have been found at Round-Up since the 1970s, although the history of fry bread dates back nearly a century and far more widely.

Each tribe came about making the bread in a different way, Johnson explained. For the local Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes, fry bread was born with the signing of a 1855 treaty.

The treaty confined the tribes to a reservation and stipulated that they could no longer travel to gather food. After some time, the tribes were permitted commodities of flour, lard, coffee and sugar.

“They had to figure out what to make with that. So they came up with their own kind of bread,” Johnson said.

Today, fry bread is prepared for family gatherings or special occasions, and only available for sale at the Kinship Cafe or Round-Up, Johnson said.

Rodeo-goers can follow their noses to the Indian Craft Village in Roy Raley Park, where vendors fry the treat on-site.

“It’s best when it’s hot,” Johnson said.

Recipe from “Beyond the Bull”

Makes 6 to 8 servings

4 cups all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons baking powder

2 tablespoons powdered milk

2 teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon shortening

2 cups water

Sift all dry ingredients together. Mix in shortening. Add water slowly. Knead until soft. Cover with a towel and let rest for about 10 minutes. Flatten and shape into desired size and deep fry. Drain and serve.

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