- By Levi Rickert
Opinion. Powwows bring family, friends, tribal communities, and non-Natives together for beautiful cultural exchange. The sounds of powwow drums intermingling with jingle dresses as women dancers walk around the powwow grounds always adds to the mystique of the powwow experience.
All those sounds are great, but it’s the aroma of fry bread coming through the summer breeze that gets me every time. When I go to a powwow, I can’t help but indulge in fry bread in one of its many forms — savory Indian tacos, sweet strawberry fry bread or just a single piece topped with powdered sugar and a drizzle of honey.
These days I typically attend powwows while on assignment to take photographs to publish. I always try to find time to take a break to get in line to get a piece of delicious fry bread. Since I travel often, I enjoy sampling fry bread from different regions in Indian Country. I am pleased to say I have had delicious fry bread in most places I have visited.
In mid-June, I attended the powwow at the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation (my tribe) and was drawn to a sign that read winner of the 2023 fry bread competition. I quickly got in line to buy a piece and was not disappointed. Strangely, the food booth had the smallest line. Given its “winner” distinction, I was surprised it did not have the longest line.
Instead, the longest line was at the booth with a price of a piece of fry bread that was a dollar cheaper than at the winner’s booth. In these inflationary times, I totally understood.
Of course, fry bread isn’t just for powwows. It can be found at tribal community gatherings, in Native American homes, even in some restaurants at Indian gaming facilities.
Two weeks ago, our staff at Native News Online took to our social media platforms and asked our readers a dangerous and controversial question: “Who makes the best fry bread in Indian Country?”
We had hundreds of readers and followers weigh in on the question. More than a few thought we were trying to start some sort of battle. Many others voted for their grandmas, moms and aunties. Some tribes even got votes.
The responses that listed grandmas as the best fry bread makers put a smile on my face. I remembered an interview I conducted with Chef Stephanie “Pyet '' Despain (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) after she had just won $250,000 and first place on the first season of Gordon Ramsey’s Next Level Chef competition.
During the competition, Pyet made fry bread, and Ramsey told her he loved it. That compliment from the internationally known celebrity chef led to me asking Pyet was the recipe she used in the competition hers or her grandmas.
She told me her grandma taught her fry bread can be made with either warm water or warm milk. On the set of the competition, Pyet said she had to make the fry bread from memory because the chefs could not bring recipes with them. They had to make all of the food entries from scratch and memory. On the set, she had available milk and buttermilk. Pyet said she wanted her fry bread to come out perfectly so she made two batches. One with regular milk and one with buttermilk. But, she could only use one as her entry. She chose the fry bread she made with buttermilk.
Given that choice, I asked her whether the recipe was hers or grandma’s. She laughed because her grandma never made fry bread with buttermilk, but Pyet still gave her grandma the credit for teaching her the basic ingredients she can use for a lifetime.
In our social media question, one response from reader Ned Johnson caught my attention. “Isn’t any answer wrong if it isn’t the mom in Smoke Signals?”
Johnson’s post made me remember the hilarious scene in the 1988 movie.
In the scene, after accepting Suzy’s offer for dinner, Thomas and Victor sit down to watch Cowboys vs. Indians on television while Suzy serves them fry bread. Thomas tells Victor it’s almost as good as Arlene’s. Victor quickly replies that’s impossible and proclaims his mother (Arlene) makes the best fry bread in the world.
Then Thomas tells Victor and Suzy a story about how there was a large feast back on the reservation with 100 Indians. The feast included deer meat and mashed potatoes,Thomas said, adding “a good piece of fry bread turned any meal into a feast.” But this feast had a problem. There were 100 Indians, but Arlene had only 50 pieces of fry bread. In the scene, Arlene ripped each piece of fry bread in half to feed everyone.
In another scene, Arlene discusses making her fry bread: “You know, people always told me I make the best fry bread in the world. Maybe it's true. But I don't make it by myself, you know. I got the recipe from your grandmother, and she got it from her grandmother.”
Her point is well taken. When it comes to fry bread, and so many other things in Indian Country, grandmothers have always played an outsized role in passing down the secrets to what is good in life for Native Americans. And they do it with wisdom and love.
So when we ask who makes the best fry bread, the answer is always an Indigenous grandmother. Whether she made it for you, taught you on Native TikTok, or just passed on the recipe and tradition, grandmas make the best fry bread.
One word of caution: fry bread came about as the result of commodities and large quantities of wheat flour being delivered on reservations. So even though it is delicious, it isn’t healthy. Eat your grandma’s fry bread in moderation.
Thayék gde nwéndëmen - We are all related.
More Stories Like ThisA Call for Equality: Cherokee Nation’s Fight for Justice
The 3 Most Favorable Presidents to Indian Country
Bridging the Divide: Cherokee Nation Invests in Rural Connectivity
Celebrating Our First 13 Years: The Walk That Launched Native News Online
Hope That the Good Sense of Working Together Prevails This Legislative Session
Native Perspective. Native Voices. Native News.
We launched Native News Online because the mainstream media often overlooks news that is important is Native people. We believe that everyone in Indian Country deserves equal access to news and commentary pertaining to them, their relatives and their communities. That's why the story you’ve just finished was free — and we want to keep it that way, for all readers. We hope you'll consider making a donation to support our efforts so that we can continue publishing more stories that make a difference to Native people, whether they live on or off the reservation. Your donation will help us keep producing quality journalism and elevating Indigenous voices. Any contribution of any amount — big or small — gives us a better, stronger future and allows us to remain a force for change. Donate to Native News Online today and support independent Indigenous-centered journalism. Thank you.