May 20, 2009

Frybread = "impending doom"

Here is correspondent Melvin Martin’s response to Osage Nation to Hold National Indian Taco Championship (Newspaper Rock, 5/12/09):To fry, or not to fry, that is the question....

By Melvin Martin

(Martin is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota.)

When I read this short article via the link (although it’s more of a public announcement than a genuine article), I was horrified to say the least. Not much has changed in Indian Country since the national, yet alarmingly brief, debate over fry bread that took place in 2005 shortly after an opinion appeared in Indian Country Today that boldly described fry bread for what it actually is for Indian people everywhere: impending death served up on a paper plate.

Fry bread is bad enough by itself, as follows:

Nutritional Information: Navajo Fry Bread I (from

Servings Per Recipe: 8
Amount Per Serving
(Note: The percentages indicated are based on a 2000 calorie daily diet)

Calories per serving: 543

Total Fat: 34.2g (53%)
Cholesterol: 35mg (67%)
Sodium: 1274mg (51%)

Total Carbs: 47g
Dietary Fiber: 1.4g
Protein: 10.7g

Not to personally demonize the Navajo Nation with this recipe, but to transform a serving of already quite dangerous fry bread into the standard-sized Indian Taco, generally made with the low-cost hamburger that’s usually undrained of its lethal, greasy fat; plus several ounces of commodity cheese that the purists always demand; plus nearly half a small container of regular sour cream; plus refried beans that are most often made with lard as is the fry bread itself; and perhaps three to four ounces of high sodium salsa--and the aforementioned “impending death” quickly becomes, with the addition of these several hundred more calories (as well as the sodium): “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn....”

I know all-too-well that fry bread is the number one Indian comfort food. I know that Indian people throughout Turtle Island regard fry bread as “traditional” and even somehow “culturally sacred.” I know that giving up fry bread for a lot of people in our communities would be a far more difficult task than for a long-time smoker, drinker or heroin addict going cold turkey with their respective drug of choice. But since we, as a people, seem to be getting fatter and fatter and fatter (and most tragically, this includes our children who are the most obese of all the children of the principally categorized U.S. ethnic groups)--to hold a major celebration/contest to see who can build the better Indian Taco is simply way, way beyond this Indian’s ability to comprehend such an event.

Focusing on Indian children, in the early ’90s in Tucson, Arizona, I attended trade school with a woman from one of the local reservations whose ten-year-old son (affectionately known to her as “Knick Knack”) stood at about four and a half feet tall--and weighed close to 200 pounds! I recall asking this woman how Knick Knack had gotten to be such a big boy and she told me that she made fry bread for him at least four days of each week, and that she had done so since he was old enough to munch on solid food.

I befriended another Indian person at that time who also ate a lot of fry bread (every day of the week in this case) and he was perhaps one of the most tragic figures I’ve known in my life thus far. “Ned” was also from the Southwest who at the age of 27 weighed in at 450 pounds and was 5’5” in height. About halfway through the academic year, Ned disappeared for two weeks and I thought he’d dropped out of school. Upon his return to campus, Ned informed me that he had been hospitalized for a crippling lower back pain. He volunteered to me that it was his weight or more specifically his “gut” as he referred to it that was the primary villain. Ned explained that his abdominal fat (he had to have at least an 80-inch waist) was so heavy that the weight was generating extremely serious pain to his back, so much so that he had collapsed at home and had to be airlifted to the nearest big-city medical facility. And then he told me that his set-in-stone daily diet of fry bread (and canned beef stew) was to blame--more so the fry bread than the stew since he always ate four servings of this oily treat. I personally set him up with the trade school’s nurse for nutritional counseling after he had tried and failed to lose weight for one month on what he called the “potato chip diet,” where he ate just one small bag of potato chips a day and nothing else.

These are, of course, extreme instances of fry bread “overload,” but as far as the impact of fry bread upon the American Indian population goes (and no pun intended!) their stories are definitely “food for thought.” And, knowing all that we know these days about the hazards of fried bread, do we really, really need contests offering prize money and national outreach to further glorify just one more component of that which is so viciously killing us?

I leave you with the following:

To fry, or not to fry, that is the question....
Comment:  For more on the subject, see America's Elephantine Bodies, "Return to Your Roots," Natives, and Fatter Off the Rez.

P.S. For Martin's latest take on racism, see Melvin Martin:  Even More Truths About Race in Rapid City.


Unknown said...

This post reminds me of articles I have read regarding the affects tradition soul food has on the health of African Americans. Such exposure and investigation prompted many to examine the nutritional value of the foods and to consider ways to improve on them and more importantly to take on board that much of those foods were not to be eaten every day.

One of the reasons I began investigating other cultures' quick bread recipes was in hopes of finding alternatives to something that was considered a treat in my family. Fry bread was not an everyday occurance, though corn based breads were, as were the occasional chestnut and acorn flour breads and sadly even those have died down with the new generations.

Quick breads that were griddle or heated panned made or oven baked, that used chickpea and other legume and whole wheat flours instead of white flours were options that I found exciting. Flat and puffy breads with herbs and veggies tossed in were also exciting to me and offered to create a meal with more nutritional value.

I guess the key it to look at customs like this not as an everyday meal but a treat and make the attempt to improve on the nutritional value of the traditional foods. More importantly to discuss these issues and bring attention to them in a way that encourages improvement rather than denying what is culturally imbedded in some.

Rob said...

No food is a problem if you eat it only occasionally, as a treat. But as Melvin Martin said, some people are eating frybread several times a week, as a staple.