There’s no question that almost any type of food has a much richer and more complex history than we assume; all of the articles for the Slow Food case study provided multiple examples of food that held both a deeper social meaning and specific cultural ties to a group (or groups) of people. One such example that is especially relevant in the Southwest United States is frybread. Just like a lot of indigenous groups, the Diné (Navajo) had an established subsistence system (mostly pastoralism) that was an important part of their lifestyle, before the United State government came along and permanently disrupted it. Today, the Diné still practice pastoralism (primarily with sheep), but are limited by reservation borders and a lot of legislation restricting their right to land and mobility. If we understand the colonial past of the Diné, the effects of the disruption upon their culture are clear; however, some aspects are integrated in ways that appear to be natural if we do not dig deeper, and frybread is a perfect example of this.
Sure, the actual product of fried bread may not seem incredibly influential or unique: various versions of it have arisen globally, each with small adaptations depending on cultural preferences or available resources (e.g. certain spices, the amount of salt, etc.). But Diné frybread has a particularly painful history. In 1864, the United States government forcible relocated the Diné hundreds of miles from their home in Arizona to New Mexico, a process commonly called the Long Walk. Countless people became sick and died during this death march, and the readjustment that followed wasn’t much better. The new land didn’t support the same sort of agricultural processes and was virtually un-farmable in terms of the staple vegetables that the Diné had previously relied upon. As a “solution” to this problem, the government provided them with rations – consisting of wheat, lard, and and sugar. There were a limited number of things that could be done with such meager ingredients, and thus frybread was born. At the time, the bread (especially the frying) provided necessary nutrition to a population that otherwise might have starved; today, it’s contributing to extreme health problems within Native American communities, including childhood obesity, diabetes, and more.
Beyond those immediate effects, it raises social questions of the role of frybread in Native American culture. Some see it as a symbol of strength, a form of resistance against colonial oppression; others see it as direct evidence of how colonialism has repressed Native American cultures and continues to do so. Prominent Diné and other Native American activists have steadfastly argues both sides, such as Suzan Shown Harjo who described frybread as the dietary equivalent of “hard-core porn. No redeeming qualities. Zero nutrition.” So it’s clear that while enjoying food is important, as Carlo Petrini clearly acknowledged in the birth of the Slow Food movement long ago, there is also much more to it than that. There should be no question that non-native (and especially white) people cannot fully understand the complexities that lie behind frybread: but should that stop us from eating it? To what extent does this consumption become a political act, and to what extent is it supporting Native American communities in the short term or perpetuating their destruction in the long term? When we consume frybread as one of the many tourists who flock to reservations to enjoy “authentic Native culture,” do we unknowingly contribute to the homogenization of food that Petrini warns us about? On the surface it might just be enjoying a fried treat topped with any variety of honeys, jams, jellies, sugar, meats, vegetables, etc., but in reality, it could have cultural implications that are further-reaching than we can imagine.
“Frybread” by Jen Miller. Smithsonian Online, July 2008.
Readings: “How a McDonald’s Restaurant Spawned the Slow Food Movement” by Noah Rayman. Time Magazine, December 2014.
“The commoditization of products and taste: Slow Food and the conservation of agrobiodiversity” by Ariane Lotti. July 2009.