Well, it's Mardi Gras time down here in Louisiana. Unless you've visited or lived here, it's pretty impossible to understand the significance of that. Technically, it's a Catholic holiday but everybody celebrates it here. Okay, everybody except the Jehovah's Witnesses and that's cool because we all have to do our own thing but, for everyone else, this holiday is bigger than Christmas. After the two hurricanes last year, a few people suggested that the school system down here might need to cancel some of the school holidays to make up for the days missed due to the power outages, flooding and downed trees. However, the school board members were wise enough to know they'd be branded as the anti-Christ were they to actually suggest doing away with Mardi Gras vacation.
Despite all of the festivities, I have bigger things to think about. Along with it being Mardi Gras time, it's also Black History Month. While the regular-paced classes at VanGoghGirl's school have been taking trips to the African-American History Museum and reading books about Harriet Tubman, her class has been working on another project. Her teacher decided that since only three of the students in the gifted class are "Black", she'd have her students create projects about an individual that shared a part of their ethnic background. I think that the program's under-representation of black students made focusing on Black history even more essential but since VanGoghGirl was really excited about this exercise and didn't want me to push the issue, I decided to just focus on helping her get it done.
The project was rather simple. She had to choose an individual, write a report on the person, give a presentation, and bring in a food item from the person's culture. VanGoghGirl chose Crowfoot. Over a period of two weeks, she gathered information and turned in her rough draft. Somewhere in the process of working on the Crowfoot project, I figured that it would be really great if we made fry bread for the kids in her class. VanGoghGirl really liked my idea and I was absolutely proud of myself for coming up with something that she'd agree to without an argument. Of course she went to school and told her classmates about our plans. They were all pretty excited to hear that she was going to be bringing in some "real" Native food for them to try. Earlier this year, VanGoghGirl was the girl of the hour when the class was studying Native American culture and she came to school in her homemade beaded dress and moccasins. She got me to paint her face and answer questions for her classmates and teacher (e.g."Yes, little ones, some Native Americans are Black too").
The very next day, I woke up in a panic. What in the world was I thinking? Why didn't I just convince my daughter to do a project on Chinua Achebe or General Lafayette? Okay, even though we actually are direct descendents of General Lafayette, there was no way I'd have suggested that she do her Substitute-of-Black-History project on someone who wasn't at least a person of color. Still, it sure would have made things easier if I had suggested something other than fry bread to make. I've never made fry bread by myself. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the last person in my family who had made some was my grandmother and she's been dead ten years.
My grandmother was a beautiful woman. She had jet black hair and wonderfully round eyes. She also had the most gorgeous legs I've ever seen on a woman and she was very proud of them. For as long as I could remember, she'd worked as a maid in one of those ritzy hotels in downtown New Orleans. Whenever we'd go to visit her, she'd give us handfuls of the chocolate mints and pirouline cookies the maids left around the hotel rooms for the guests. She's the reason why I started collecting coins. The Dauphine Orleans gets a lot of international guests. My grandmother said that, occasionally, guests would leave their tips in foreign currency and sometimes the amount was too small to make getting it changed over to dollars worth the trouble. So, she saved the coins for me.
My grandmother didn't read books; She devoured them. She sped through books at a speed most people would find unbelievable. After my grandmother died, my mother told me that my grandmother had been the valedictorian of her class. It's easy to see why my grandfather married her. She was the prettiest and the smartest of all her sisters. She was also the darkest. I was told that her sisters were quite jealous that the darkest of them had attracted a passe blanc man like my grandfather but that's a story for another day.
After my grandfather died, she came to live with us. Those years were great. She continued working at the hotel during the day even though she didn't have to. My mom made enough money to be able to take care of her but she didn't push it when my grandmother said she wanted to keep working. Looking back on it, I can see how working was good for my grandma. It gave her a circle of friends, a reason to get up every day, and a means to express some autonomy over her life.
Grandma also suffered from Diabetes. That's really no anomaly in my family. She wasn't overweight but her diet wasn't exactly healthy. It was still better than the eating habits of the average southerner, that's for sure. However, it wasn't what it needed to be in order for her to manage her Diabetes well. My mother and her sisters did their best to watch over what my grandma ate but they couldn't keep their eyes on her all of the time. Sometimes my grandmother would go in the kitchen late at night. If I heard her, I'd creep in as quietly as I could so as not to wake up my brothers because then I'd have to share my time with Grandma with them too.
On nights like that, my grandma would ask me if I wanted her to make us a snack. My answer was always in the affirmative. She would tell me that she'd only do it if I promised to be really quiet because she knew my mom wouldn't approve of me eating at that time of night. Years later, my mom told me that the real reason why my grandmother made me promise to be quiet was because she knew that she wasn't supposed to snack like that and my mother would have stopped me and my grandma from eating it if she had woke up and caught us red-handed. Back then, I didn't know much about Diabetes. If I had, I probably would have turned down my grandma's offers because it was never about being hungry.
Most of the time, she made fry bread. It was the perfect comfort food. What's not to love about something fried that you can cover with honey, butter, preserves, sugar and cinnamon, or any spice you happen to have in the pantry? You can put some meat between two pieces and have a fry bread sandwich. You can put some tomato sauce and cheese on top and make fry bread pizza. If you really want to get fancy with it, you can put a scoop of ice cream and berries on top and have a fry bread sundae. Okay, perhaps that last variation was a bit over the top but, trust me, I've seen it done before.
Most of the time, Grandma just topped it with butter. How could something that simple be so delicious? In my eyes, it was the food of the gods. It was also one of the last vestiges of my family's Native heritage. Like most people who are Native and Black, we are not "card-carrying" NDNs. I didn't realize that made a difference to some people until I grew up. My grandparents were dead by then, so I never got to ask them how they felt about that. For me, it is a painful recognition.
It doesn't matter to me what non-Natives think about this issue. After all, we have white people to thank for establishing the ignorant blood quantum policies in the first place. The problem is, many Natives joined in and actually started trying to judge who is "more" NDN according to this measure. I shouldn't even call it a measure because that might give the impression that there's something objective about it all.
Blood quantum is a lot like race. That should give you a good idea of how much logic and reason have anything to do with how it's determined. Because blood quantum does matter in the eyes of so many people, it's not something that I believe we should just dismiss as unimportant. However, for me, it's not how I define NDN-ness. I've met Natives who were raised on reservations their whole life but seem to have no appreciation for their identity. I'm not saying that to slur rez folks because if it weren't for them, I have no doubts that the U.S. government would have taken over NDN sovereign territories a long time ago. I'm just trying to point out that pride in one's NDNness isn't determined by where you live or what a government policy says you are. Heck, blood quantums isn't even how our pre-colonial ancestors defined themselves. So, not accepting them is certainly the more "authentic" NDN position to take.
Nevertheless, every culture needs to define itself by something. In other words, saying that I reject blood quantums isn't enough to make me NDN. So, what does? I define my NDN identity by the connection I have with those who have come before me. Do I know what NDN nations my ancestors come from? Yes. Does my family still organize itself around the ways that my ancestors did? Yes. Do I fight for my brothers and sisters to have the "right" to choose how they should be defined? Yes. Do I teach my child to respect and honor the past by how she lives today? Yes. These are the things that make me a Native American woman. Were I no longer able to answer these questions with a yes, I don't believe I could justify calling myself that.
So, what does this have to do with fry bread? Well, until VanGoghGirl's project, I didn't realize that it did. You see, even though I can answer yes to all of the above questions, there's one I left out: Can I make fry bread? After all, it's been ten years since my grandmother died and I have never even tried to make it before now. I've eaten it. Lord knows you can't go to an NDN function and not find any. You can also find some incarnation of it at most festivals held down here thanks to the fact that Louisianian culture has been heavily infused by Native recipes and practices. But that doesn't mean that I can make fry bread. And what kind of NDN can't at least do that?
Even I can't be sure how to answer that question. My mother and her sisters came of age in a health-crazed generation. My cousins and I grew up eating bread that was whole wheat, not fried. That's another reason why Grandma's fry bread was such a special treat to me. It certainly wasn't the main reason. What made it really special was that she fried it.
This usually-quiet woman would actually talk when she cooked. Much of what she told me about her life came while she was making dough. More than anything else, that's why I never tried to make it after she was gone. Even if I had managed to keep all of the proportions just right, there would be no stories to accompany the process. Turning the flour and water into something edible seemed like nothing but a chore without those serious eyes and warm smile looking back at me, but I'd committed myself to making fry bread, not just for me but also for the rest of my daughter's class. If you know anything about tweenies, you know that there's no such thing as backing out gracefully once you've already gotten their hopes up high.
Finally, the night came when I couldn't put it off any longer. VanGoghGirl wanted to help me make the fry bread but she isn't quite old enough to work with hot oil. So, I sent her to bed and started making my plans. It's really a straightforward recipe; You use three dry ingredients plus water to make the dough. I put a few cups of flour in my big purple mixing bowl. My grandma's mixing bowl was green. I wonder what ever happened to it. I added the baking powder. Actually, I added too much baking powder. Fortunately, the baking powder was a slightly different shade from the flour. I was able to take my measuring spoon and scoop it out. The second time I got it right. After that I added a few teaspoons of salt to the mixture. Can you believe that in the four years that I've lived here, I'm still using the same container of salt that I purchased when I originally stocked my pantry? That fact would make my mother proud. She almost never uses salt in her cooking.
My mother is a lot healthier than my grandmother was. Hopefully she'll never have to deal with Diabetes. My grandmother eventually had to get one of her feet cut off, then the doctors went back and amputated that leg up to the knee, then they removed her other leg up to the knee too. Not long after that, she died.
My mother was her oldest child. My brothers and I got to know my grandma a lot better than my cousins did. They only remember what she looked like and that they used to visit her sometimes. They never got to have late night fry bread conversations with her like I did.
After I mixed the dry ingredients, I poured the water into the bowl. I used a whisk to try and stir it all together. That didn't work out so well. To mix fry bread dough, you have to use your hands. That did the job. The German came in to see how it was going. I sprinkled a few drops of water on the oil to see if it was hot. He said you're not supposed to do it that way. According to him, you're supposed to take a little piece of bread and drop it in to see if it just gets soggy (the oil isn't hot enough) or browns (the temperature is just right). Of course, I rolled my eyes at Mr. Know-It-All. He snapped off a piece of my fry bread dough and dropped it in the oil. "Okay, it's hot enough", he said and gave me one of his favorite smartypants smirks.
With the best authoritative air that I could muster, I rolled a piece of dough into a ball and then flattened it between my palms. I quickly dropped it into the oil to keep The German from trying to take over completely. The pale white dough patty sank to the bottom of the pan for a few seconds and then bobbed back up. I turned and looked at The German as if to say "See, I know what I'm doing", but when I looked back at the stove, my fry bread was no longer a patty. It was a mountain. Suddenly the surface of my fry bread opened up in the center and the innards started rising like molten lava that's just about to reach the top of the volcano. As if on queue, The German asked me, "Is it supposed to look like that?" I almost started to cry. A sudden memory was the only thing that prevented it. My grandmother always put a hole in the middle of her dough patties. If I hadn't been trying to show off for The German, I probably would have remembered that before I dropped one in.
"That explains it", he said sympathetically. I made another patty. This one had the requisite hole in the center. The hole that you make in the center of a fry bread dough patty isn't like a donut hole; It's smaller. When the bread is done, you can use that little space to hold a couple of berries or a pretty puddle of honey, if you like. My grandmother knew how to form a hole that was just the right size so that when it was fried, you couldn't even tell that there had been a hole there at all.
I carefully placed my hole-bearing dough patty in the hot oil. It went to the bottom of the pan and rose back up and then a magnificent thing happened. It began to turn brown. At first you can't tell what color it is on the bottom but when edges of the patty start to turn brown, you know it's time to turn it over and cook the other side. I flipped my fry bread over and, to me, it was truly a sight to behold. It wasn't the dark mahogany color of my grandmother's skin and it wasn't the pale cafe au lait tone I see when I look at my daughter. It was a mouth-watering shade of medium, perfectly-cooked brown.
After the second one, the rest were made with ease. As I should have expected, The German decided to join in. I let him make the patties and I flipped and removed them from the oil. We made more than enough for all of the children to try tomorrow. We're going to serve them with raspberries and honey. In about three hours from now, it'll be time to wake up VanGoghGirl. I can't wait to show her our fry bread. Maybe I'll make it again this weekend. She's not too young to at least learn how to knead the dough.