To outsiders, the way 75-year-old Pauline LongFox prepares fry bread might seem like free-form cooking. You won’t see a recipe anywhere as she tends to hot, grease-filled skillets and adds flattened pieces of dough. But LongFox, a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaws who lives in Pleasant Grove, a neighborhood in southeast Dallas, has a very specific technique etched into her consciousness, drawn from decades of making the dish that many consider synonymous with Native American culture. Over the years, the North Texas Native community has come to regard her as a master fry-bread cook.
“A lot of people ask me how I make it,” LongFox says. “I don’t have a recipe. You just know what you got to do. Other tribes, even my tribe . . . they have their own ways.”
Fry bread is diverse, but no matter the recipe, it’s a simple, joyful comfort food that binds hundreds of Native American tribes and communities. The very ingredients—flour, salt, baking powder, shortening—are a testament to how one of the United States’ minuscule Indigenous populations has survived for the past 150 years.
Both Native Americans and non-Natives have proprietary recipes and methods for preparing fry bread. Native American families tend to have their own designated fry-bread chefs—people who helm the kitchen, mixing just the right combination of basic ingredients to concoct the carb-filled, sometimes tender, sometimes firm, greasy and aromatic dish. (If you’ve seen the making of a carnival funnel cake, in which a wad of dough floats in a pool of hot grease on its way to being browned, you’ve witnessed the basic mechanics of making fry bread.)
The Dallas area—where members of Plains tribes and Five Civilized Tribes converged by the thousands after the Indian Relocation Act of 1956—has emerged as a fry-bread epicenter in Texas. I’m of Muscogee-Menominee-Potawatomi descent, and I spent plenty of formative years in rural Oklahoma around fry bread. Over the past thirty years living in the Dallas area, I’ve run across various forms of fry bread at Native American churches, powwows, art markets—most anywhere Native American families gather for dinners. In a state where, as of December 2020, Native Americans total only one percent of the population, the greasy treat feels like a visit home. But the bread is more than a joyful indulgence. Though the dish’s popularity with Natives continues to endure, fry bread carries with it the weight of Native trauma past and present.
“Everyone thinks they make the best fry bread—and they do. Even burnt fry bread is good,” says Albert Old Crow, a Cheyenne who talks frequently of his quest for fry bread on his Beyond Bows and Arrows radio program on KNON in Dallas.
It may be of interest to Tex-Mex fans that Native Americans commonly refer to fry bread as an “Indian taco.” Like a tortilla, fry bread is a blank canvas that gets customized with toppings and fixings. The toppings options are endless, but some of the more common are beans, tomatoes, ground beef, lettuce, picante sauce, cheese, jalapeños, onions, and assorted condiments. You can even go dessert style, with powdered sugar and honey. San Antonio foodies might compare fry bread to the puffy taco that’s made from deep-fried masa dough and loaded with fillings that give it the “Indian taco” look.
In Texas, finding fry bread served outside Native American events is a quest. Native American restaurants in the U.S. are few and far between, and I don’t know of any in Texas. But Native Americans don’t have an exclusive patent on deep-frying a wad of dough, and in recent years, more non-Native chefs are touting fry bread on their menus. Warrior Taco, which opened earlier this year, is a taco food truck that specializes in fry bread and is typically hosted in Saginaw, north of Fort Worth. Its menu features fry bread variations with names like Yeti Taco, Sasquatch Burger, and Bigfoot Taco. In Dallas, the Texas Fry Bread Company, which was founded in 2018 and doesn’t brand its fry-bread lineup as Native-inspired, has a menu of fry-bread tacos, including sweet versions with toppings of chocolate, strawberries, apples and cinnamon sugar, powdered sugar, and powdered sugar and honey. Over in Plano, Burnt BBQ & Tacos, founded last year, serves a Navajo Fry Bread taco.
But what those chefs may or may not realize is that fry bread is regarded as a health hazard for the very segment of people it delights. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, diabetes prevalence for Native Americans is roughly twice that of white U.S. adults. Dieticians will attribute that in small part to fry bread’s rich ingredients; in 2010, Health magazine chose fry bread as one of the fifty fattiest foods in the U.S.
Hypertension and diabetes are part of my family’s history, so I’ve kept my distance and consumed fry bread in moderation, though I occasionally throw caution to the wind and indulge with a massive dollop of butter. According to Peggy Larney, the founder of American Indian Heritage Day in Texas, Native Americans “know we shouldn’t have it in our diet, but it’s hard to break a good thing.” Some fry-bread makers have turned to wheat flour instead of all-purpose or white flour for a more healthful alternative. “There’s a little difference; it’s a little bit better,” Larney says.
In addition to the health problems of the future, fry bread also carries the baggage of the past. Its history for Indigenous people is as a survival food, not a special culinary creation. To many Native Americans who had ancestors forcibly removed from their homelands, fry bread itself represents what was taken and substituted in its place. The origins of fry bread are debated, but common lore states that it can be traced to the Navajo, or Diné, more than 150 years ago. In the mid-nineteenth century, when the U.S. government was forcing Indigenous people from their lands to unfamiliar territories, food sources changed. The Navajo were relocated to lands that couldn’t easily support their traditional staples of vegetables and beans, so cooks turned to government-rationed commodities that included white flour, processed sugar, and lard—the ingredients for fry bread.
Fry bread “represents the creativity and ingenuity that Native peoples had; it is a staple in Native communities today,” Richard Hetzler, Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe chef, told Cowboys & Indians magazine. “I think it showcases how Native Americans would take even hardships like being forced to reservations and make something exciting and fun out of it. To me it is a testament of their sheer will and tenacity on how they viewed life and their creator.”
Ask the Native American community in the Dallas area who makes the best fry bread and many names surface, especially LongFox’s. LongFox is a testament to the fry bread–cooking techniques you won’t find in a cookbook. She knows the exact combinations of ingredients and the timing of when to bring them together. When she arrived in Dallas in the 1980s, she had not cooked fry bread before, but learned from “elders, who taught me how.”
Her fry-bread tricks aren’t secret: prepare the dough a day earlier, mind the texture, and while the dough is frying, flip it only once. She doesn’t measure any of the ingredients except to make sure she mixes a half-cup of powdered milk to every five pounds of flour for a thirty-count batch. She fries them in a deep metal pan full of grease and turns the dough with tongs.
At a recent fry-bread fundraiser in the Dallas Indian Mission United Methodist Church in Oak Cliff, LongFox and her crew of cooks produced hundreds of fry breads for sale. In a small back-room kitchen, LongFox and her crew busily fed a procession of paying friends.
On that day, LongFox scuttled around in the kitchen like a woman half her age, managing her crew’s workflow to make sure customers received the warmest portions.
Hollis Aseanp, a Comanche from Dallas, had a plateful of fry bread before him and an appreciation for LongFox’s efforts. “Some of it’s too greasy. Hers is not,” he said. At another table, Jessica Johnson, a Chickasaw-Choctaw-Seminole from Irving, said fry bread is a state of mind.
“It is the feeling of family and community that you get from fry bread,” she said. “It makes you think of dancers and the drum when you smell it, and of good childhood memories of honey smeared on top. And it shows perseverance—give a Native some poor land and poor food, and we make something out of nothing.”