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Indian Bread Baking
by Elliot Essman


Mary Jane and Alex Edaakie bake their bread in a traditional oven called a horno

Imagine Ireland without the potato, Switzerland without chocolate, Italy without the tomato, India without hot peppers. Now imagine Florida with no oranges, California without a single grape, Texas with no cattle, Iowa with no wheat. The year 1492 began a massive two-way exchange of animals, plants, and foods. The "Columbian Exchange," as scholars term it, affects every food ingredient we now grow, buy, cook, or eat.

Pure Old World or New World cuisine simply doesn't exist. Chocolate may have been the "Food of the Gods" for the Aztecs in Mexico, but only as a beverage. It took scientists and industrialists in Belgium, France, Holland and Switzerland to turn it into a delightful solid confection, and a worldwide industry. By the same token, frybread, typical of so many Indian tribes of the Southwest, is composed primarily of wheat flour, unknown in America before Columbus, and baking powder, unknown anywhere before its invention in the 1850s. Ingredients aside, Indian bread baking uses techniques and equipment that long pre-date Columbus.

Mary Jane and Robert Edaakie give demonstrations in Indian bread baking twice a month in the courtyard of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology on the University of New Mexico campus in Albuquerque. The dishes they produce do speak of long tradition, but that wouldn't be worth much if they weren't so satisfying to eat. Mary Jane is a full-blooded member of the Isleta Pueblo, while Robert is half Isleta and half Zuni; their four-year-old son Alex, who "helps," is four-fourths adorable. The Edaakies (the name is Zuni) offer their goodies for sale, with plenty of background explanation, at lunchtime. There is always a line for their sweets, breads and frybread tacos, and an informal poll I took indicated that everyone in the line-students, faculty and museum workers-had been there before.

"We really enjoy having these demonstrations," Carol Anne Brannan, the museum's Coordinator of Public Programs told me, "It's a good way for people to learn a little about Native American and Pueblo Indian culture and food, and attract people into the museum so they can enjoy our exhibits and learn from them."

When I first met Mary Jane she was busy preparing loaves of bread dough she and Robert planned later to bake in the traditional dome-shaped horno, the outdoor adobe ovens found in Indian communities throughout the Southwest. Mary Jane explained that she had begun the night before with a 25-pound sack of regular all-purpose flour, into which she mixed water, salt, yeast and lard, "with plenty of work." She was busy forming the dough, which she had allowed to rise in a plastic tub the night before, into individual rounded loaves of approximately one pound each. She formed some of the loaves into decorative shapes with hand movements I could never reproduce. "We use these decorative breads for gift baskets for feast days," she explained, " or when we entertain people for special occasions in the Pueblo." I asked her what other kinds of foods were usually served with the bread at such events. "Chicken and rice," she answered, "also stew-lamb or beef with bones-bread pudding, and, of course, chiles." Mary Jane's sweet dessert specialties include thin, diamond-shaped pies, filled with peach, pumpkin and raisins, and her variety of thick shortbread cookies, all of which are popular items among her campus customers.

Once the individual round loves of dough are formed, Mary Jane covers them carefully with plastic wrap and towels to keep them warm for their second rising, which takes an hour or so. Robert is busy at the horno filling it with wood, which he lights, stokes, and nurtures into a vigorous fire. The horno will take about an hour to heat; the loaves will in turn take an hour or so to bake, then additional time to cool.

While the bread loaves rise and the horno heats up, the Edaakies keep busy producing frybread tacos, which take approximately twenty seconds to turn from dough to finished food. Indian tacos differ from Hispanic tacos in one critical respect; they are made with wheat-based frybread instead of corn-based tortillas. Mary Jane hastens to point out that her frybread is not Indian frybread but Isleta frybread. I do not think I will be able to base a doctoral thesis on the differences in frybread among the Pueblos and Indian tribes of New Mexico, though such a comparison may become the impetus for a diet. The one common thread for frybread is that it acts as a symbol for Indian unity; you will always find it at powwows and intertribal councils. Mary Jane stresses that she fries in vegetable oil rather than lard or shortening, as do some other peoples. My own observation was that her frybread, though technically flat compared to, say, a sopaipilla, was puffier than the frybread I had recently enjoyed at the Indian pavilion of the New Mexico State Fair in Albuquerque.

Frybread dough is simplicity itself: flour, salt, water, and baking powder. Mary Jane first forms the dough into three-inch rounds, then rolls them into nine-inch disks using a thin wooden dowel. She uses the same dowel to poke a hole in the center and another an inch or so in from one of the edges. "I make the two holes so the oil can go through the taco and it won't puff up too much," she explains. She throws the taco into a pot of hot oil, while Robert attends it, using a long stick he slides into the center hole to turn the taco and lift it out a few seconds later when it is done. The taco cools a moment, then Mary Jane tops it with a soupy mixture of beans, tomatoes, ground beef and chiles, garnished with lettuce and tomato.

Joe Watkins, Associate Professor of Anthropology at UNM, is one of the many fans of this simple yet satisfying cuisine. We discuss the cultural significance of the breads, the demonstration, and the traditions involved as we sit with little Alex Edaakie at a table just behind the horno. "I love it and come here as often as I can," he says. "I've gotten acquainted with the family and Alexander here. It's like having lunch at home." I dodge an errant gust of smoke from the horno, which is still building to baking temperature; my imagination turns the heat and smoke into big loaves of bread you can cradle like a child. Little Alex repeatedly begs us: "Take me to the Duck Pond." We both explain that he'll have to wait until his enterprising parents finish feeding half the campus. The loaves go into the horno, one by one; the smell is intoxicating. I can now understand why Alex doesn't want to wait. I don't want to wait either.

INDIAN FRYBREAD: For 8-10 tacos
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder (make sure it's fresh)
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk or warm water
oil, shortening or lard for frying

Sift the dry ingredients together to mix. Stir in the warm water or milk, adding flour if necessary to get the dough to kneading consistency. Heat the oil to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don't have a thermometer, roll out a mini frybread and slide it into the oil as a test; it should fry up nicely in just a few seconds without burning. Frybreads can take any shape, but for tacos, tear off balls of dough the size of your fist, roll them out to 8-10 inch disks, poke a hold in the middle and one an inch from one of the edges (or, if you want the breads to puff up, skip the holes). You fry the dough until "it's done," then drain, put on a topping, or eat as is.
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