Fry Bread: A Tribute to Family and Tradition | An Interview with Kevin Noble Maillard

Kevin Noble Maillard’s debut children's title is a poetic picture book tribute to a family tradition and a food with origins in the diaspora of Native peoples in the United States.

           From Fry Bread, A Native American Family Story (Roaring Brook, 2019) by Kevin Noble Maillard, illus. by Juana Martinez-Neal

Kevin Noble Maillard’s Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story (Roaring Brook/Macmillan, Oct. 2019), illustrated by Pura Belpré-award winner and Caldecott Honor-recipient Juana Martinez-Neal, is a poetic picture book tribute to a family tradition and a food with origins in the diaspora of Native peoples in the United States. The book, which contains extensive back notes, is the debut children’s title by this law professor, journalist, and member of the Seminole Nation, and is dedicated to “…all the women who teach us stuff.”

Can you tell us a bit about fry bread and its origins?
Fry bread started off as a food of survival. Navajos are believed to have been the first to make it more than 150 years ago. When the federal government displaced Natives from their homelands, these exiles no longer had access to familiar meats, fruits, and vegetables, and they had to get by with what they had. They were given government commodities like flour, salt, and yeast. From the very worst origins of theft and conquest forcefully imposed by a larger power, indigenous groups created the reactionary—and now cultural—food of fry bread. It’s all about making the very best of the absolute worst.

You take a sensory approach to your subject, which is perfect given that fry bread represents both a food and family tradition.
Food has such a strong imprint on memory because it involves all five senses. These sensations trigger past thoughts and experiences. When we are younger, we don’t have the same power over words and expression that we do as adults, so we experience and express things differently. We are more physically expressive, and we articulate things in different ways as children. So when we encounter food through our senses—at this young age—it captures a moment in time that stays with us for a lifetime.

When people think of their epiphanic food moments, family is involved. Just think of it—most people’s subjective experience of food is influenced by how they grew up. You love your chocolate chip cookies crispy because that's the way your grandmother made them. Your dad grills burgers with a special spice, so that’s the way you like them. These initial moments stick with everyone, and they lay the groundwork for taste.

The preparation of the bread is a matriarchal tradition, but it’s a mantle you now wear. How did that happen?
There were two women in our family who made fry bread, and they were sisters. It was really a food feud, like an Indian country version of Pat’s vs. Geno’s Philly cheesesteaks or Coke vs. Pepsi. One sister lived on a farm, and her fry bread was earthier, for lack of a better word, and she didn’t measure ingredients. The other sister was fancier, and she lived in town, and her fry bread was more scientific and exact. I really liked both versions of it.

But the fancy sister died long before the country sister, who lived until the age of 99 and 11 months. She was pretty active into her old age, overseeing the nursing homes she owned and disappearing to her secret fishing holes. But she started to burn the fry and her bread didn’t taste as good as it did in the past. We didn’t have fry bread at any family dinners for a while, and it wasn’t coming back on its own. So I decided to learn…and taking a little of this and that [from recipes] came up with a new one.

You note that fry bread “reflects the vast, deep diversity of Indian Country.” How so, and what makes your fry bread different?
I make mine with corn meal. Other people do not. I really like to cook it for a while, so it is a dark brown color, which some might say is almost burnt… [and the] shape is different, too; my fry bread is more spherical than flat.

But it’s still fry bread, even if some people would say that it isn’t…. I was first told that when I went to college, where I met people from other states and tribes. Everyone had really strong opinions about what counted as Indian and what did not.

But defining the right kind fry bread is the same [as] defining who counts as Indian. There are so many of us from different communities with different shades of skin and hair color. The Hollywood version, which manifests as reality for both Natives and non-Natives, forwards a vision of a long-haired, copper-skinned, stoic shaman unfamiliar with technology and the modern world. But most people who consider themselves Native American live in cities, and these would be cities like New York, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles. This is a far different cry than the sepia-toned vision of buckskin-draped warriors trotting through the red rock sierras of the West. Native Americans are varied and diverse, just like fry bread is varied and diverse.

While authors and illustrators rarely collaborate, your back matter suggests that Juana Martinez-Neal had some access to images of your family, etc., in her inclusion of the framed image of a woman who appears twice, a young man’s tattoo, a picture of specific basket, and so on. Did you collaborate?
We did! In secret. We weren’t sure if our editor would like it, so we would talk via FaceTime and text each other regularly. We also became friends on social media, so [Juana] had access to my Instagram pictures going back five years. Some of the poses that the children hold in the book are exact poses that my children are doing in my posts.

I also set up a Tumblr page for Juana, and I would post pictures that I thought were important. Old pics of my family—like the one of the fancy aunt—necklaces, fabric patterns, and toys all went on the site. I wanted each spread in the book to have at least one Native Easter egg on it. Juana was fantastic about incorporating them into her work.

There is a particularly poignant image in the book, which you have referred to as “the wall.” Can you tell us about it?
This was entirely Juana’s idea, and it’s so powerful and frankly, emotional, for me. Juana had the idea to list [the names of] all Native tribes on the endpapers and on one of the spreads, in a nod to inclusiveness.

What happens when you see the names of the fallen soldiers on the Vietnam Memorial? You search for someone you know, or someone with your name, or you just look at the sheer volume of names. Your gaze allows these men and women to be seen, you affirm that their existence was and is real, and that they are not forgotten; it’s about public acknowledgement.

When we think about diversity, inclusivity, and equality in the United States, Indians are the last people to be remembered or considered. The assumption is that there are not enough of us around to matter, or that we all live in Arizona, or on some remote reservation—out of sight and mind. That Native issues are so small and that there is no need to reconcile that the entire country that we currently call home is entirely comprised of stolen, bloody, and disenfranchised land. That this happened so long ago that it has no connection to the way we live our present lives.

That wall lists every federal, state, and developing tribe within the United States. We included these names and put them all in one place to memorialize their existence and to ratify their living presence as survivors of a governmental system that intended, fought, and warred to erase them. By putting their big names in our small book, we join them in saying “we are still here.”

Kevin Noble Maillard introduces and shares some of the backstory for creating Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story, courtesy of Teaching


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Claudia Long

Powerful indigeneous writer. Looking forward to reading more of his work as it comes available. Rocks my mocs!

Posted : Oct 12, 2019 01:57



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