Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard

Fry Bread: A Native American Story by Kevin Noble Maillard

I’ve written before about my affinity for picture books and Fry Bread: A Native American Story written by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, and published by Roaring Brook Press fits my profile well.

Every culture, it seems, has their own version of fried bread. Tortillas, beignets, bannocks. Fried bread is something around which families and friends can gather. In a certain sense, it is the ultimate comfort food. A heavenly combination of fat, flour, salt, and sugar, it is something around which families and cultures bond. In Native American culture, that fried bread simply goes by the name “fry bread” and as the book illustrates,

Fry bread is food…

Fry bread is shape…

Fry bread is sound…

Fry bread is color…

Fry bread is time…

Fry bread is art…

Fry bread is history…

Fry bread is place…

Fry bread is nation…

Fry bread is everything…

Fry bread is us.

Through the experience of our church youth group working with a sister church in Wounded Knee, SD I’ve come to know fry bread. It’s like a tortilla, but pillowy, chewy, and maybe a little dense. If I eat a tortilla I’m left hungry, looking for something of substance.

Fry bread in Wounded Knee, SD.

Fry bread stands on its own. It can be a meal unto itself or it can be the base upon which something more, like an Indian taco, can be built.

Indian tacos in Wounded Knee, SD.

For the little church in Wounded Knee and for our church group, fry bread is also a tool for connection. It is possible to meet a stranger and even spend time with them and not come to know them. Break bread with that person and things change. Barriers come down, our humanness is revealed and connections are made. It is, I believe, why Christ commanded His disciples to remember Him through the breaking of bread and pouring out of wine. Sharing a common meal forces us to slow down and see the person across the table as our equal. It forces us to look another in the eye as we are being nourished from the same plates and bowls. We reach for the same things and our hands inadvertently brush against one another. We see another’s glass has run dry and we reach to fill it. We pass plates for seconds. Our concern for ourselves magically morphs into concern for the other. In eating, we are forced to acknowledge on at least a subconscious level, that we have basic needs that everyone shares. Sharing a meal is a deeply intimate activity.

Each year when we have traveled to Wounded Knee to do our mission work, our hosts, poor by almost every American standard of measure, cook for us. Like the rest of us, our hosts want to show us, their guests, complete hospitality. They take from their admittedly meager resources and nourish our bodies with fry bread and Indian tacos, but they nourish our hearts with their eyes, their words, their souls. They offer us the best they have of what they have and we accept it with as much humility and grace as we can offering ourselves in return. Bellies are filled and relationships are strengthened.

Fry bread breaking down barriers between cultures in Wounded Knee, SD.

All of which gets me thinking about how important shared meals and poured out wine, whatever that looks like for you, are in our lives. I love nothing more than having people in my home for a meal. I’m not always comfortable hugging. I have powerful emotions always lingering just underneath the surface and an honest expression of my feelings can often cause my eyes to well with tears. I don’t always know how to express my love for people.

But I can cook. I can keep your glass filled and apply fire to meat, heat and oil to flour, and pour all that I am into a meal that I made…for you.

My mother does this too. So does my dad. And both of my grandmothers did it. One of them had a Magna-Lite pot that I swear Jesus used to cook the loaves and fishes in, because no matter how many people came to her house, it never seemed to empty.

We all do this, in every culture in every nation in the world. And when the food is gone and our plates and glasses sit empty, we still tend to linger at the table, not yet ready for the experience to end. Something amazing has happened during the meal and even if we began it as strangers, we are that no more. Something new has been created. We have each shared a little bit of ourselves with another.

The point is, sharing food with another is, to me, one of the ultimate acts of humility, service, and love. If I have invited you into my home to share a meal, know that I am deeply interested in you and am trying to share a little of who I am.

Some of the dearest people in my life, gathered around my table.

Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard is a loving tribute to a dish that is central to Native Americans. It is so much more than that though. It is a reminder of how similar we all really are and how connections are built and strengthened. I cannot recommend it to you enough.


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