“But they couldn’t keep the people down, because born to the people was a Frybread Messiah, who said, ‘You can’t do much with sugar, flour, lard, and salt. But you can add one fundamental ingredient: love.'” Keith Secola, Ojibwe musician
As a standalone dish, frybread is nothing much to look at. Its blistered, hulking mass isn’t particularly beautiful; to the outsider, the chewy bread betrays no hint of nutrition or complexity. What lies beneath the surface are layers upon layers of a long and winding history that began with the burning of Navajo land and continues in the streets of Minneapolis’ “Indian Country.”
In the technical sense, frybread could be aptly compared to the tortilla or funnel cake: It is a fried piece of dough made from white flour, lard, salt, and leavening. However, its more appropriate, symbolic twin is matzo, the Jewish “bread of affliction.” Like the Jewish people’s relationship to their mythic bread, American Indians eat frybread to remember their state of exile and confirm membership in a greater symbolic community.
It began in the 1860s as a dish of desperation among Navajos forced into barren internment camps. Faced with poor agricultural conditions in alien territory, they created a filling dish from the sparse rations granted to them by the United States government. One hundred years later, the Pan-Indian civil rights movement adopted frybread as a potent symbol of their struggle at large, and it began to appear at powwows and potlucks all over the country. Frybread — and the frybread taco — spread in all directions, and was even adopted as the state bread of North Dakota in 2005.
In Minneapolis, the home base of the American Indian Movement (AIM), one can find frybread at the Wolves Den, a small cafe in the heart of the American Indian Center on Franklin Ave. Its chef and owner, Mike Forcia, is an Ojibwe tribe member and chairman of AIM. Forcia presents a no-frills version of the frybread taco ($4-$6) that draws community members to the cafe every week, especially on Fridays, when he offers them at half price.
The Wolves Den’s frybread taco has a hearty and satisfying bite to it, as evidenced by the happily pensive faces of the many elders in the cafe. It’s topped with ground beef, which is cooked with pre-made taco seasoning, shredded iceberg lettuce, chopped tomato, and cheddar cheese. Forcia famously eschews measurements in his frybread non-recipe, letting faith and feel be his guides. In this American Indian oasis, Forcia doles out soul food by the hefty plateful.
One may find another version of this dish across town at Sun Street Breads, during its casual but subdued dinner service. Here, their frybread tacos ($7) fit snugly in the palm of one’s hand and feature on the appetizer menu, alongside tostones ($6) and knackwurst ($11). Their tacos come in a pair topped with a seriously juicy house-made porketta, sweet corn relish, and sour cream. Annette Colon, Sun Street’s chef, anticipates that the toppings will change with the seasons and hinted at the appearance of green tomato jam in the early summer.
Solveig Tofte, Sun Street’s owner and baker, drew inspiration from the North Shore frybread of her childhood. According to Colon, their frybread is a painstaking “labor of love” that is mixed and hand-stretched daily. Tofte’s finished product is the result of extensive research and testing, but authenticity didn’t dictate its direction. Her frybread is softer than Forcia’s, and much lighter in color. Their utilitarian shape forms a kind of “crust” around the filling, keeping it more or less enclosed. The components are more refined, and it is clear that the porketta is the core of the dish, rather than the vessel.
The difference in emphases speaks to how the two chefs conceive of their dishes. For Forcia and his patrons, it’s all about the frybread itself. The tradition, while conservative in practice, continues a radical movement to preserve American Indian cultures in the face of assimilation and genocide. It’s certainly a weighty mission for a dish to carry. Tofte’s frybread is also a token of memory. Its carefully curated ingredients showcase a different kind of love than Forcia’s, but still: It’s love, all the same.
The Wolves Den (1530 E Franklin Ave, Minneapolis) is open for breakfast and lunch from 8am to 3pm, Monday through Friday. Sun Street Breads (4600 Nicollet Ave, Minneapolis) is open for dinner from 5pm to 9pm, Tuesday through Saturday.