Fry Bread, Casinos and Mexican Cuisine: Native American Food in California

Fry Bread, Casinos and Mexican Cuisine: Native American Food in California
Courtesy of Loretta Barrett Oden

The legendary Corn Dance Café in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was owned by Loretta Barrett Oden, a writer, television host, chef and advocate of Native American culture and cuisine. The upscale restaurant served pre-Columbian food throughout the ’90s to people who arrived from around the world seeking this "new" style of high-end cuisine. Corn Dance became emblematic of the Southwest, but as it happens, Barrett Oden first started tinkering with the idea while living in Los Angeles.

Though she’s currently based in Oklahoma, Barrett Oden does work around the country, including creating special event menus for the Autry Museum here in Los Angeles. She talked to us about her controversial stance on fry bread (perhaps the most famous Native American dish), getting people to understand pre-Columbian food and of course, "that little Thanksgiving myth."

Are you going to come back to California?
Yes, I miss it desperately. That’s kind of what I have on the drawing board right now. I was actually born and raised in Oklahoma and went away and lived in Southern California and New Mexico, where I had my restaurant, and then moved back to Oklahoma because I had grandkids sprouting up, and now they’re growing up and I’m ready to bail out.

You were thinking about the concept for the restaurant while you were living in California, but you decided to open in New Mexico instead, right?
I lived in Marina del Rey in the early ’90s before I moved to Santa Fe and opened the first Corn Dance Café in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In, like, ’93 I opened in New Mexico. I was pitching the concept of a quick-serve version of un–fry bread that I had put together at the time. Just a little concept called Little Big Pie that is a flatbread with all kinds of toppings, and I kind of conceived of the name through the movie Little Big Man. So I had pitched that for a while, and then I decided to go to Santa Fe and rather than open the quick-serve, I ended up opening the Corn Dance Café, which turned out to be kind of a higher-end fine-dining venue that just took off like crazy. I mean, completely unexpected. So my eldest son joined me in Santa Fe and we just kind of kicked butt for a while out there.

Fry Bread, Casinos and Mexican Cuisine: Native American Food in CaliforniaEXPAND
Flickr/jeffreyw

Fry bread is an important part of the culinary culture of a lot of Native Americans, but youve very publicly been resistant to it. Even, as you mentioned, calling your flatbread concept "unfry bread."
Yep. You would not believe how often I get that question, because when anyone thinks of Native American food, Indian food, however you want to address it, the first thing that comes to mind is fry bread, Indian tacos, Navajo tacos, whatever they happen to be called wherever you might be. In the past I’ve taken an extremely strong stance against fry bread because of the health implications. We have very dire incidences all over Indian Country of Type 2 diabetes, and it really has to do with the radical change in our diets during the days of relocation. The people were taken from their homelands and moved to reservations, a whole bunch of tribes, to right here in Oklahoma, old Indian Territory. The Navajos, the other people on these forced marches, were put on the reservations, they were starving. So the U.S. government had to feed them somehow, and so they dipped into their stores of white wheat flour, and lard, hence the creation by very inventive, survival-minded Indian women to fill the hungry bellies of their families. Fry bread was created.

I used to be totally against it because of that but, you know, in more recent times, I have to really look to its history, and it was a survival food, unfortunate as the circumstances were. Then on the other hand, everyone has some kind of bread, sometimes fried, like beignets or doughnuts, for heaven’s sake. It’s something that I softened my stance on, partially because Ben Jacobs, who’s the operator-owner of Tocabe, probably one of the most famous fry bread houses in the country, in Denver, has become a really close friend of mine. He’s a young chef, he’s very creative, he does wonderful things other than fry bread at Tocabe. When we first met, he said, "Oh my God, I was so afraid to meet you, she’s going to hate me," because I’ve been very, very outspoken about fry bread.

I worked for a number of years with a lot of different tribes and most especially with the Tohono O’odham tribe in southern Arizona. These people have the highest rate of Type 2 diabetes of any people from the planet. They lived off of the desert food, they live on the Sonoran Desert. I lived down there for three months putting in a little café for the benefit of the people, to reintroduce their own desert foods to them, and I’ve seen the effects of fry bread. It became such a staple, we went through a couple of generations and all of a sudden they’re thinking, this is traditional food. I guess traditions can always be built as time moves on, but I grew up in Oklahoma and my people — I’m Potawatomi — my grandma, my mom, my aunties, we didn’t cook any fry bread.

The first time I had fry bread was at the Oklahoma State Fair as an Indian taco or a Navajo taco. But with its origins rooted so deeply in relocation and in the commodities program ... I used to go out and stand in line with my grandparents for commodities at the old Indian agency, and it was lard and white wheat flour, although they came in really pretty printed cotton bags so that you could make clothes. My grandma used to save the cotton flour sacks and make tea towels and dresses and things. So you know there’s all kinds of memories wrapped up in that commodities program coming together. The food that was doled out was government-surplus commodities stuff. Only at that time, when I was growing up, the only nutritious thing in that commodities packet was probably the pinto beans. While my grandma made biscuits and pancakes and all of that, fry bread wasn’t a part of my upbringing.

Fry bread seems to be spread all across the United States, or at least west of the Mississippi or so. Do you think its seen as some sort of unifying dish?
Oh, certainly now it is. I think really it became so widespread through the pow-wow circuit. Every pow-wow you go to now, there’s that fry bread truck, so I really think that that’s how it became so widespread: the coming together of all of these different tribes at gatherings and pow-wows.

I was looking for Native American food in Los Angeles and the only thing I can find is one fry bread truck. L.A.s a really big place and yet thats all we seem to have, commercially. I wonder why that is — part of our civic pride is that we like to know about different kinds of food, but Native American food still hasnt made an impact in this city.
I have my theory on that. You know, I just hate politics. And I thought, "Well, I’ll get into food and that’s going to be as apolitical as I can get." Well, it’s probably one of the most political arenas. And I’m going, "Oh my God, what have I done."

I think that maybe the government would have to ’fess up to the injustices of what happened in the Americas before Native American food can really take off. So that’s the political side of it that I really don’t like. I like to use the food as my tool for enlightening people in a gentle way. I think that in order to get to know another culture, in order to get to know other people, share the table with them. Try the food. I just have felt very strongly that if I keep at it long enough ... in Santa Fe when we opened the restaurant, the people really didn’t quite know what to expect. It seemed a little exotic, the Corn Dance Café, Native American food. Got there and it was cool, it wasn’t weird, it wasn’t exotic, it was the food that they were mostly familiar with. I did a lot of bison, a lot of corn, beans, squash, venison, quail, salmon, trout, all of that good stuff. Kind of pre-Columbian-ingredient-based, and people were so pleasantly surprised and they had no idea that things like tomatoes and potatoes, chocolate and vanilla, originated in the Americas. That nowhere else had these foods before Columbus stumbled ashore. It was really a joy to serve this food and have people call me to their table and say, tell me about this, and wow, I didn’t know that. I love the stories that surround the food, and that’s my tool for politicking in Indian Country. Letting people know more about us through the food, and the regionality of the food, speaks to the vast diversity of the people through that amazing diversity of foodstuffs available throughout the Americas.

I do remember when I was living in L.A. there was a place where I bought tamales, which of course is more Mexican than Native, but Mexico ...

I consider Native America to include everything from Nunavut to Tierra del Fuego and everything in between. So it’s North America, Mexico, Central South America, all the stuff, that’s what my menu was based upon. My ingredients were anything that I could find between those two points. You hear people in Indian Country say, "well, you can't nail down Native American food because we’re so many different nations and so many different people and the food was regional and seasonal and all that," but overall, it’s Native American food.

Students at the Sherman Institute in Riverside make fry bread circa 1930.
Students at the Sherman Institute in Riverside make fry bread circa 1930.
Los Angeles Public Library

You did touch on something when you said that there was a lot of Mexican food in L.A. and that you consider Native American food to be of both continents. Maybe we do have Native food, it's just not called that.
Yes, oh most certainly. Mexican food — some don’t really think of Mexicans as being Native Americans but, you know, come on. Certainly the use of corn. Mexico is the corn cradle. The corn came from the ancient wild grass seed teosinte. They cultivated this for thousands of years and figured out how to grow it, prepare it. It turned into ears of corn, that we know today, from little teosinte seeds in a pod like peas, like little tiny nuggets. To figure out the process of nixtamalization, they boiled the dried corn, then they ground it, it turned into masa, they made the tamales and the tortillas out of masa, and that released the nutrients in the corn and made it something other than cattle feed. I’ve worked throughout my years with amazing people from all parts of Mexico. Talk about a diversity of foods, my goodness. And I work with people from Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras; amazingly diverse foods. It just hasn’t been called Native American food yet.

It would be interesting if someone rebranded that way. Like a restaurant that already exists and they just change their branding and see what happens.
Exactly. I will forever be knocking on that door. I don’t give up easily and I thought with the advent of the Indian casinos, with gaming in Indian Country, oh wow, but I have not been able to crack that nut either. I do a lot of work with the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, up near Sacramento. The Cache Creek Casino and Resort. They draw from the Asian East Bay gaming group that drive out to Cache Creek or that new casino that opened. Here in Oklahoma, my tribe has a casino on Interstate 40, they serve nothing even resembling Native American food. But they have a sushi bar and they have a Brazilian steakhouse that serves beef, which we didn’t have. We didn’t have beef, we didn’t have pork, we didn’t really have lamb. We had mountain goats and mountain sheep, but we didn't have baa-baa lamb.

I’ve worked in and around these casinos from the Northeast, Mohican, Pequot, all the way across the country. Forest County Potawatomi, all the Great Lakes tribes. I said, "Why don’t you have some representation of your own people’s food in these casinos? You have a captive audience here, for heaven’s sake." The explanation is, "We want to keep our customers happy and we feed them what they want to eat," and I said, "Well, they don’t know whether they want to eat this or not." That’s still one of my goals. I’m going to get it out there.

One thing about the Thanksgiving conversation is that, actually, a lot of the foods that now are part of mainstream Thanksgiving meals are Native foods.
Oh absolutely, yes, they just got the timing wrong. The whole thing about that little Thanksgiving myth is that ... I have to be gentle with it because on my dad’s side of the family I’m actually a Mayflower descendant. Talk about inner conflict. But, you know, the timing was wrong. That coming together of those people at that particular time and that little story that’s told; half of the people starved on the boat coming across the Atlantic, and it was really the new people who helped them to survive. They taught them how to work the land, and this gathering was one of many, but it’s supposed to be a harvest feast that would happen in the fall at harvest time. Certainly the turkeys. The turkeys are one of our few, in the Americas, one of the few domesticated animals that we had, so turkeys were here. Certainly the corn, certainly the squashes, the pumpkins, that all originated in the Americas. A lot of those foods then and now, sweet potatoes — not to be confused with yams, they are two totally different critters — but the sweet potatoes are indigenous to the Americas. All of that is really Native American food. It doesn’t seem like it now, with global warming, but November would have been a little bit late to have this harvest feast that they then began calling Thanksgiving.

So when you move back to L.A., are you going to open a restaurant?
You betcha. Absolutely. I think I made the wise move back then by going to Santa Fe. Santa Fe was great, it was a good time, a very eclectic dining audience. That little place took off like gangbusters. It was absolutely amazing. It got me onto The Today Show and Good Morning America, albeit both of those shows had me on on Thanksgiving morning.

The only time we really talk about Native American food in the media is around Thanksgiving.
Well, it’s better than nothing at all. This time of year rolls around and people say, "Well, what are you up to, Loretta?" And I say, "Oh, I’m just gearing up to feed all those pilgrims out there."


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