No Native American food is more popular than frybread. The frybread that most of us are used to was created by the Navajo people on the Longest Walk in the 1860s. This journey moved many Navajo families away from their homeland and into an area where there was very little food other than commodities provided by the federal government. These consisted of white flour, processed sugar, and lard. Navajo cooks creatively combined these ingredients to create frybread. Frybread eventually became a pan-Indian food. It was popularized in Choctaw country in the 1980s, through frybread-making contests at the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Labor Day festival.
Choctaw culture has a much deeper connection with another type of fried bread, one that is often called corn pones. Ian had grown up eating them, but we came across an account from a French trader, who described Choctaw women making them more than 250 years ago. We decided to try it out as a recipe.
We began with a natural white corn that is similar to Tanchi Tohbi, the original (and currently very rare) Choctaw flour corn. We pounded this corn up in a kiti, a Choctaw wooden mortar and pestle. It took about 800 blows to transform the whole, dried kernels into about two cups of meal. We sifted this meal in an isht yuha, a river cane sieve. After pounding the biggest pieces again, we mixed all of the cornmeal with boiling water to make a stiff dough.
The description talked about Choctaw women making the cornmeal into cakes and then frying them on a griddle made from the base of a broken clay cooking pot. We built a little fire, separated some of the hot coals from it, and put a clay bowl on top of them to warm. Then, we put in the bear grease (yes, we actually had some beautiful, white lard that we had processed from a clean roadkill bear a while back). After the grease warmed in the bowl on the fire, we started forming small cakes and frying them one at a time in the oil.
Have you every experienced something new to you, that your ancestors did all the time and had the experience feel familiar? That's how the pleasant smell of the corn cooking in the bear grease on the fire was for us. Neither of us had ever experienced that aroma before, and yet, it seemed so familiar, like we'd been around it countless times.
A few minutes and the first pone was done; then, the next. Before too long, we had cooked the pile of fired corn pones that you see in the picture. Good enough to eat? Absolutely! They were tasty, nutty, and wholesome. We'll definitely try this recipe again. For anyone who might be interested, this dish can easily be made with store-bought cornmeal and olive oil in a skillet on the stove. The original Choctaw frybread - tasty, cultural, and much easier on the arteries than many of the alternatives.
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Into Thin Air
October 16, 2019
Choctaw Food: Remembering the Land, Rekindling Ancient Knowledge