Where does our food come from? And what does it mean?

How did unrelated places such as Portugal and the Caribbean islands end up with hundreds of recipes for salted cod sourced from Newfoundland and Norway? What does the availability of nutmeg during the middle ages in the UK say about Southeast Asian and European relations? Why do some food words simply transliterate into English? The Nahuatl ‘tomatl’ becomes Spanish ‘tomate’ which then becomes English ‘tomato’, the Nahuatl word ‘xocolātl’ becomes ‘chocolate’ in both Spanish and English while other foods are completely renamed; the Nahuatl word ‘oaxolotl’  (pronounced like waholotl) transliterates to the Spanish ‘guajolote’ and changes completely to become the English ‘turkey’.

Mind-boggling isn’t it?

Let us focus on a simple example, consisting of three very basic ingredients: wheat flour, lard and water. Those living in the Midwestern United States will doubtlessly have seen this food for sale in state fairs, rodeos and pow-wows, and maybe some of you will know this as the state bread of South Dakota; I am talking about fry-bread.


Source: auntiesfrybread.com

Back to Basics

Let’s think about the three main ingredients again: water you get everywhere, there’s nothing especially interesting to say about that, but lard? And wheat flour? Both are European exports to the Americas so we can instantly say we are dealing with a recipe that has its roots in the post-contact period without even having to begin any research. And knowing that we have a recipe that is very widespread, basic in nature and uses ingredients introduced by Europeans can lead to the guess that we aren’t dealing with something that has its origins in culinary choice but rather a necessity… a ration.

The most commonly held origin story is that fry-bread was invented during The Long Walk of the Navajo (or Long Walk to Bosque Redondo), a series of forced marches in which some 10,000 or so Navajo men, women and children were relocated 450 miles from their traditional lands at gun-point.

fort-sumner-the-long-walkThe Navajo on their Long Walk.

Source: sadredearth.com 

During this, hundreds died from the marches themselves and upon arrival they found themselves in a land of brackish water, rival tribes, a lack of supplies and failing crops which lead to a dependence on the poor rations provided by the government forces. There were many of these forced relocations from the 1850s onwards with tribes often being relocated long distances to hostile lands that were wholly unsuitable for their traditional economies, even more so often these were barren and marginal lands that were unsuitable for even basic subsistence agriculture leading to starvation. This meant that at places such as Bosque Redondo almost all food items had to be shipped in at the expense of the US army, who to minimize costs only provided these most meagre rations. Either they made fry-bread or nothing at all.

Langer_MarschAt 450 miles it certainly was a long walk!

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Cultural symbolism in Food?

So at this point in our exploration of meaning, the reader might possibly view fry-bread as a symbol of oppression, disconnection from tradition, loss of culture, starvation and death. They might view fry-bread as representing something ghastly to be remembered but not repeated as some people do. But fry-bread is eaten on a daily basis by many and it contains another facet of meaning; it functions as a cultural unifier.

A good way to explore this would be to talk about peyote cactus usage in the religious movement known as the ‘Native American Church’. The hallucinogenic peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii) grows only in southern Texas and north-central Mexico and has a very long history of use in the religion of the Huichol people of Mexico, who would trade some of it to the north. In the late 19th century over 30 tribes were forcibly settled in what is now the state of Oklahoma. In this melting pot of groups tribes were exposed to the traditions of other tribes, missionaries and trade of new goods including peyote. With their traditions and cultures decimated by their relocation these groups very readily adapted a blend of Christian and traditional beliefs into a new religion focusing on Native American cultural and spiritual unity, cooperation with the USA, reverence for nature and of course ritual ingestion of peyote. This religion spread like wildfire amongst plains groups reaching as far north as Canada and most areas of the western coast.

Peyote_CactusThe hallucinogenic peyote cactus

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Food can be a culturally regulating force; it ties together the Christian churches of the world in the Eucharist (breaking of bread and wine). Muslim and Jewish groups are internally united in their taboos on various foods. The spread of peyote cactus and fry-bread shared a similar role, different groups breaking the same bread and becoming unified in the same struggle. To quote the Navajo Council Delegate Leonard Chee “A powwow [inter-tribal gathering] won’t function without fry-bread”. Fry-bread signifies more than simply hardship; it gives a physical form to the continued survival of Native American culture and represents the forming of a more united identity.

In conclusion, even the combination of three simple ingredients can have surprisingly deep levels of meaning. The food on your plate can be much more than simple physical sustenance; instead it can be viewed as a rich tapestry of geographical, psychological, sociological and political meanings. Doing so provides the reader with a fascinating web of information about seemingly common and everyday foods giving the eater a whole new set of dimensions to chew on.

It was that easy the Honey team gave it a go…and it was delish!




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