Fry bread: An Alaska Native treat with a mysterious origin
Hot canola oil pangs off a stainless steel tub under the watch of a local fry bread master. Some people say it’s magic that turns a hand-stretched disc of dough into a puffy — but-not-too-puffy — piece of golden, delicious fry bread.
Fry bread, that high calorie treat that can go savory or sweet, has generations of history in many Alaska Native families, where the untraditional food has become a cultural fixture.
Garfield Katasse is the big guy under the tent by the Garfield’s Famous Fry Bread banner. On days like this during a big Native cultural convention, Katasse spends hours on his feet, patiently working the dough and frying it up piece after piece after piece.
He goes through 175 pounds of dough a day, all mixed by hand.
“You know, my day starts (at) 4 o’clock in the morning, and doesn’t end ‘til 10:30 at night,” Katasse says. “Because I have to run around and get all my ingredients and get ready for the next day.”
There’s a funny squeal coming from the headphones Katasse wears, plugged into a gadget clipped to the collar of his hoodie. He’s got severe hearing loss, and it helps him get by.
He says his disability makes it tough for him to work a regular job, but it also lets him travel and sell fry bread to thousands during events and festivals. Katasse has been setting up shop in the Juneau and Anchorage areas for about a decade. He grew up in Juneau, but lives in Albuquerque and Anchorage most of the year.
Even without four walls or a roof over his business, he’s become a local institution.
Carmen Plunkett, who’s from Juneau but now lives in California, was carefully packaging up eight pieces of the plate-sized treats.
“We love our fry bread, as you can tell,” Plunkett says. “I now take it back and I freeze’em, take it back and I can have’em later. Cause there’s no — I can’t cook it myself.”
The fry bread she can buy in California just isn’t the same.
Even in the rain, Katasse’s customers keep queuing up in the parking lot where he’s set up for a few days.
“I love Garfield’s fried bread. He does the best fry bread,” says Bettyann Boyd.
By the end of Katasse’s first week in town, she’d eaten four pieces.
“It’s light and it’s big, and he always has good conversation while you’re getting it,” she says with a cheery chuckle.
Boyd, Plunkett and many others in line are Tlingit. They remember their first time eating fry bread made by their parents and grandparents when they were young children.
And yet, Smithsonian Magazine and popular lore attribute fry bread’s origins to the Navajo. Katasse, who’s Tlingit but spent a lot of his adult life in the Southwest, says his recipe came from a Pueblo friend. Sometimes, he sells fry bread topped with Mexican ingredients as an “Indian taco,” though he personally enjoys it with salmon and green chili.
Many Native American groups around the country have variations of fry bread. How it’s come to be so closely associated with Alaska Native cultures is a bit of mystery.
Boyd says she doesn’t know much about its history in Alaska.
“I just know it brings a lot of people together,” she says.
Plunkett says she never thought about it.
“I never questioned it because it was part of our, you know, what we ate,” Plunkett says. “Now, you have me questioning it.”
Dwayne Lewis, a Navajo and owner of the restaurant Sacred Hogan Navajo Frybread in Phoenix, says he doesn’t have any theories about how it got to Alaska. He remembers his grandma saying fry bread was first created when the government was rationing food to the Navajo.
Like matzah is a symbol of Jewish persecution, Navajo fry bread has a lot of history, symbolism and emotion kneaded into it.
In the 1860s, the U.S. government forced the Navajo and other Southwest Native American groups to relocate to a doomed settlement called Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation. Traditional foods grew poorly there. Starvation led the government to provide canned goods, flour, sugar and lard, which led to fry bread.
For Katasse’s customers in Alaska, fry bread doesn’t appear to have that baggage. Darrin Austin doesn’t have a trace of ambivalence while he eats.
“Pretty good, I like how he makes them big, too. Has that big tub,” Austin says between bites. “Sweet, you got sugar on there, the butter, you know, it’s buttery. And it’s crispy, fresh out of the oil.”
Katasse keeps his recipe under wraps, but does share one key additive.
“I say my prayers … every time I do 10 pounds of dough, for everybody that walks across my booth, buys bread, that they would be blessed and nourished,” Katasse says.
When people ask him, “What’s your secret?” he says that’s it.
“There’s no magic about this,” he says.