Books To Devour This New Year Include The Cultural Feast That Is ‘Fry Bread’
BY JUANITA GILES
Confession: I’ve turned into a last-minute holiday shopper.
It wasn’t always this way, I swear, but almost a decade of parenting has taught me that what a kid likes in June is most definitely not what a kid will like in December (Star Wars excepted, of course), so I can either waste money and save time, or wait until the last minute and waste slightly less money. Whether it’s toys or books, it’s always the same, so I wait. I wait until the “may not arrive until after Christmas” warnings start coming, and then I panic, do a quick survey of what my kids are obsessed with RIGHT THIS SECOND, pull out the checkbook and hope for the best.
I know I can count on anything in Tui Sutherland’s Wings of Fire series for my son, and Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s latest utensil drama, Chopsticks, for my youngest, but my middle baby was a doozy this year.
I’m holding a little black book in my hand. It’s hardcover with an imprinted gold title on the front and the spine. It can’t be more than 6 by 4 inches, and the text on its 313 pages (not counting the index) is tiny and dense. I found my 7-year-old reading this book a few weeks ago, and she hasn’t put it down since. It’s not exactly a children’s book.
She’s reading From the Deep Woods to Civilization by Charles Alexander Eastman, the Santee Dakota writer and physician.
I mean, she’s all about it. One of her most prized possessions is a bag my Monacan grandmother made from a turtle shell. This year she made — almost completely by herself, mind you — a Three Sisters stew to take to her Thanksgiving party at school, she desperately wants my father to take his beaded breastplate out of its glass case (that’s not going to happen) and she is more than willing to go toe to toe if someone makes a crack about how long her brother’s hair is.
She’s tough and proud and interested, but Charles Alexander Eastman? I wasn’t prepared for her to read his works until at least third grade (ha!).
But surprisingly, if taken slowly and thoughtfully, From the Deep Woods is not the worst book in the world for children, and I am thrilled my little girl is showing such interest in her heritage. I am also thrilled that her interest came so close to the holidays — it made picking a present easy.
In addition to the Three Sisters stew she took to school for Thanksgiving, my daughter also had me bring in fry bread. I ALWAYS bring in fry bread, and bless their hearts, those little children go crazy for it. “She made the bread; she made the bread!!!” The second grade was practically swarming, and I felt super bad for whichever parent brought in candy corn because it was knocked to the floor in the ensuing melee to get to the fry bread. (My daughter asked in a whisper, “You DID make extra for supper, didn’t you?” Yes, honey, I did.)
So Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story was waiting for her under the tree this year.
I don’t know if Kevin Noble Maillard actually intended for a 7-year-old to drop dough into a cast iron skillet full of hot oil, but I can tell you that’s exactly what happened in my house on Christmas afternoon after my daughter opened Fry Bread. For my little girl, Maillard hasn’t written a book to expand the diversity of her bookshelf or explain a culture about which she may know little to nothing — Maillard has written a book about HER life and HER family, not to mention a book about one of her all-time favorite foods (which she has been begging me to let her make by herself, but eh … “fry bread is sound … sizzling oil popping” so, we’ll just have to see about that.)
My kids are often told they don’t look “Indian enough,” but illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal doesn’t brook any such nonsense. The Native American family in Fry Bread is just like our own family (OK, a tad more well-behaved): There is blond hair, cornrows, red hair and yes, straight, black hair (such is the legacy of First Contact). My kids love seeing themselves included, and I love sharing that moment with them.
As happy as my kids are with this book, make no mistake, Fry Bread isn’t merely a feel-good story about a picturesque Native American family cooking together with joyful abandon and minimal mess. Fry bread is not the least divisive of foods: Born of mortal necessity, fry bread might seem the last food Native Americans would choose to celebrate (and many people choose not to). My children know fry bread isn’t “traditional,” and they know why. To his credit, Maillard doesn’t shy away from tackling that issue. “Fry bread is history … the long walk, the stolen land … with unknown food we made new recipes from what we had.”
Also to Maillard’s credit, he doesn’t leave it there. Fry bread IS worth celebrating. That diverse Native American family that means so much to my kids? Fry bread is instrumental to its very existence. The 19th century boyhood of Charles Eastman is gone: The wild rice, the bison, the venison, the fish, the ducks, the huckleberries — all gone. But Maillard takes the food of necessity and places it directly on the table of plenty. The family in Fry Bread eats it just the way my family does: Sweet with honey or preserves, savory with meat and tomatoes, and they eat it with thanks and happiness.
So yes, Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story is the perfect gift for my little girl, for all my children. Long after the Legos or dolls are set aside and forgotten, Fry Bread will be brought down from the cookbook shelf (yes, Maillard includes his own recipe!), thumbed through with floury hands searching for the words “Monacan Indian Nation” inside the cover, and splattered with oil as it sits by my old cast iron skillet. I hope Kevin Maillard will excuse me for wrapping up a splatter screen along with the book.
Juanita Giles is the founder and executive director of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival. She lives on a farm in Southern Virginia with her family.