A Culinary Tour of Your Modern Pow Wow
“Got Fry Bread?” Well, if you’re at a powwow, the answer is a solid yes. But what other offerings can we look forward to at pow wows—and has anything changed behind the scenes of the traditional goodies?
In some ways, not much has shifted. “With my native heritage, I’m not eager to change to fit some trend,” says Cindy Eastham (Cherokee), owner of Cindy and Mel’s Native American Foods, a vendor based in Indiana. Sure enough, the dominant pow wow foods are the same as they were 30 years ago. (Smell the fry bread yet?) In fact, what’s changed is less the foods and more the awareness of what’s in them.
“Indian tacos and Indian pizza are my biggest sellers,” says Eastham, “but I sure sell a lot of hot dogs to the dancers. They tell me the sodium gets their heart rate going so they dance stronger.” It’s a controversial approach to athletic nutrition, and debates about what to eat before competitions rage on the Internet.
Nutritional awareness aside, vendors strive to be original in both senses of the word. “It’s hard when you’re at a pow wow and everyone’s selling Indian tacos, so I made a round fry bread, like a hamburger bun, sliced off the top, and stuffed it with meats,” says Gary Morseau (Pokegan Band of Potawatomi) of Indiana-based Powwow Foods. “One of our biggest hits turned out to be our fried baloney stuffed fry bread. One time an emcee announced that we were selling Indian steaks—the crowd came running.” Eastham offers Indian pizza—fry bread topped with pizza sauce and cheese—alongside conventional fare. “It was given the thumbs-up by two teenage grandsons,” Eastham says.
Flour, water, baking powder, salt, oil: Regardless of nation, location, or assembly, if it’s a pow wow, there’s fry bread. The chewy concoction, styled as anything from an Indian taco to a sopapilla-like treat, has long been politicized, both for its origins as “oppression food” and its role in native health concerns. With the average piece at 25 fat grams, “fry bread has killed more Indians than the federal government,” Ojibwa rock musician Keith Secola said in Smithsonian magazine. Now, many vendors are using canola oil instead of trans fats and other potentially harmful oils. “I love peanut oil and use it at home, but so many people have allergies to peanut oil now—it’s awful.” says Eastham.
Elk, bison, venison, and other indigenous meats are now a part of the pow wow scene. This reflects a national food trend: The National Bison Association reports that 2010 is the best year yet for bison sales. The increase is part health awareness (bison is low in fat) and part “local food” consciousness (if you’re eating traditional game, chances are it’s from this country—not necessarily true of other meats), just one way the native community was ahead of the times.
Grilled corn has competition—depending on your region. In the Southwest, pozole, made with corn and slaked lime, may be offered, alongside tamales and arepas. Arepas also make appearances in areas that have high Latin American populations, such as New York and California. Plains and Midwestern regions feature corn soups; it’s worth seeking out the homemade kind. Morseau cooks his for two days: “Not everyone can tell the difference, but the drummers and dancers do.”
In addition to powdered-sugar or cinnamon-honey fry bread (or even confections like Howlin’ Good Concessions’ “Traveling Turtles,” an ice-cream sundae atop fry bread), traditional desserts are often available, though rarely touted. Wojape, a berry pudding, is popular in the Plains, and other regional custards include flan in the Southwest, dried fruit in the Pacific Northwest, and squash in northern regions.
If you’re lucky, you may find a vendor selling traditional herbal teas, hot or iced. But as with festivals across the country—indigenous and non-indigenous alike—lemonade takes top honors. In that way it’s similar to...
While fry bread products top pow wow sales, the American part of Native American is in full force. Burgers, cheesesteaks, fries: The hot-and-now foods of American festivals have recently staked a claim on pow wows. “There are fewer native vendors doing this now, so pow wows are looking at outside sources,” says Morseau. “And if you’re at a fairground, the carnival food stands may have a contract with the grounds. I work under a canopy, setting up from scratch every pow wow—it can be hard to compete with those vendors.”
Whether your hand is wrapped around a corn dog or busy balancing an Indian taco, your feet are there to tap and dance to the same thing. But to keep a native rhythm (and dollars flowing to native vendors), you may want to save funnel cakes for the county fair.