Frybread trucks rise up in western NC
But one Cherokee owner says non-Native eaters are still wary of dish
Nikki Crisp, a former competitive Native dancer and grandmother of seven, brings so much levity to a room that her personality could serve as a marketing campaign for her signature dish.
For the last 12 years, Crisp has sold her frybread at community events in and around the Qualla Boundary, the peanut-shaped tract of western North Carolina purchased 150 years ago by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. It’s not her first foray into the frybread business: Crisp, a tribal member, grew up in the 1970s making change and handing over orders at her grandmother’s fairgrounds frybread stand.
Crisp is happy to talk about memories of those days. She’s equally happy to talk about plans for her lavishly colorful food trailer, which still counts as new since it spent most of the pandemic parked behind her mother’s house in Knoxville, Tennessee.
But conversation in the present tense is a little tougher because the process of making frybread—which in Crisp’s case can involve up to 300 pounds of dough in a single session—is intensely personal.
“In the Native culture, we put ourselves into what we’re doing,” Crisp told me when we sat down in her living room, where a commercial stand mixer has a prominent place on the floor. It earned its spot not because it’s so important, but because Crisp can’t decide what to do with it: She makes frybread, which non-Natives might liken to an unsweetened funnel cake, by hand.
“There are certain things that I think of when I’m making the bread; I’m trying to figure out how to tell you.” She paused a full 20 seconds. “In Cherokee ceremonies, there’s certain ways we do things. I think of those things. And I can’t tell you what they are.”
A clever adaptation of subpar ingredients historically supplied by the federal government, frybread emerged from home kitchen ingenuity besting racist administrative policies: In short, its originators made private what was public. Now, Crisp and several other Eastern Band entrepreneurs who in the past two years launched mobile food outfits are revisiting that divide as they consider how much of their art they want to share with non-Natives.
It’s always hard to know what to make of silence, but probably worth noting that Crisp was the only one of four Cherokee food truck owners I contacted for this story who messaged me back.
Misunderstandings of frybread are rampant, but the one which Crisp has to address frequently is the belief that it was invented by the Navajo Nation. First-time customers will ask for a “Navajo taco,” which is akin to ordering Tennessee whiskey in Bardstown, Kentucky.
“We don’t have those,” Crisp retorts. “I’m Cherokee, I’m not Navajo: You can have a Cherokee frybread or a Cherokee taco, but you can’t have Navajo.”
Crisp admits that nobody would taste the difference anyway. Frybread recipes vary according to how the cook’s grandmother made frybread, but the amount of salt that goes into the bowl doesn’t reflect tribal affiliation. If you watch YouTube videos outlining the proper way to make Hopi frybread, Apache frybread, or Lakota frybread, they all feature the same combination of flour, baking powder, water, and salt, fried to a puff in hot oil.
Discouragingly, the reason no one nation can take credit for frybread is the circumstances which led to its creation weren’t unique in postcolonial history. Across the country, indigenous people in the 1800s were cut off from their traditional food sources and forced to subsist on moldy flour and other rancid commodity goods.
Frybread eventually became such a central component of modern Native diets that some see it as a symbol of pan-Native pride, shorthand for a mother’s love, and a litmus test of kitchen prowess. Crisp said, “It’s funny in our community because people always say, ‘Who’s making the fry bread?’” when weighing invitations.
Not everyone is so enamored with frybread, though.
Native critics point out the savory pastry, which clocks in at 25 grams of fat per slice even before it’s topped with chili and cheese, has contributed to high rates of obesity and diabetes in Native communities. And detractors such as Ogala Lakota chef Sean Sherman argue it’s time to “stand up to the forces that have compromised our culture” by shunning what they consider the bread of oppression.
Yet most non-Natives who come across Crisp’s truck are unlikely to have any inkling of that community-wide debate. In fact, Crisp said she often meets up with eventgoers who didn’t think there were any living Native Americans left, having encountered indigenous people only as museum diorama figures or sacrificial characters in western movies.
When they see the Nikki’s Frybread trailer, adorned with Cherokee syllabary, basketry patterns, and a portrait of Crisp as a little girl, “they’re dumbfounded,” Crisp said. “I want to reach out and say, ‘Don’t strain your neck! Just try it!’”
With her new trailer, which represents a significant upgrade over the 20-by-20 tent that she and her husband used to set up, Crisp can bring frybread to plenty of places where it’s not an expected snack. But she’s learned that eaters who aren’t acquainted with frybread will almost always bypass her trailer for food they know.
“They’re familiar with hamburgers, they’re familiar with hot dogs, Mexican, and Chinese,” Crisp said. “So, we try to stick to Native events or events for Native American Month.”
Lately, though, Crisp has agreed to haul her trailer to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort on a few occasions, including a gymnastics meet. “I was kind of worried about those skinny girls,” said Crisp, shuddering at the thought of flipping on a balance beam with frybread in her belly.
As an outsider, I assumed the casino—which is run by Harrah’s under an operating agreement with the Eastern Band—was trying to give tourists a taste of the culture to which the gaming land belongs. Within the complex, there are no overt culinary references to Cherokee foodways unless you want to be extra generous about the green beans paired with Tuscan grilled pork chops at Brio Italian Grill. Even the Wicked Weed Brewpub outlet serves salmon instead of trout.
My assumption was off base.
“I really couldn’t comment on that,” casino spokesman Brian Saunooke said, when I asked if having Native foods available enhanced the Harrah’s guest experience. According to Saunooke, the casino enlisted food trucks because their 11 dining outlets are located too far from the new convention area to serve crowds quickly. Guy Fieri’s Cherokee Kitchen + Bar—the designated jewel of the system until Gordon Ramsay’s food hall opens later this year—doesn’t even do lunch.
It's not just Harrah’s which is cool on the idea of exposing gamblers to Cherokee practices.
In an editorial this month for Cherokee One Feather, the Eastern Band-owned weekly newspaper, editor Robert Jumper opined under the headline “Travelers expect to be catered to, not dictated to,” that “the data that I have seen doesn’t place cultural tourism at the top of most travelers’ lists.”
(Jumper, a tribal member and former chair of the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority, did not respond to my request for an interview.)
While no one is clamoring for visibility, it’s nevertheless been an unintended consequence, as tribal members invest in food trucks at the same time that Harrah’s builds up its meeting facilities. Among the newcomers are Marsha Ensley, who previously sold frybread and hot lunches out of her home; Jay Huskey, who occasionally fried cabbage and baked bean bread for fairgoers; and Tasha Wildcat Martinez, whose menu is a mix of Mexican dishes and Cherokee classics, such as cornmeal gravy.
“Where is that in the casino?” one of Martinez’s followers earlier this month asked on Facebook after the food trucker posted a picture of the meat and vegetables she was grilling.
Crisp in February brought her trailer to the casino for a World Series of Poker tournament. At first, the players who didn’t want to wait in longer lines scanned the Nikki’s Frybread menu for something they recognized.
“French fries went crazy,” Crisp said.
But then the players started coming back for burgers, which at Nikki’s are served on frybread. They had no choice but to try it.
Crisp said they were taken aback by how much they enjoyed her frybread. “Oh my gosh!” she remembers them saying before posting pictures to Instagram and making sure they followed her on Facebook.
“To me,” Crisp said, “that’s the ultimate feeling.”
I wrote about fry bread in my Saturday newsletter (https://patwillard.substack.com/p/saturday-news-scraps-newsletter-6fa?s=w) and appreciate so much your in-depth understanding of the conflicting, at times very personal, relationship to the bread . It's one of those recipes that define our country's history, a through-line between what we were and who we are. Again, thank you for such a fine post.!