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Controversy Over ‘Customary’ Cuisine

If you travel in the American southwest, anywhere in American Indian country, you are sure to come across frybread. Frybread is the staple of certain Native American tribes’ diets. At the size of a dinner plate, frybread forms the base of a Navajo Taco. Or it forms a sort of pancake, topped with margarine and jam. For something as seemingly innocuous as a slice of bread, frybread is full of controversy.

Frybread originated about 150 years ago, during the forced relocation of American Indians from Arizona to New Mexico. The new land could not support the Natives’ traditional diet of vegetables and beans, and so, to prevent the Natives’ starvation, the US government provided Indian tribes with rations: white flour, processed sugar, and lard. Frybread was born of these ingredients and has had a place in Native culture ever since – one can even buy a ‘Frybread Power’ T-shirt here.

Though it is a symbol of Native culture, some Indians have begun to question this food’s presence in Native cuisine:

[Frybread] is blamed for contributing to high levels of diabetes and obesity on reservations. One slice of frybread the size of a large paper plate has 700 calories and 25 grams of fat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Read more here.

Much of this soul-searching about, and revulsion towards, frybread was prompted by a Cheyenne-Muscogee Native, Suzan Shown Harjo. Ms Harjo wrote an article wherein she resolved to stop eating ‘fat ‘Indian’ food’ like frybread. Ms Harjo said, ‘If frybread were a movie, it would be hard-core porn. No redeeming qualities. Zero nutrition.’
Frybread is emblematic of the long trails from home and freedom to confinement and rations. It’s the connecting dot between healthy children and obesity, hypertension, diabetes, dialysis, blindness, amputations and slow death.
Ms Harjo’s article stirred up a lot of emotions. For better or worse, frybread is a part of Native culture. An attack on frybread is seen as an attack on Native culture. But frybread is linked to many health problems (i.e., obesity and diabetes) and it is not a sustainable part of Native cuisine. Furthermore, plenty of healthy and sustainable alternatives existed before frybread’s invention:

As American Indians try to reverse decades of physical and cultural erosion, they are turning to the food that once sustained them, and finding allies in the nation’s culinary elite and marketing experts.

One result is the start of a new sort of native culinary canon that rejects oily fry bread but embraces wild rice from Minnesota, salmon from Alaska and the Northwest, persimmons and papaws from the Southeast, corn from New York, bison from the Great Plains and dozens of squashes, beans, berries and melons.

Read more here.

I find a lot of inspiration in the Indians’ earnest soul-searching about their diet. It takes a lot of courage to confront unhealthy aspects of your culture’s cuisine – to ask where unhealthy foods came from, and why we eat them. Western culture has much to gain from a similar enquiry. Meat and dairy are bedrock staples of the western diet, and yet these staples are of as dubious a provenance in Western culture as frybread is in American Indian culture.

Like American Indian societies, Western society has health problems that are attributable to our dietary choices. We know that eating meat is a leading cause of heart disease. Cured meats contain carcinogens that are dangerous to human health. Red meat in particular is responsible for high incidences of cancer. Dairy production generates large amounts of pollution; dairy consumption leads to osteoporosis and heart disease.

And so, just as Ms Harjo courageously resolved to eschew unhealthy ‘traditional’ foods, we should take a hard look at what we eat, and why we eat it. This is not to attack any particular ‘traditional’ Western foods, but rather to show the folly of selecting one’s diet based on tradition alone. Certain American Indians were reluctant to give up eating frybread because it was their ‘traditional’ diet — even though frybread is a very recent phenomenon in American Indian cuisine.

Western peoples have similar recent phenomena  in their diets.  The consumption of meat and dairy has significantly increased within the last fifty years – see this graph from the Humane Society.  Our physiology has not kept pace with these changes. As noted by Dr. James McDougall, ‘Behavior can be changed overnight, but our anatomy and physiology only evolve from selective pressures of the environment over millions of years.’ Consuming such large amounts of meat and dairy without the right physiology has lead to an explosion of cancer and disease.

So the question remains, on what basis should we select our diet? Leaving aside questions of animal cruelty and exploitation, what are humans designed to eat? Certainly not frybread, nor meat and dairy. Dr. McDougall concludes, ‘Based on our anatomy and physiology […] primates, including humans, are designed to eat a diet consisting mostly of plant foods.’ We can’t cheat our own physiology. Rather than buying into the latest passing fads and culinary choices, we should stick with the diet that humans have evolved to eat over thousands of years, namely, a vegan diet.

About James Roach

James will soon graduate with an LLB from the University of Auckland. Studying and practicing law has been a lifelong dream for James, and he has found the university experience at Auckland to a dream come true. James believes that capitalism, driving a car, and eating meat and dairy are all morally indefensible. James is, therefore, an avid marxist, cyclist, and vegan.


One thought on “Controversy Over ‘Customary’ Cuisine

  1. Really interesting stuff. While I do not deny the connection between food and culture – which is very real, I’m often skeptical of the value of such culture in light of conflicting values. For example, I come from a Jewish-European culture that thrived on all sorts of foods developed in 18th-19th century East Europe. Many of these were “poorer” foods that eventually attracted cultural significance. Generally speaking, many were fatty, cheap parts of animals, and weren’t very good for you. My grandmother developed a love of beef fat – because it was useful in helping her survive – that ultimately played a role in killing her through heart disease. Not surprisingly, many of my people simply abandoned these “cultural” foods once more healthy options were available.

    I do think some foods have a strong cultural significance that is hard to shake. But I also think that culture is too often used as an excuse to retain practices that are otherwise difficult to defend. I think this blog post gives us plenty to “chew on” in that regard.

    Awesome to have James on board! I am very much looking forward to his next blog post: “Vegan Options at Utah Jazz games”.

    Posted by Peter Sankoff | 3 December 2009, 6:00 pm
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