Cherokee Frybread finds the spotlight at Chow Chow food festival

Cherokee Frybread and chili

Charles says most Cherokee would prefer Frybread + chili over hamburgers or hotdogs. | Photo by Tyson Sampson

On WNC’s Qualla Boundary, the smell of Cherokee Frybread sizzling in hot oil is evocative.

The history of this simple dish is tough to separate from its oppressive roots — yet, in the words of Cherokee educator + cultural preservationist Charles Taylor, the aroma “smells like the Cherokee Indian Fair. It’s relaxing and full of celebration and fun times. He adds “if you like funnel cake, you’d like Frybread.”

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Tyson Sampson, left, Charles Taylor, right. | Photos courtesy of Chow Chow

This weekend, the dish will have the spotlight at Chow Chow’s Cherokee Fry Bread Workshop, which will be led by Charles (a West Asheville resident) and fellow Indigenous educator and botanist Tyson Sampson, on Sun., June 26, 9-11 a.m.

“With Frybread we were given lemons, so this is our lemonade,” explains Tyson, an Eastern Band Cherokee Indian who often orchestrates Frybread pop-ups for their community and sometimes in the Asheville area.

“The most important thing is just to recall, remember, and to advocate that Frybread is the type of food that makes sure nobody will ever go hungry…. even in our poverty-stricken childhood, we were never hungry.”

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An action shot of Charles crafting a batch of Frybread. | Photo by Tyson Sampson

The fried dough delicacy, which originated from the USDA rations given to displaced Navajo people in the 1860s, has over time, transformed into a culinary staple for Indigenous communities, including the Eastern Band of Cherokee. The Cherokee version, which uses a dough made from flour, baking powder, water, and evaporated milk, makes for a fluffier and lighter take on the dish, in contrast with the more “pita-like” version found in the Southwest.

“Each tribal affiliation has its own variation, they’ve perfected it to themselves,” explains Charles. “It’s a delicacy because it’s favored by so many people. Everywhere you go, to a public event, cultural event, a pow wow, a gathering – somebody, somewhere in the crowd has knowledge of Frybread.”

Frybread can be eaten plain as a snack or meal — or as more of a dessert with toppings like honey and preserved strawberry jam. Another traditional way of enjoying the bread (Charles’ favorite) is with vegetable, bison, or venison chili or stew.

Another way Frybread is served: garnished with lettuce, tomato, cheese, and raw onion as a “Cherokee Indian Taco.” For Charles, the ideal texture of Frybread is a little crispy and “soft like a pillow.”

Regardless of what topping is preferred, the most important ingredient for Charles is that it’s shared. “I like [Frybread] because it brings the community together, it’s a favorable food item that’s pretty simple to fix. It’s a reason to gather, to share each other’s company over good food.”

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