Making Fry Bread

As promised in the post about the Mahkato Wacipi, I’m discussing the Fry Bread that is a staple at many First Nation gatherings.

The recipe I use comes from a small cookbook I picked up at the Wacipi several years ago, and it offers a bit of back story for the recipe. Fry Bread is one of those recipes that evolved out of the American Indian experience interacting with the U.S. Government. White flour as we know it today was not a part of the original diets of most First Nation tribes.

Flour came into their diets with the distribution of food stuffs and commodities to tribal members living in poverty in the wake of numerous conflicts across the country. Fry Bread became a staple food, using the groceries made available.

I’ve seen several other recipes for Fry Bread, some claimed by different regions and tribes, but they all start with flour and dried milk powder.

This is the recipe I used to make Fry Bread as an after-school snack for my older children when they were teens, and I’ve also used it for small group demonstrations. I’m not an expert on indigenous foods, but this one is pretty tasty and well worth the effort.

Fry Bread

Heat oil for frying. You could use a deep-fat fryer at 375 degrees. I use my enamel-lined, cast-iron Dutch oven filled about half-way with canola oil, heated to about 375. You could use a candy thermometer to check the temp.

Measure out three cups of self-rising flour (or three cups white flour, 1 T. baking powder, 1 t salt, mixed together). Add one cup whole milk (or equivalent in dried milk powder and water). Mix together. Dough will be stiff. Knead briefly and let rest for at least five minutes, while oil is heating.

Turn out dough. Cut into 16 pieces. (I just cut dough into quarters, then in quarters again.) Roll each piece into a ball.

When ready to fry, pick up a dough ball and flatten it into a circle about a quarter to a half-inch thick. Drop into hot fat and fry until golden brown on both sides. Remove to a rack or towel to drain.

Best eaten hot. We like to sprinkle with cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar, to serve with honey. For a savory take, divide the dough into eight pieces instead of 16 before frying. Top these bigger pieces of bread with seasoned ground beef, lettuce and tomatoes to make what’s known as an “Indian Taco.”

The Mahkato Wacipi

We spent a good portion of our Saturday on the grounds at Land Of Memories Park in Mankato, Minn., for the 46th Annual Mahkato Wacipi, a gathering sponsored by the Shakopee Mdewankanton Sioux Community, the Prairie Island Indian Community, Mankato Area Public Schools, KMSU, and The Center for American Indian Affairs. This year’s theme was “Honoring the 38 Dakota,” and the overall tone was one of reconciliation and reflection about that terrible chapter in Minnesota history.

The 38 refer to the Dakota who were executed on the public square in downtown Mankato on December 26, 1862, in the wake of the Dakota conflicts. The effects of that event and that year on Minnesota culture and living continue to ripple in many ways, and the tribes who sponsor and organize the Wacipi continue to hold it in Mankato in part as a means of calling attention to them, and to foster the reconciliation between First Nation peoples and others in the community.

My husband and I have attended many such gatherings over the years. One of my personal interests in First Nation culture stems from my own search for the roots of the family story that suggests our own descent from one of the tribes on the U.S. eastern seaboard. We can neither confirm nor deny that story at this point, though my search continues.

In those early years of my childhood, I lived in northern Wisconsin, very near the La Courte Oreilles Ojibwa reservation, and in the company of many Ojibwa and St. Croix Chippewa tribe members. While I’ve been told and I’ve read that things were pretty tense in the area of my youth at the time, (it was the late 1970s and the American Indian Movement deeply impacted the area) what I remember was many, many conversations and sharing of cultures.

I distinctly remember a school assembly that featured local tribal leaders in Luck, and my summer day camp featured cultural traditions from the local tribes. One of our guests at that camp was an elder woman who made fry bread over an open fire on the grounds. I remember also trying wild rice and other foods common to our neighbors.

And I remember the drums, and the dancing.

These early events frame my favorite experiences when I go to a gathering. I love to browse the vendor booths featuring handcrafted items, and I always buy at least one pair of earrings. This year’s are hand-cast pewter medallions that feature butterflies. I must taste the fry bread, and I must watch the Grand Entry that features all the dancers and the important songs and ceremony.

We brought our little girls to the Wacipi for the first time this year, and they enjoyed coloring on popsicle sticks to make their own game. They tasted their first fry bread, fresh, hot, and coated in cinnamon sugar. Two elders who sat with us at our picnic table nicknamed my four-year-old “Quick Hands” because she was able to catch her popsicle stick with one hand immediately after dropping it through the crack of the table with the other.

We talked with many people, and my three-year-old literally ran in circles around me as we moved through the grounds. I was able to quietly witness the reconciliation ceremony on Saturday that featured descendants of the 38, while my husband took the girls for another walk through the grounds. But my girls came to me and watched with wide eyes as the Grand Entry began. It featured dancers in order and full regalia, and the rhythm of the drums, the motions of the dance, and the quick melodic jingles of the jingle dresses held their attention through all the first dances.

The Mahkato Wacipi site features a page devoted to dancing etiquette. I’m afraid that my own mobility was limited this year so I didn’t join the dancing, as I often do when Intertribal Dancing is called, but if you’re inspired to go to a Wacipi in the future, do check out the etiquette rules.

The weather was perfect, sunny and cool, and we’ll be glad to go again next September, and meet old and new friends.

And yes, I do have a recipe for Fry Bread. For another post.

Baked Beans

My mother’s contribution to nearly every holiday feast we had growing up was her from-scratch baked beans.

Baked beans are a classic British dish, often served as breakfast with a full English (which also includes grilled tomatoes, fried eggs, and fried pork) or on toast. My father’s mother, Elsie, always ensured she’d have some of the leftover baked beans to take home, if possible, for her favorite beans-on-toast.

Today, it’s easy to buy baked beans in a can to heat and eat. Recipes for their use as a base also abound. However, the original recipe can’t be topped by something out of a can.

This classic features heavily in the Little House series, in which Laura Ingalls Wilder describes her mother’s procedure for making baked beans and bean soup as staples of winter eating. It was years before I connected those stories with my mother’s recipe and my own enjoyment of baked beans. Another recipe for them can be found in Barbara Walker’s excellent Little House Cookbook.

This recipe, however, comes directly from my mother, who notes that the “bean pot” — a covered crock–is key to the success of the dish. She also notes that her sister, my aunt Julie, often skips the first step and uses plain, rinsed-and-drained, canned navy beans as her starter to cut down on prep time.

Linnea’s Baked Beans

Soak overnight:

1 lb. navy beans.

In the morning, drain the beans, cover again with fresh water and ¾ t. baking soda, and bring just to a simmer. Skim off foam as beans cook. They’re ready when you can spoon up a few and blow on them and the skins crack. Drain again, and add beans to the bean pot.


½ c. brown sugar

1 sm. onion, chopped

¼ to ⅓ c. molasses

½ lb. bacon, chopped

½ t. black pepper

⅓ t. dry mustard

1 T. salt

Add just enough water to cover the beans. Bake at 300 degrees for at least four hours.

On the Practice of Writing

My main goal while on sabbatical this year is to reflect about and practice writing; it’s one of the reasons I started this blog to begin with.

Today, I thought I’d put together some of my thoughts on the practice of writing and those who have been influential in my own practice of writing.

The writers who’ve most influenced me in their practice are Nora Roberts and Louis L’Amour. They might seem like widely disparate authors, and in terms of content and story, they are.

However, when it comes to their practice, they approached writing similarly. I always enjoyed reading the bio of Louis L’Amour that appeared in the front of each of his books and the philosophy expressed therein. It spoke of his long and varied career in other professions, his belief in describing actual places as they were, and his firm approach to sitting down daily to write, regardless of distraction.

L’Amour was a self-taught writer, and his book, Education of Wandering Man, offered insight into his thought process that remains useful and relevant. Ryan Mizzen recently posted an article on The Writing Cooperative that highlights L’Amour’s best ten lessons on writing. Of them all, the notion that writers who want to write should just keep writing is the one that sticks:

“Start writing, no matter about what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on. You can sit and look at a page for a long time and nothing will happen. Start writing and it will.” –Louis L’Amour

Nora Roberts is probably best known for her romance fiction, but she also writes mystery under a different pseudonym. She is legendary in some circles for her prolific output. These days, she usually has two trade paperbacks, one hardcover stand-alone novel, and two additions to her “In Death” series, also in hard cover, every year.

I’ve written/edited three books, and I can tell you, the challenge of coming up with five books PER YEAR is stunning.

When asked, Roberts offers the same insight. Writers must write. She treats writing like a full-time a job (which it is, for her), and sits in her office writing during regular first shift hours. Her biggest pieces of advice for writers?

“Write what you like to read – if you are not captured by the story, who will be? Write every day – a habit that you need to build. And remember to have fun with it.” — Nora Roberts

Some might ask about my lifelong interest in Laura Ingalls Wilder and ask about her influence, but honestly, her story as woman and her observations and technique were more influential than her actual writing practice. Wilder’s story is one of persistence and practicality, and a model for the idea that retirement is a fallacy.

For practical writing, I’d cite her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, as an influence. Lane threw herself into writing as a means of supporting herself, her soon-to-be-ex-husband, and her parents in the 1910s. Her diaries record lists of books about writing, and they reflect her thoughtful interrogation of the materials as she pushed forward into a freelance market after World War I.

She struggled greatly with her mental health, but pushed forward to write constantly, in whatever genre or format was necessary for the people who paid her, and treated her work. I talk about this more in my contribution to Pioneer Perspectives. For Lane, writing was her job, her means of travel, and her necessary place of expression.

Engaging in this blog this year is in part a means of putting into practice the advice from these sage writers. I’m forcing myself to write daily, and writing here twice a week reflects that commitment. I’m also working on other projects, such as new research into British journalism history and more reflection on Laura Ingalls Wilder and her popularity over time.

None of it will get done unless I sit and write. Thanks for joining me on this journey.

Of Pirates, Ponies, and Princesses

One of my little girls turned four this week and her big birthday party is on Saturday.

Since we first started talking about what she wanted for her birthday party, the overriding theme has been princesses. A is very interested in dressing like a princess, wearing tiaras, and having adventures like her favorite Disney princesses do. She loves Elsa and Anna from Frozen, in particular.

So we started to plan a party that was mostly Frozen-themed, but generally involved letting everyone dress like royalty and eat a lot of cake. (Every time I asked what we should serve for lunch, A said cake. Chocolate cake. Cupcakes. Ice cream cakes. Just, you now, cake.) We branched into letting people dress like pirates if they wanted, too, in case they weren’t feeling princess-y.

It helped that her Uncle Ryan promised to wear an eye-patch.

And then, she watched her first episode of “My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic.”

Oh, boy. Suddenly, it’s not just about princesses and pirates; it has to be about ponies, too.

So we have dress up things for princesses, and for pirates. We have Frozen-themed plates and snowflake sparkles for the tables. And we have a My Little Pony-themed cake and piñata. It looks like Rainbow Dash.

I’ve decided to call the party a triple-P bash.

At the heart of it is love for a little girl who loves fantasy and stories. We have castles to color and costumes to dress up in, a “tea party” menu with lots of cake, and all the adults playing along to dress up, too. My nieces, who are older, are particularly excited to be re-wearing their prom dresses so they can be princesses, too.

As adults, we often forget the small joy of being ourselves, letting our imaginations run wild, and playing along with the fantasy. I’m excited that we’ll have an opportunity to do just that tomorrow for A’s birthday.

I think I might wear an eye-patch with my crown.

Miracle Chocolate Cake

I had an urge for chocolate cake yesterday, and remembered this cake, which some call Depression Cake because if its apparent roots in the 1930s. It takes no eggs or dairy to make, and the story goes that it was developed as a means of making a special treat when one didn’t have the ration coupons for eggs or butter.

That said, it’s been made in my family for as long as I can remember. Many of us have special dietary needs or food allergies, especially to dairy or eggs, and this is one of the recipes that can be eaten by nearly everyone. In fact, I remember my Grandmother Fern mixing this recipe up right in a well-seasoned baking pan, which would certainly cut back on the number of dishes that needed washing later.

My mother and sister discovered that if you substitute rice flour for the all-purpose wheat flour, it can be made to be gluten-free, too.

The recipe also can be easily doubled to bake in a 9 by 13 pan. Choose your favorite frosting or just sprinkle on powdered sugar when it’s cool for a pretty topping.

Grandma’s Miracle Chocolate Cake

Stir together:

1 1/2 c. AP flour

1 c. White sugar

3 T. Cocoa

1 t. Baking soda

1 t. Baking Powder

Mix separately:

1 c. Water

1 T. Vinegar

2/3 c. Oil

1 t. Vanilla

Whisk wet ingredients into dry ingredients until well-blended. Pour into a greased 8-inch square or round baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes, until a clean knife or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

The Benefits of Accessible Parks

I brought my youngest girls to North Mankato’s newest playground, Fallenstein Park, Saturday, and it reminded me that making play accessible for everyone benefits everyone.

It seems like an obvious statement. But for many years, playgrounds and play areas haven’t been accessible to children with certain disabilities, and in fact, most are also geared toward a specific age range. One of my biggest problems with playgrounds has been a lack of equipment or resources for the youngest children for play. Much of it is unsafe for the littlest of children, and the tendency toward gravel or concrete surfaces on playgrounds also creates potentially hazardous situations.

Let me be clear: I believe that all children require adult supervision on playgrounds, even those considered “safe,” because all active play contains some inherent risk. Children need some risky play in order to learn how to be safe and to learn about their bodies’ personal limits, but an adult should be supervising.

Some playgrounds are safer than others. And the recent movements to make some playgrounds accessible for children of all levels of ability have yielded real benefits for all children.

We have been to three of these parks, in three different cities, and my children loved them. The first was the Universal Playground in Lindenwood Park, Fargo, N.D. The second was in Herman Heights Park, New Ulm, Minn. The third was Fallenstein Park.

All three have inventive and interesting playground equipment that includes some old standards, such as swings and slides, but with improved safety features. The Minnesota parks include zip-lines, and Fallenstein includes a ropes course and climbing equipment that works well for most children.

Each also features a surface that is kind of rubberized. There’s some give to it, and it’s clear that the momentum from a fall would be slowed by it. Its presence also ensures that children in wheel chairs could roam around the playground without much obstacle to their play.

Dozens of children freely played in Fallenstein during our morning there, and I was not the only one who thought the entire space worked well for all the children who could come to play. I overheard other parents talking about how “cool” the place was, and I saw children of all ages engaging with the equipment.

As with all playgrounds, parents do need to closely supervise children on some of the equipment, and steer their children to age-appropriate equipment when necessary. (My three-year-old was too excited about the ropes course, which was higher than I’d like to see her climb, frankly.)

But in building something that made play accessible for children of all abilities, all children benefit. And frankly, most area playgrounds could use the safety upgrade.

Visiting the Farmers Market

September is my favorite month in which to visit the Farmers Market in Minnesota. Harvest is rolling in and the selection of fresh veggies is wide and varied.

Saturday at the Mankato Farmer’s Market (located next to the Best Buy off Adams Street in Mankato) we found eggplant, yellow summer squash, zucchini, green and yellow beans, kohlrabi, tomatoes, beets, sweet corn, onions, shallots, potatoes in four colors, some late rhubarb, and a ton of fresh greens.

We also found, since we were later than normal, that our favorite bakery booth was down to one table. We snapped up the last two cinnamon rolls and one loaf of rustic Roma bread.

I like to garden, but I don’t have much space, so stopping by the Farmer’s Market is the next best thing. Lunch on Farmer’s Market day always depends on what’s available, and when tomatoes are in season, we often go straight for a classic BLT on the bakery stand’s fresh Ciabatta bread.

But sometimes, we get a little crazier. One of my favorite things to do is make a fresh vegetable “sauce” for angel hair pasta for lunch. My favorite combination of veggies for this is in season right now in Minnesota, and here’s the recipe:

Market Pasta (serves 4)

8 oz Angel hair pasta, cooked and drained. (Reserve one cup of cooking liquid).

1 Japanese eggplant, sliced on the diagonal

1 yellow summer squash, sliced on the diagonal

1 small zucchini, sliced on the diagonal

1 small shallot

1 T each fresh chopped basil and oregano

Olive oil for the pan

Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper to taste

This is basically an Italian stir-fry. In a large skillet, sauté the vegetables in olive oil until fork tender. Season with salt, pepper and stir in the herbs. Let the herbs wilt a bit, then add the cooked and drained pasta. Fold together; add Parmesan to taste and enough cooking liquid to keep it together. Serve hot, with more Parmesan at the table.