| Arizona Republic
Roxanne Wilson mixes flour, water and baking powder in a bowl on a work surface inside a metal food truck on a weekday morning in mid-August. The temperature has already soared past 100 on its way to another 115-degree day during the hottest August in recorded Phoenix history.
She’s working alongside three other family members inside the tight spaces of the sweltering vehicle. It’s parked on a city street just north of the Phoenix Indian Medical Center, “next to the lonely tree” as their Facebook page announces.
“We’re used to the heat,” Wilson said, pointing to her black-on-black wardrobe that she says prevents the sweat marks from showing.
She deftly stirs mutton and a mix of veggies bubbling in a pot, simmers dried corn until each kernel becomes soft, dips the worked dough into hot oil to cook the fry bread to perfection and still manages to direct the kids on other tasks.
Her partner of 10 years arrives in a white SUV. Loren Emerson jumps from the vehicle and scoots over to the truck. He wears a blue chef’s jacket with his name embroidered over the left breast and tattooed across his chest.
The couple’s food truck sports a bright purple wrap festooned with Native blanket patterns, prickly pear cactus and a stylized Mesoamerican serpent. Wilson’s and Emerson’s names, tribal affiliations and clans are also scripted on the side of the big purple truck along with a listing of their awards, including best Indian taco and food truck in Arizona.
Emerson Fry Bread is open for business.
Soon, customers approach. Some make their orders and wait under the shade of the one pine tree along Glenrosa Avenue just west of 16th Street. Others pick up phone-in orders.
The food truck is one of the most visible symbols of a burgeoning street food scene catering to Maricopa County’s 131,000 Indigenous people, including 55,000 who live in Phoenix. These micro-entrepreneurs provide ancestral and contemporary food plus a big dollop of comfort to Native people living away from their homeland during a troubled time.
Fry bread is not a Native cultural food
Fry bread is a comforting food in the modern Native American diet, but many do not consider it to be a cultural food.
Loren Emerson returns to his food truck roots
Emerson is an enrolled member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, known as CRIT, and also has ties to the Quechan Tribe. He rattles off his lineage: His grandfather Fred Emerson, is from the Quechan side of the family; his grandmother, Henrietta Laffoon, is a Mojave from CRIT; and his father is “Loren Emerson the First” with both Native and Hispanic heritage.
Emerson is a wiry, jittery sort, always on the move. His head snakes from side to side as he rapidly chats with customers. Wilson is more sedate, and the couple admits that she keeps Emerson from jittering off too much.
Emerson, a classically trained chef, and Wilson brave the broiling heat selling what he calls “Native American Diné beautiful roast mutton sandwiches” and steamed corn stew. These items feature home-grown mutton and corn direct from the Navajo Nation and squash, green chilis and onions grown by the family in a nearby community garden.
Each dish on the menu is named for one of their kids: Jazzy, named for a daughter, is a carne asada Indian taco, while son Yolli’s name adorns a simple bean and cheese fry bread dish.
The couple got their start setting up tables inside the lobby of Native American Connections on North Central Avenue. Soon, they moved to the front of Drumbeat Indian Arts across 16th Street from the Indian hospital, placing their grills and tables under a tent. There, they ran afoul of the county public health department.
“We didn’t know it was illegal to just do something like that in Maricopa County,” said Wilson.
Fortunately, the health department staff was more interested in ensuring they were following health codes and, after issuing a ticket, provided resources to help them run a clean kitchen.
“We’ve always sold the mutton sandwiches, we ran them as specials,” Emerson said. The couple usually serves more “bougie” fare such as buffalo tenderloin, blue corn fry bread, Colorado River beans and cilantro pearls. Once the pandemic halted the couple’s catering gigs, working the truck began to pay the bills.
Wilson said the couple struggled with the next steps for about a week. But, with the Navajo Nation and other tribal lands locked down, they came up with a plan: Provide foods that Native people would go home to acquire.
“And that’s worked,” she said. About 80 to 90% of what people order has mutton as a main ingredient.
Emerson agreed. “We’re doing it all in a smaller, convenient fast way — fum fum fum, get them in and get them out,” he said.
Sometimes Emerson’s Facebook page announces the truck will be late, due to needed repairs to a refrigerator or the vehicle’s engine. But they always manage to fix whatever is broken and get back on the road.
‘The Stand’ serves burros and memories
Along Alma School Road in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, what appears to be a shack thrown together with whatever dead wood and cactus ribs came to hand is a popular grab-and-go establishment.
Michael Washington, who’s of the Pima, Maricopa and Tohono O’odham cultures, owns and operates The Stand. The structure went up in 2008 to accommodate Washington’s wife, Cindy Rose, who was selling about 200 fry bread sandwiches a day out of their home for $3 each.
“She made red chili combos or bean and cheese,” said Washington. “So we built this out of a makeshift kitchen for some ceremonies that we had here.”
Cindy decided that The Stand needed even more awareness than just word of mouth among the community and workers.
“She put us on Yelp,” said Washington, who also learned how to cook early on from his own mom.
Then the Cooking Channel came calling, after a Washington family friend brought Eden Grinshpan of the show “Eden Eats” to The Stand.
“They filmed us after trying out our chili,” said Washington. “That’s how we got on the map.” Fans of fluffy fry bread, green or red chili, or even menudo flock to the funky establishment from across the globe.
But after Cindy died last year, Washington felt the need to keep The Stand — and her memory — intact. Each July 5 on her birthday, Washington plans to hold a special customer appreciation sale: $3 fry bread sandwiches. At the first one, vehicles lined up for blocks to get some food to comfort both themselves and the Washingtons.
“This is my bread and butter,” said Washington, who manages The Stand with family members. “I got to get up and go do it. That’s what keeps me going and also keeps my wife’s memory going.”
Diné chef explains all things fry bread
Denella Benin sits on a bench at the community garden at the back of Agave Farms in central Phoenix. Benin, a Diné who’s a citizen of the Navajo Nation, is an alumnus of Le Cordon Blue Culinary Arts in Scottsdale. She’s a head cook at Desert Diamond Casino and is training to become a sous chef.
But Benin is also a proponent of Indigenous foods and has lectured on how to incorporate corn, tepary beans and other foods native to the Southwest into modern cooking.
She also can explain how fry bread came to Indian Country. When Native people were rounded up and placed on reservations, foodstuffs that came to be called commodity food were distributed to residents.
“You get a wide variety of canned foods, powdered substance, powdered eggs, powdered milk, things that will keep,” she said.
Because grocery stores are miles away from communities, and people tend to be isolated, Benin said, these food distributions still occur in Navajo and other tribal lands.
People who were introduced to these new foods had to figure out something to do with them, said Benin, since they weren’t given recipes.
Native people were also given blocks of shortening, and Benin said that most likely, they were told that shortening can be heated in a pan to fry an item.
“Years, decades ago, you know, you had women making dough, so dough was definitely a factor,” she said.
Soon, women were frying up that dough and found it to be delicious, as did their families and friends. The new concoction, called fry bread, became a staple in Navajo homes, said Benin.
“I was raised on the notion that powdered eggs was the best thing to have for breakfast and that that fry bread is the best thing to have four, three times a day,” she said. “It’s been a part of our life and it’s comforting just as anything we eat when we were younger.”
Fry bread isn’t the healthiest of dishes. It’s high in bad fats linked to circulatory diseases and diabetes and can contain more than 1,000 calories when loaded down with toppings. That’s why nutritionists, chefs like Benin and Indigenous food advocates are interested in educating people about reversing the trend.
“I just would like to educate them and hope that at an earlier age, they can say ‘My culture’s food is…’ and Navajo fry bread wouldn’t make the list,” Benin said.
Spontaneous markets, social media support street foods
Back at Glenrosa Avenue, vehicles park along the street. Some place signs on their windshields advertising kneel-down bread, a Navajo bread made from corn, yeast bread, blue corn treats, burritos, cloth masks and even jewelry.
Elsewhere, enterprising Native people are busy baking, cooking and patting dough balls into flat rounds to be dipped into hot oil to sell via a Facebook site, Native Frybread Sales Phoenix. The page sports posts hawking handmade goodies and yes, fry bread, all over town onsite or for delivery.
Navajos advertise where freshly butchered bags of mutton, including intestines prized for making ‘ach’íí’, intestines stuffed with stomach fat, can be had. Picadilly, diced pickles plunged into a frosty fruit slush, is also a favorite.
On the Native Frybread page, people are already asking for another fall favorite, roasted piñons. Cars and pickups will soon be parked along 16th Street hawking the nutty snacks.
Emerson enumerates his own future plans to expand his agricultural pursuits. “Roxanne and I are actually into growing our own corn, our own blue corn, our own squash,” he said. He’s hoping to go home someday and teach the community “What was here before all this stuff got crazy.”
Reach the reporter at debra.krol@AZCentral.com or at 602-444-8490. Follow her on Twitter at @debkrol.
Coverage of Indigenous issues at the intersection of climate, culture and commerce is supported by the Catena Foundation and the Water Funder Initiative.
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