Discover more from The Sword and the Sandwich
Notable Sandwiches Holiday Special: Frybread Riot
Food writer Sara Calvosa of the Karuk tribe talks Thanksgiving, “decolonizing” our diets, and life on the rez.
In lieu of pressing forward with the usual end-of-week culinary chronicle—and thus spending all week manically researching the hallowed barbecue sandwich, only to release it on the thoroughly autumnal, leftover-sandwich dominated Friday after Thanksgiving—I wanted to infuse this week’s column with meaning. The Thanksgiving story in America is a fairly grotesque bit of nationalist puffery, stemming from prim, colonial-revival, Victorian-Massachusetts shenanigans. It was first nationalized as a holiday after the Civil War as a kind of sacral founding myth, an attempt to stitch up a gaping wound with story; in practice, doing so bandaged the white supremacy of slavery with the white supremacy of Indigenous genocide. So I decided to talk to a good friend, the Native food writer Sara Calvosa, about what this holiday means to her, the practice of decolonizing one’s diet, and the season of acorns falling and salmon returning. She has a gathering guide and Indigenous cookbook coming out next year from Heyday Books, and very generously shared a recipe for squash frybread that marries the food of survival with centuries of food tradition.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
TL: This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts. I imagine you have conflicted feelings about the holiday.
SC: I’m not a member of one of those Pilgrim-contact tribes, so I don’t wanna speak about Pilgrims—that’s not my tribe that was impacted in that way. But from a California indigenous perspective, and from a Karuk perspective, Thanksgiving is not something I celebrate in the same way. But it does roughly coincide with world renewal—this is the beginning of Karuk New Year, when the salmon are returning and the acorns are falling and it’s this time of feasting. I think of this time of year as a time of year to be grateful, and that’s what I have basically chosen to do for Thanksgiving. I do think that the narrative of Thanksgiving itself and the national narrative is pretty gross and needs to change, and it should be centering those tribes that were supporting Pilgrims rather than this kinda silly Pilgrim and Indian story. But I think it speaks to how the US does not teach any sort of truthful history.
I know you identify as Indigenous, or NDN. Can you tell me about your native heritage?
I am Karuk, a California tribe on the Klamath River. Our traditional lands are at the confluence of the Klamath and Salmon Rivers, and I grew up on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, in Northern California, very close to the Oregon border.
I grew up with our neighboring tribes, the Hupa and the Yurok, who are also Klamath River Trinity tribes, and we were all trilingual—we all spoke each others’ languages in order to communicate and trade and live along the river like that. And I grew up in a really kinda feral way, with my parents in the middle of this wilderness area, right there on the river—the river played a large part in my life. I’m an Aubrey on my mother’s side, from the Happy Camp Area. We all introduce ourselves with our families, and my family on my mom’s side has been living on the Klamath River since time immemorial. I come from a very long line of Karuk women, all the way back to first contact with miners in the 1800s.
The Sword and the Sandwich is an exploration of serious extremism and serious sandwiches. To support this work and access all future content, please consider a paid subscription:
What was life like growing up on a reservation?
There’s something unique about growing up on a reservation in a state as wealthy and abundant as California is. I went to high school on the rez, and there were only 35 people in my graduating class. We would travel, and people would say, “they’re gonna beat us up, they’re so scary.” There was an interesting dynamic between us and everyone else. At the time I was like, this is crazy that they would think that, but there’s baked-in anti-Indigenous sentiment when you’re inside the rez and going into these rural border towns and cities. There’s still that settler-colonial sentiment and anti-Indigenous feeling.
It was also—I felt like there was a lot of community, growing up on the rez. Yes, there was a lot of dysfunction, and that’s gonna happen on any reservation, but when I see my children, who live in a wealthier area and go to those schools, I see the difference in community. Even though we didn’t have a lot, I felt my community was there to take care of me—even people who didn’t really know me, we were all there to take care of each other. And I did feel like a lot of parents and members of the community were very focused on stepping up and caring for our kids, making sure we all went to college and got the support that we needed. There was a difference in the way that the community felt back then than it does now.
Karuk people are fix-the-world people. We are very devout, in that we believe in the teachings of our ixkaréeyavs, which are our spirit people. We believe in their teachings, and we have a lot of ceremonies: world renewal ceremonies, especially at this time of year.
I was tired of writing about farmers and growers and people that had all this access to land and generational wealth. It was frustrating. I was on my own journey of connecting my children—who did not grow up on the rez like I did—to what it means to be Karuk. I started to focus more of my food writing on California Indigenous foods, like acorns, and I realized that I found it so much more fulfilling to share with people the things that I was sharing with my family. I decided to write about traditional food and develop recipes full time.
What was that transition like?
I went to News from Native California and asked them if they were interested in having a food columnist, and that’s really how it started. Then they asked if I would be interested in extrapolating on it and writing a book, and I decided, “I think I’m going to do this.” It’s taken on a lot of different forms, as the book has grown over the two and a half years that I’ve been working on it. It started out as a gathering guide and a lunar calendar and a planting calendar and tide charts and all of this stuff, and I have simplified it more into being a book about just beginning to decolonize our diets. The work I’m doing with different communities when I’m teaching classes or putting together meal kits made me realize how much people need to know how to take the first step. How do I eat an acorn? What do I do with all these acorns?
There’s this huge disconnect between generations—a lot of tradition lost. And a lot of our foodways were lost, or stolen from us intentionally. A lot of people my age, in their 40s now, want it back, but don’t know how to start.
What it means to be Karuk for me is to be in service to my community, and I’ve been looking for a way to be in service, and this is how I found that path. Just being able to share what I know and these recipes and everything. We’re all decolonizing our diets at different rates, some people are able to eat just their traditional foods, and others are trying to grapple with that commodity diet of white flour and sugar and all the stuff given to us on food boxes in reservations. Some people are just trying to really grapple with that dependency on these foods, and all the diet-related diseases that come along with it. I realized that I don’t have to be 100% decolonized myself either—that eating one cup of acorn flour is still one cup less of white flour, and that’s a beginning, that’s a first step. And from there, who knows? People can go as far as they want, and I hope they do, and find this book too rudimentary for them, and find how abundant our traditional foods are and how vital they are.
You mentioned that this is a traditional feast season in Karuk culture, so if you’re not roasting a turkey and baking pies, what’s on the menu? And what does this season mean to you?
Traditionally this is the time for acorn soup. The feasting aspect of the mushrooms, the venison, the acorn, the salmon. There’s also kind of a renewal of greens because of the rains that come, and so we get renewal of Indian lettuces and other greens. It’s a time to gather and process and be together and feast and dance, and as spiritual people, the Karuk believe that this is a gift—the salmon returning is a gift from the spirit people, so we have these ceremonies in order to demonstrate our gratitude and to keep the world going. To keep the world renewing.
It’s also a time for me to reestablish my intentions as a Karuk person: what are my intentions for this new year, as a water protector, as a land defender, and as an indigenous person? This is the time of year for that.
And it’s a time for cultural burning and cultural fire. In California, people talk about the beginning of fall as Indian summer. It’s because of all the little fires we light everywhere. The native people were doing healthy burns to make sure that in the new year things would grow back healthier. We need to burn hazel so when the hazels grow back they make the perfect hazel sticks for basket weavings. Our baskets are incredible. They’re waterproof, they’re beautifully designed and highly functional, and artistic. So there’s all these things inside this basket.
How is the Karuk relationship to food different from contemporary American culture?
That’s one thing about Native foodways in general: once you start learning about indigenous foods and indigenous foodways, you realize it’s not about going to the store—it's this whole holistic look at food, and you look at it in a cyclical way. Most people these days are not oriented to these natural rhythms, not oriented to gathering the way that we used to. That’s part of the reason I’m writing this book, so people can take the first step to access those rhythms and cycles and start to feel and understand the differences in these cycles.
Once you have begun to become familiar with them, with an acorn and an oak tree, you realize when it’s having a mast year and it’s going crazy, other years it’s not so much. You see that when they fall you have lots of little acorns with holes in them that are buggy—another application of good fire is to take out all the buggy ones and burn ‘em in a pile so you don’t have as many the next year and your tree is healthier. Things start to grow up around them in a healthier way. One thing leads into another. It also leads into learning our Karuk language, which also leads into art and understanding art and our basket weaving and our regalia, and it all becomes this big holistic picture.
One traditional dish that you’ve written about is frybread. What can you tell me about its history?
Frybread is one of those foods that is pan-Indian—it’s pervasive throughout NDN country, in some way. I grew up with NDN tacos—how else are you gonna raise money for the eighth-grade trip or the all-Indian basketball tournament if you don’t have an NDN taco sale? It’s different everywhere, but for the Karuk an NDN taco is chili beans—ground meat and beans—on frybread with lettuce, tomato, cheese and salsa on top. It’s emblematic of both our oppression and our resilience. And our survival. Back when the US government was putting Native people onto reservations and stealing their land, they would drop off these commodity boxes full of white flour and sugar and lard. And out of that desperate need to survive is where frybread originates.
What is frybread, exactly?
It’s basically just water and flour and a few other things. You mix it together and fry it, and you get this big fluffy frybread, and put whatever on top of it. Some people do chili beans, in the Southwest red chili and pork, or mutton even. Then there’s the hand pies that use frybread, where you stuff them and close the frybread dough around it and deep fry it, so it’s a hand pie. And basically it has become something that is sort of pervasive to all NDN peoples. It is, on one hand, extremely unhealthy and something we need to get away from, because it was something given to us as a way to take us away from our native foodways, a way to kill us. We need to reclaim our traditional foodways, though we can’t do that all at once. I don’t know if we’ll ever be at the point where we don’t eat frybread anymore, because there's a deep nostalgia and respect for our grandparents and great-grandparents and ancestors that used this as a way to survive so we could get to this point.
I like to use squashes with thin skin so I can just puree the entire thing for extra flavor and fiber. I also like to fry in sunflower oil because it’s light and it really doesn’t have a smell even after frying 50 frybreads. Make sure you have enough for everybody lest there be a frybread riot for sure.
1 small red kuri squash
1-2 tbsps red chile powder
1-2 tbsp maple sugar or syrup
2.5 cups flour
2 tsps baking powder
½ tsp salt
2 tsps yeast
½ cup milk
½ cup water
Additional ¼ cup flour for shaping
2 cups sunflower oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper
Cut squash in half, scoop out seeds. Sprinkle with chile powder and maple sugar and roast until tender, approximately 45 minutes. Remove squash from the oven, put in a food processor and puree, skin and all.
In a large mixing bowl add flour, baking powder, salt and yeast and whisk thoroughly.
In a measuring cup, heat water and milk together in a microwave until slightly warmer than room temperature.
Mix water/milk and 1 cup of squash puree together with flour. If too wet, add more flour ¼ cup at a time. If too dry, add a little more warm water 1 tbsp at a time. Cover bowl with a towel and set aside for an hour.
Heat oil in a heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Test readiness by tossing in a little flour to see if it sizzles.
Coating your hands in flour, pull off golf ball sized pieces of dough and pat back and forth in your hands until you’ve got about a 6 inch disc (or whatever size you like.) Place carefully in hot oil and fry for about two minutes on each side. Your frybread should be fluffy on the inside and crispy on the outside.
Top with elk chili beans, lettuce, tomato, avocado, cheese, salsa, sour cream, baby kale, pickled jalapeños, seaweed flakes, fermented hot sauce, or whatever floats your boat.