Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thanksgiving Traditions, Fry Bread and All

As usual, this year I cooked the entire Thanksgiving meal my family has annually enjoyed for the past eight years. I generally start cooking items that I can easily reheat the day before the meal, so this year I made the green bean casserole, pumpkin creme brulee for dessert, and pumpkin tomato soup (which is actually much tastier than it sounds) in advance.
By the time the turkey is about 45 minutes from being removed from the oven, I generally look like a wreck. We always eat at 1pm. If someone had taken a photo of me yesterday at 12:15pm, I would have had on no make-up, been wearing an old (likely holey) tee shirt and shorts (I get WAY too warm to wear sweatpants while cooking), had flour in my pulled back hair, a sweaty forehead, and glasses that kept slipping down my nose. It's never my most flattering moment, but within the 45 minutes I have before Tom or Tina Turkey is ready to "rest" before carving, I somehow pull it together: I clean myself up, put in my contacts, put on some make-up, change into decent clothes and manage to look refreshed! Just like Martha Stewart! LOL!
Except for turkey, mashed potatoes and green bean casserole, I generally don't serve any other portion of the meal from one year to the next. That means coming up with a new dessert and several new side dishes every year. This year I decided to make fry bread, as defined by Merriam-Webster's online dictionary as "quick bread cooked (as by American Indians) by deep-frying" and the website goes on to claim the first known use of the term was in 1950. 1950? Seriously? I can trace my Native American heritage WAY back before 1950. Good grief, my parents were born by 1950.  I guarantee you the women in my mother's family had been making fry bread LONG before 1950.
My great-grandma Ziemer, who was Native, and her husband, my great-grandpa was even more so, called fry bread "hounds' ears." When I told my maternal grandma (their daughter) that I was making fry bread this year, she didn't know what I was talking about until I described them and she exclaimed, "Hounds' ears!"
The plain fact of my maternal family's Native American heritage has been a point of contention among some of my family members.  One of my great-aunts (sister to my grandma) hated the fact that she was "Indian." When we would drive past an anonymous house in Shawano (where both of my parents families' are from and where I was born) that had a bunch of stuff on the front porch, or a car parked on the lawn, my great aunt would say, with noticeable disdain in her voice, "I bet Indians live there." As if she wasn't one herself.
When my parents were attending Shawano High School the mascot was an Indian. The school has since had a change of heart about Native American school mascots and are now known as the Shawano Hawks.  When my parents went to high school, there was no high school on the Menominee Reservation so Native American kids were bused into the Shawano school district. According to stories I've heard, it wasn't an easy atmosphere; certainly not as contentious as the integration of white schools in the south, but similar in a lot of ways.
Then there was the Menominee Warrior Society's siege on the Alexian Brotherhood's property outside of Gresham, WI on January 1, 1975, known as the Novitiate. I'm not getting into this portion of Menominee history because it is much better documented in a book titled The Abbey and Me by J. Patrick Rick, a former Catholic resident of the Novitiate. I met with him two years ago in Gresham after I had read his book, but I bought another copy just so I could have him autograph it. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the author's interpretation of the events that occurred that winter, but the fact that Marlon Brando showed up as a sign of support to the Menominees indicates the level of craziness that was going on at that location at that time. Legally, it's trespassing to enter into the Novitiate and its grounds, but I've done it and have taken photos of what I discovered, which was a horribly damaged and beaten skeleton of a once majestic, grand building.
But I digress. What I really want to write about is the feelings I had while making my very first batch of fry bread yesterday. I had the luxury of a marble rolling pin and electric deep frier for my first try at it, but I did knead the dough and beat it down, then knead it some more before finally rolling it out and cutting out 6" circles to place in the hot oil. While my hands were covered in flour and the dough squished between my fingers, I thought about my great-grandmother, Margaret Ziemer, and who had taught her how to make fry bread and what it was like for her to create her first batch. And I kept thinking farther and farther back to the Native women in my family who had likely created hundreds of batches of fry bread, not just as a novelty at Thanksgiving, but as a staple for their families. What were their lives like, especially compared to my 21st century existence? Me, with my graduate degree, when I'm sure I don't have to go back too many generations to find family members who couldn't read English, but sang beautiful Native lullaby's to their children. Me, who uses bottled hair color to keep my grays from showing though my hair, when I know my great grandmother and her sister (my great great aunt Sarah) would take down their hair at night and braid it down each other's backs, speaking a language I didn't understand, but that was lyrical and something special shared between the two sisters.
I see a lot of my great-grandma Ziemer in myself: she had plenty of beaus and absolutely loved big, bold costume jewelry.  She wore rouge the color of bricks and always had lemon drops in one of her many handbags. I can say I had a number of suitors in my youth and that my motto toward jewelry, shoes and purses has always been, "Go big or go home."
These are traits I possess that I attribute to my great-grandma.  I hope I honored her and all the other Native women in my family yesterday, by making my first batch of fry bread.
Photo I took of the Novitiate, October 2012.

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