Food & Drink

Eats & drinks: Powwow kitchen features Native American staples

Indian tacos are made on fry bread, which is made with white flour and lard.
Indian tacos are made on fry bread, which is made with white flour and lard. Photo provided

April 2-3 is the 12th annual “New Faces of an Ancient People Traditional American Indian Powwow” at Mount Nittany Middle School. This powerful gathering affords all attendees a glimpse into the nature of our American Indian tribes and it is a profound experience.

This article originally ran in 2005, when I worked in the Foods Lab at Penn State with a former nutrition student who was involved in a project that served Native American people in need of housing. Now working as a Senior Public Health and Science Policy Advisor for the National Institute of Health, Sheila Fleischhacker has maintained her interest in public health and welfare throughout her career, building on her early experiences in Montana with Penn State associate professor of architectural engineering David Riley.

Recently Riley provided an update to his projects out west. “We continue to work with the Northern Cheyenne tribe. Our projects have focused to disaster relief efforts and starting this year we will be supporting the Eco Cheyenne group with a solar energy initiative. To date we have built three homes, one barn and three buildings on the campus of Chief Dull Knife College.”

John Sanchez, associate professor of journalism at Penn State and the chief coordinator for the powwow, elaborated on this year’s event. “We will have Mike Zerby, a member of the Mission Band of Potawatomi Indians, as our head cook. In addition we will have buffalo burgers and corn soup — both staples for American (Natives of Diverse Nations) at powwows. We have not raised our prices for food in our Native American Kitchen ever ... same low prices as at the first powwow here 12 years ago. In addition we have about 100 volunteers working in the kitchen and serving.”

All are welcome and the event is free. Parking is available and there is a free shuttle bus that will leave from the HUB-Robeson Center every 30 minutes, beginning at 11 a.m. Check out the website for more information,

Obtaining the buffalo isn’t really the challenge it was 200 years ago, since even here in Central Pa. we can buy it already ground in one pound packages at Wegmans. Nevertheless the lifestyle for this summer’s volunteers in Lame Deer, Montana, is dauntingly similar to what the Native Americans experienced before they were driven into trailers on the edge of the vast prairie that is their ancestral home.

David Riley, associate professor in Penn State’s architectural engineering department, has led groups of Penn State students to Montana for the past four summers as part of the American Indian Housing Initiative, building strawbale buildings on the Northern Cheyenne Indian reservation. This spring 35 students are enrolled in his AE/Arch 497H class, learning about the issues that drive the initiative: 40 percent of the homes on most American Indian reservations are overcrowded and poorly maintained; the poverty rate for rural American Indians is 37 percent — highest of any ethnic group; 200,000 housing units are needed immediately on reservations. His students study new and emerging sustainable building technologies and how to apply them to housing problems. And then in July they make a great leap — they go to Lame Deer for two weeks to construct a building and put theory into practice.

Last week the group gathered for a team building experience and learned how to make Indian fry bread and a buffalo chili topping for the puffy flat breads. They worked in groups of 2 and 3, cutting lard into the flour for the dough, heating vegetable oil to fry the breads, and slicing and dicing lettuce and onions for the toppings. It was a disparate group, some engineering students, some English, film, nutrition and architecture majors, from freshman level to grad students. It was a group that would soon be relying on each other for emotional and physical support through trial by fire, caught in the cross hairs of two cultures.

“The climate is inhospitable,” explained Riley. “In the summer it reaches 110° F and it goes down to minus 50° F in the winter. The wind howls, there are thunderstorms with hail, sometimes tornados. Students and volunteers live in tents that they bring with them, sharing minimal amenities”

Strawbale construction is also known as “Nebraska style” thanks to settlers in the late 1800s who used what they had leftover after gathering grain for insulation and as a structural component of their houses. The bales are set on a poured concrete foundation and then stucco is applied, resulting in a well-insulated building that can stand extremes of temperature.

The AIHI, founded in 1998 at the University of Washington and now headquartered at PSU, has built seven projects over the past six summers, including four homes, a Literacy Center at Chief Dull Knife College, a Technology Center and a sweat lodge. This year they are building a 4,000-square-foot day care center with a kitchen. For more information about the initiative, an application to participate and photos, visit their website at


These are recipes that she Sheila Fleischhacker learned while working at the kitchen at the Mount Nittany Middle School pow wow. She cautions: “Making Indian Tacos is not that hard; but eating them without spilling might not be as easy a task. Indian Tacos are described as a ‘sure-seller’ at pow wows.”

Serves 10

2 tablespoons lard

1 large onion, minced

1 large green pepper, chopped

2 pounds ground buffalo

Salt, pepper, chile powder to taste

two 4-ounce cans tomato paste

one 28-ounce can whole tomatoes

one 15-ounce can kidney beans, drained

one 15-ounce can kidney beans, drained

1 teaspoon dried basil

 1/2 teaspoon oregano

For the assembly:

1 head iceberg lettuce, shredded

bowl of minced raw onion

1/2 pound cheese, grated

bowl of chopped mild green chilies

Fry onions, green pepper and buffalo meat in a little cooking lard and cook until the meat is brown. Sprinkle some salt and chile powder over it. Add tomato paste and 4 small cans of water and the canned tomatoes and their juice — break up tomatoes and stir it around. Then, open, drain and stir in the kidney beans. Add the basil and oregano and season with additional salt, pepper and chile powder. Simmer until meat and onions are done and sauce is thick, 30 to 40 minutes.

Assemble an Indian Taco by placing the taco meat onto fry bread. Add to the top: tomatoes, onions, lettuce, cheese and chiles.


Fry bread is a staple of many Native Americans’ diet. The ingredients — white flour and lard — are prominent items among the Federal Commodity Food items delivered to the reservations. This bread might have been the only family food in hard times.

4 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoon lard (melted and warm, but not hot)

1 1/3 cup water, approximately

Vegetable oil for deep frying

While preparing the dough, pour vegetable oil in heavy cast iron frying pan so that about half of the pan is full. Watch the oil so that it does not get too hot. Mix the flour, baking powder and salt. Add melted lard and enough water to make a soft, slightly sticky dough. Keeping the addition of flour to a minimum, knead about 10 minutes, until the dough is springy. Shape into balls about 3 inches in diameter. Push each ball into a flat cake with the heel of your palm. Keep patting and stretching the dough into a thin sheet, 10 to 12 inches in diameter. This takes practice. A rolling pin is a good substitute for the inexperienced. To prevent bubbles in the bread, you may choose to pull the dough apart in the middle to make a small hole not much bigger than a quarter. Fry each round of dough in very hot oil, turning once, until puffy and golden.