Sunday January 31, 2016

Bannock: A brief history

Light, fluffy and golden brown fried bannock is sometimes called frybread.

Light, fluffy and golden brown fried bannock is sometimes called frybread. (Tim Fontaine)

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The Inuit call it 'palauga,' it's 'luskinikn' to the Mi'kmaq, while the Ojibway call it 'ba`wezhiganag.' Whatever they call it, from north to south and coast to coast, just about every indigenous nation across North America has some version of bannock.

Most indigenous families have their own unique recipes, which are passed down from generation to generation. Yet few, it seems, know where bannock came from.

Origins of modern bannock

Modern bannock, heavy and dense when baked — or light, fluffy and golden brown when fried — is usually made from wheat flour, which was introduced by Europeans, particularly Scots, who had their own flat cakes of unleavened barley or oatmeal dough called bannock.

But Nancy Turner, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Victoria, says indigenous people already had their own version made from a wild plant called camas.

Neechi Commons bannock

Professional bannock makers at Neechi Commons in Winnipeg will prepare up to 100 bannock loaves each day. (Tim Fontaine)

The camas bulb would have been baked for long periods of time, dried and then flattened or chopped and formed into cakes and loaves, similar to modern bannock.

But why did flour-based bannock become such a common food among indigenous people across the continent?

"Well, it's delicious," Turner says with a laugh.

She adds that bannock keeps without spoiling for a long time and is a good source of carbohydrates, which historically was hard to come by in some regions of Canada.

"I can just imagine that it would be a very convenient and readily prepared food that people would have adopted easily."

Cultural icon

And adopt it indigenous people did.

Aside from simply eating it, bannock has become something of a cultural icon. It's mentioned in movies like Powwow Highway and Smoke Signals. Artists like Art Napoleon have written songs about it.

Some people even joke about giving "bannock slaps," in which one person would get slapped upside the head with a piece of bannock for doing something offensive or stupid.  

Increasingly, bannock is also becoming part of commerce.

The business of bannock

Sharon Bond is among a growing number of indigenous entrepreneurs who are taking bannock and turning into a business.

Neechi Commons cinnamon bannock rolls

Bakers at Neechi Commons in Winnipeg prepare 'cinnamon bannock rolls.' It's one way in which traditional bannock has become modern. (Tim Fontaine)

Bond owns two B.C. restaurants called Kekuli Cafe, and bannock is a big part of the menu and branding.

Staff members even greet callers to the restaurants with a cheery, "Don't panic, we have bannock!"

The restaurants offer bannock burgers, bannock tacos, even bannock breakfast sandwiches. But Bond has given the bread more of a modern twist, serving it with a cream cheese and Skor chocolate topping.

She's not alone. There are indigenous-owned eateries in Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton and Vancouver, all offering bannock.

Too much of a good thing?

But some people think so much bannock can be too much of a good thing.

In 2005, Native American activist Suzan Shown Harjo wrote a column in Indian Country Today calling fried bannock "junk food" with no redeeming qualities and vowed to give it up.

Cree lawyer Brock Roe doesn't go that far but is among a growing number of indigenous people who restrict the amount of bannock they eat.

"I do have some every now and then because I do miss it. I mean, it's something I love," he said.

"It's not good for people with diabetes and I understand that, so I restrict the amount of carbs that I eat, and unfortunately bannock is on that list."