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Frybread business supports Fort Peck's homeless


Nora Mabie
Missoulian

Best friends Tracey Rider and Frances Weeks had no idea that a single piece of frybread could change their lives — and the lives of many others in their community.

In 2021, the two were running the Fort Peck Tribe’s temporary homeless shelter on an entirely volunteer basis. Rider, 53, cooked for the homeless each night. Weeks, 56, went door to door, collecting donations to support their efforts.

Things went well at first. They hosted weekly bingo nights, requiring attendees to be sober to play. And Rider usually cooked meals for about 100 people a night.

About a year later, though, the donations slowed. Rider and Weeks were almost out of money. If they couldn’t do this work anymore, there’d be no one to replace them and nowhere for the reservation’s homeless to go.

If someone had told Rider and Weeks at the time that they’d soon launch a booming food business that would bolster their volunteer efforts, they wouldn’t have believed it. Something like that would take a miracle.

But that’s exactly what happened. And the miracle came in the form of a secret family recipe. Gramma Elaine’s fry bread recipe to be exact.

Frybread originated with the Navajo Nation. In the 1860s, U.S. soldiers forced the Navajo off their homelands in Arizona and New Mexico, making them walk hundreds of miles to a reservation near present-day Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

The Navajo no longer had access to their traditional foods, and U.S. soldiers instead provided low-qualify commodities, like flour, salt, sugar and lard — ingredients eventually used to make frybread.

Today, frybread is made by combining flour, sugar, salt and water to form dough. The dough is then fried in a pan of oil to make frybread, which looks similar to a funnel cake and tastes like a savory, unglazed donut.

The food is complicated in Indian Country. Historically, frybread is a symbol of oppression and survival. Displaced members of the Navajo Nation made it with the limited ingredients they had and ate it so they wouldn’t starve. But today, fry bread is wildly popular, often served at summer festivals, powwows, sports games or other events in tribal communities. People eat it plain, as a sweet treat or fill it with ground beef and veggies as a taco.

Weeks was stunned to see her grandmother’s frybread recipe. Gramma Elaine had made a point to keep it secret, sometimes using her famous fry bread as a bargaining chip to coax children and grandchildren to come by her house. Some grandchildren did manual labor in Elaine’s yard or chores around the house just so she would teach them how to cook it.

Elaine’s frybread is distinct. It comes out of the pan hard like a cracker and moments later, it rises, becoming light and fluffy, holding its freshness for days. If frozen and reheated in a microwave, its airy texture is restored. This freshness is what made Gramma Elaine’s fry bread the perfect product.

Elaine knew that if Weeks and Rider used her recipe to cook and sell frybread, they would earn enough money to continue helping the homeless. To do this, however, Weeks would have to share the recipe with one more person — Rider.

Weeks didn’t take this step lightly. She and Gramma Elaine drafted a contract for Rider to sign. The document, half-jokingly, stated that if Rider were to share the recipe, Weeks could poke her eyes out. Rider happily signed.

The recipe came at just the right time. Rider had been looking at loans to support their volunteer efforts, but the application process was daunting.

“We had no money,” she said. “Our credit wasn’t good. We didn’t want to ask for help. We figured this fry bread is good enough — we can do this ourselves.”

And the frybread was good enough. In the following months, Rider and Weeks made and sold fry bread around town and at local events, making enough profit to buy groceries and hot meals for people experiencing homelessness on the reservation.

When Rider went to live with a friend on the Flathead Reservation, she continued making fry bread for community members. Eventually, someone at Mission West Community Development Partners, an organization that promotes business development, tried the fry bread and was blown away.

The company took Weeks and Rider on as clients, providing contacts, technical assistance and guidance as the women worked to turn their passion project into a formal business.

Since then, Rider and Weeks founded their business, called Montana Rez Bred. And they’ve made and sold their frybread at dozens of powwows, farmer’s markets and rodeos statewide.

“Life’s too short to eat bad frybread,” Weeks said. She and Rider know it firsthand.

In 2020, Weeks’ 28-year-old-son was shot and killed just outside her kitchen window. One year later, Rider’s stepson, who was homeless at the time, froze to death.

The median household income on the reservation is $44,907 — about $21,000 less than typical in Montana. One in four households does not have workers present, and housing supply is limited. For the last five years, the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes have struggled to keep homeless shelters open.

Rider and Weeks refuse to accept these struggles as normal. They make and sell fry bread every day because they want to see more people in their community avoid preventable deaths.

“We know the homeless people here,” Rider explained. “They trust us and love us because we love them.”

Thanks to the secret recipe, business has boomed. Now, the women sell fry bread, tacos and sandwiches, among other items. They also package and ship their fry bread mix to customers around the state. Some revenue is invested back into their business, but most goes toward feeding the reservation’s homeless community.

Eventually, they want to sell their fry bread in stores across the state, and they hope revenue will one day support a permanent warming shelter on the reservation.

“Behind every package of our fry bread is a purpose,” Weeks said. “Plus, our fry bread is so good, you won’t want any other.”

To learn more or order from Montana Rez Bread, visit Montana RezBred’s page on Facebook.com.

This story was originally published in The Missoulian



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