History & Story

Indian Fry Bread — the Bread of Life

The beginning of Indian Fry bread goes back to the late 18th century, when the People — the different bands of Apaches including the Tontos — were forced to live on the Reservation. The Apaches were given staples such as flour, salt, lard, baking powder or yeast, sugar, beans, and rice. Using some of these ingredients, Indian Fry Bread was “born” and became the bread of life — also known as “Good Bread” — for the People.

Jeri J’s Indian Fry Bread is derived from her Mother Ola’s recipe that has been passed down from generation to generation. She recalls her family history of her Mother growing up and having to cook outdoors using the fat from animals in which to prepare the Fry Bread and all other staples. She taught Jeri J how to make Fry Bread as a child. Jeri J developed a passion for cooking this “Good Bread” and sharing it with those who desired truly authentic Indian Fry Bread. She modified her Mother’s recipe with her own “secret” method and named it “Jeri J’s Indian Fry Bread.”

Hunters and Gatherers Preparing for the Seasons

Historically, the Tonto Apache have always been hunters and gatherers; they hunted deer, elk, rabbits, quail and other small game animals. They gathered nuts when in season such as walnuts, acorns, and pinions. They also gathered blackberries, blueberries, sour red berries, and grapes. Enough was gathered to last from season to season.

Jeri J’s Family Fights for Tribal Land in Payson, Arizona

jeri j's indian fry breadThe Tonto Apache struggled to obtain their own land in Payson. In 1971, Jeri J’s Mother, nick named “Grandma” Ola (so named because she was a matriarch), and Father, Ed Smith, went to Congress to plead for their own land. When asked how many people were in the tribe, Ed replied, “plenty.” Not being satisfied with this response, he was asked again and Ed answered, “many.” original fry bread recipeWanting something more specific,Ola Smith, Tonto Apache matriarch they asked a third time, to which Ed boldly proclaimed, “More than enough!” The battle was won when, in 1972, President Richard Nixon signed a bill into law granting the Tonto Apache tribe title to 85-acres of Reservation land.

The Tonto Apache Reservation (originally named Te-go-suk,“Place of the Yellow Water”) is located south of Payson, Arizona on the outskirts of the town in northwestern Gila County, approximately 95 miles northeast of Phoenix and 100 miles southeast of Flagstaff. The Reservation was established October 6, 1972 with 85 acres. Recently, an additional 293 acres was put into trust for the Tribe. It has the smallest land base of any reservation in the state of Arizona, with 150 enrolled tribal members.

The Tonto Apache are the direct descendants of the Dilzhe’e Apache who lived in the Payson area long before the arrival of the Anglos. During the first reservation era, they were moved to the large Rio Verde Reserve, near Camp Verde, which was established in 1871 for the Tonto and Northeastern Yavapai. The Reserve was dissolved in 1875 and the people were forcibly marched in the winter during harsh weather conditions to relocate to the San Carlos Reservation. Many died along the way. Some Tonto Apache gradually returned to Payson after 20 years of exile to find white settlers had taken much of their land. Jeri J is a descendant of the Tontos who returned to their homeland.

Kitchen on Wheels

jeri j's fry bread truckJeri J grew up in Payson, Arizona without the benefit of electricity, water, and indoor plumbing. She lived in what was considered a shack — a house built with scrap lumber, a tin roof, and clear plastic for windows. Her family had staple food which consisted of pinto beans, corn, acorns, rabbits, potatoes, wild spinach, tortillas, and Fry Bread. Sometimes they had only flour and ingredients for Fry Bread, which Jeri J’s Mother would make and they would have it with hot tea, or Fry Bread with acorn. Fry Bread was good with anything and still is!

In the early 1980’s Jeri J started helping in the Indian Fry Bread Booth at one of Payson’s Pro Rodeos, working with her Mother, sisters, and nieces. It was a good way to raise funds. Years later in 2001, the Tonto Apache Tribe had its first pow-wow at which time Jeri J set up a booth remembering and using her Mother‘s recipe. It was so successful — people loved her family’s Indian Fry Bread.

Jeri J took her Mother’s recipe, modified it with her own “secret” method, and named it “Jeri J’s Indian Fry Bread.” Her Fry Bread was a hit. Customers raved about its light texture, flavor, and how it was unlike any Fry Bread they had ever had. It wasn’t long before JJ bought her a motor home, made minor changes to the kitchen area, and Jeri J had a kitchen on wheels. As time went on and the popularity of Jeri J’s Indian Fry Bread grew, JJ bought a school bus and with labor of love, time, and effort he converted the bus into a larger kitchen on wheels to meet the growing customer demand. The bus was painted a bright green with a huge, bright yellow “FRY BREAD” sign on top. It couldn’t be missed as it sat on the Mazatzal Casino parking lot in Payson and it quickly became Jeri J’s trademark.

jeri j's fry bread standIn 2011, the bus was repainted a burnt orange, a popular southwest color, but the “FRY BREAD” sign still crowns the top. At that time, Jeri J’s Fry Bread stand was relocated to a vacant lot next to the Tribal Police Department. The stand is open on weekends and one of Jeri J’s great nieces works the stand with her. The busTonto Apache Indian Fry Bread mix can be seen from the well-known Beeline Hwy (Route 87). Jeri J has an outdoor patio seating area for her customers to sit, eat, and enjoy her authentic and unique Indian Fry Bread. Due to the encouragement of her many satisfied customers and her desire to share her authentic Indian Fry Bread with others, in November of 2011 Jeri J and JJ began packaging, marketing, and branding Jeri J’s Indian Fry Bread in a 1 lb. mix so that everyone could experience and enjoy that taste of history in their own homes.