I’m sitting around a table with 10 elderly tourists watching a man in Aboriginal regalia fry bannock. I never heard of bannock. We’re in a circle in the Istken Hall at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, glancing awkwardly at each other; at the bannock sizzling softly in the pan; at the tray of singe-serving peanut butter and jam, placed neatly in a basket next to a pile of serviettes.
Bill Ritchie, the man in regalia, looks around and, noticing our silence and timid glances, says, “This is not a family recipe. This is a survivor bachelor recipe.” Everyone laughs and now we’re all friends.
The centre was hosting a baking session for the community Monday as part of National Aboriginal Day. It was advertised in a press release as a “Bannock Baker’s Session,” and while I’ll soon learn that bannock is made in a multitude of ways across the UK, North America and Tibet, there’s no baking to be had in the Istken Hall this afternoon. Don’t be fooled. Today, we’re frying up some pancakes.
Basically. Traditional bannock, which Bill and his colleague Gerald Paul are making for us in portable frying pans, looks like a biscuit-pancake hybrid that, from the basket of PB and J on the table, can be served with any variety of spreads.
“What kind of flour do we use?” asks an old woman from Olympia.
“I like to use Robin Hood all purpose flour…” Gerald says and goes into a detailed history of the how Robin Hood came to be tied up so thoroughly with Aboriginal culture.
“But is it what flour?” says the lady.
“Um, all purpose flour.”
“But not corn flour,” she says. There’s tension now. “It’s wheat flour.” She’s not asking this time.
“Right,” he says. “Robin Hood flour.”
He goes on to explain how bannock is prepared. It’s similar to a pancake and thus very simple:
1) Mix in a bowl: two cups of flour, a pinch of salt, two tablespoons of baking powder and a teaspoon of sugar (which is optional, giving the bannock sweeter taste and a more golden crust when finished).
2) Add 1½ cups of boiling water and stir until the mix is a paste.
3) Take globs of this paste and fry in a pan with ½ cup of oil for about 10 minutes, until both sides are golden-brown.
According to Bill, the Scots brought bannock to North America in the 1700s and gave it to the Natives. It’s been woven deep into Aboriginal tradition ever since, similar to the Irish and potatoes, the Chinese and rice. Today, it’s used similar to how the English use the biscuit, served with tea, coffee, or soup. The possibilities are seemingly endless.
Each First Nation across North America adds its own twist or flare to the production: brown-sugar bannock, cheddar and bacon bannock, and on and on. Gerald says a popular dish in this region is called the Indian taco, which uses all the same ingredients as a regular taco but bannock is used instead of the shell.
Bill says, “One time, my brother and I were so desperate to make bannock but we had no oil. Do you know what we used?”
“Motor oil?” someone says and everyone laughs at this vaguely racist comment.
The bannock looks a little like fried cod when it’s done, lightly browned and dripping in oil. Gerald claims that this is his first time making bannock in two years. The elderly all take turns slicing it up, taking bites and humming and cooing in delight through their mouthfuls.
I take my own bite. It’s fluffy, a bit heavy and absolutely delicious. It tastes just like a biscuit-pancake hybrid. It would taste even better with jam. Or soup! Or coffee… I can feel a new love affair blossoming. The fluffiness! The versatility, oh!
By the time you read this, I’ll have gone on a serious bannock bender, “baking it” everyday, gaining 15 pounds in the belly within the week and hopefully swearing off it. It’s just that good.
- published Pique Newsmagazine June 24, 2010