How Bannock Is Preserving Indigenous Culture in British Columbia
The staple bread helps native chefs move one step closer to food sovereignty.
In British Columbia, Indigenous knowledge is passed over baskets of warm bannock. The bread, also known as the “Aboriginal staff of life,” is a connection to the past, a staple among nations that have existed long ago. But it continues to have a place at the table, Indigenous or otherwise, as the kind of comfort food that has no boundaries.
Bannock can be many things. The pillowy dough—a simple concoction of flour, water, baking powder, and salt—is either baked, fried, or cooked over an open fire. Depending on how you prepare it, the bread can sit crumbly and scone-like alongside a selection of jams, serve as a bun on a wild salmon burger, or, with a little bit of oil, take the form of a donut.
Inez Cook, founder of Vancouver’s only Indigenous-owned restaurant Salmon n’ Bannock, remembers making bannock at summer camp—a place where many British Columbians first encounter the bread.
“Sometimes I swear my summer camp bannock was cheated, and it was probably Bisquick,” Cook jokes. “But I have fond memories of making it on the fire and putting corn syrup on it.” Though Cook knew it was a native bread, it was not something she ate at home.
Cook was born Nuxalk, but raised white. When she was just a year old, she was taken away from her mother during the Sixties Scoop, a government policy of cultural assimilation that began in the 1950s and lasted well into the ’80s. It involved forcibly removing Indigenous children from their families and placing them in non-Indigenous homes across Canada.
Years later, while driving past the indigenous-owned Kekuli Cafe in Kelowna, she saw a sign that read “Don’t panic…We have bannock!,” the restaurant’s trademark motto. “It brought me right back,” she says. Cook’s reconnection with her culture is a work in progress, and she continues to learn about Indigenous foods every day at Salmon n’ Bannock.
The restaurant’s signature bannock is served in myriad ways: in the form of crackers, accompanying salmon mousse; or topped with sauteed mushrooms, melted brie, sage-blueberries, and bison gravy. “All Indigenous people in the world have made some sort of bread, precontact,” she explains. “I wanted it in our name because it’s a direct message to Indigenous people that this is your place.”
What is the history of bannock?
The story goes that Scottish fur traders called Selkirk introduced a version of bannock, made of oatmeal, to the Indigenous people of North America during the 18th and 19th centuries. These communities adapted the recipe, replacing oats with corn and nut meal, as well as flour made from ground plant bulbs.
But in recent years, researchers revealed that Indigenous people had their own pre-colonial versions of bannock. “Obviously carbohydrate-rich foods like wheat were nonexistent here. Pre-contact, it wasn’t something that we really cultivated,” says Valerie Segrest, a member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and native nutrition educator who specializes in Northwest Coastal foods.
“But there are forms of bread that were sourced from barks like birch or alder trees,” she adds. “It was a really laborious practice in which you’d harvest the bark, pound it forever, and basically turn it into a powder. There were other plants that might have been added, like cattail pollen, and the dough was baked in the sand.” This is what’s referred to as an earthen oven, in which you’d build a fire, dig a little hole nearby, and put the dough near that fire to let it bake in the earth.
Bannock is related to frybread, a food more commonly associated with Indigenous communities in the United States. Named the official state bread of South Dakota, frybread was created from government rations, given to Navajo citizens after they were forced to relocate from Arizona to New Mexico in 1864. Generally speaking, bannock is a rising bread, whereas frybread is more or less a patty—sometimes made with yeast—and deep-fried on both sides.
“I think of it as culinary innovation to utilize those materials and ingredients and transform them into something that’s similar to a traditional food,” Segrest adds. “And that’s why I think frybread is so revered. It was something similar to what we call a bark bread that transformed into bannock bread, which eventually transformed into frybread. And that fed people during a time of starvation.”
How bannock has evolved over the years
Quaaout Lodge and Spa, located on the shores of Little Shuswap Lake, is on Secwepemc Territory. Bannock has always been a part of the meal service at the hotel’s locally-inspired Jack Sam’s Restaurant. It makes its way onto eggs Benedict, as a substitution for English muffins, or in panzanella salads, in place of stale bread.
“When people think of bannock, they don’t think ‘Oh, settlers brought it to us,” says Tristan Jules, chef at Quaaout Lodge and Spa. “No, we took the concept and made it our own dish. Go to any pow wow in North America, and I can guarantee you’ll have bannock, frybread, or some variation of the two.”
Jules grew up attending yearly bannock competitions that took place in the Shuswap region. “All of the communities would come together and have bannock cook-offs to see who had the best in the area,” he says, and they would serve up everything from bannock hot dogs to bannock tacos.
Each region has its own way of preparing bannock, and the version Jules is familiar with involves a starchy fruit, which is crushed, dried out in the sun, and turned into dough. At the restaurant, he opts to cook his bannock in lard. “It gives it a better taste than any other oil I've tasted so far,” he says. “But it also comes down to what you put in the bannock, too. Some people add all kinds of sweeteners, like sugar or honey, before they even put it in the fryer.”
Some recipes experiment with healthier renditions. Segrest worked with tribal communities in the Northwest to put together a resource called Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit. Though the book is now out of print, it featured bannock recipes that incorporated more plant-based ingredients, “like hazelnut flour, which is traditional here, or nettle leaf powder to amplify the nutrient density,” she says.
Many Indigenous people lack access to nutritional foods (It’s why Cook doesn’t serve Coca Cola at her restaurant) due to economic barriers and environmental issues. “It could be environmental toxins in the food, climate change, lack of access to grocery stores or areas where harvesting is safe,” Segrest explains. “Lack of knowledge leads to a severe disruption of the transmission of cultural food knowledge from one generation to the next due to colonization and federal policies in our country.”
But Segrest believes bannock can still play a role in a healthy meal plan. “I really try not to play the vilifying food game that many nutritionists are known for,” she says. By replacing refined white flour, or incorporating more natural ingredients, Segrest maintains that one can still enjoy the foods that shape their culture.
Bannock can play a role in food sovereignty
Food sovereignty is especially important to Segrest, which she defines as “the inherent right of a people to define and shape their diet.” Through the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project, she works on ways to increase access to traditional foods in her community, including educational initiatives for harvesting, hunting, and fishing.
Cook, of Salmon n’ Bannock, believes we still have a long way to go in achieving food sovereignty for Indigenous communities. Certain foods, like wild game, have to go through a number of regulations to make it on a menu.
“In Canada, there are over 600 nations. In BC alone, there are over 200 nations. We’re very, very rich in culture, and we’re not permitted to serve our traditional food,” she explains. “What needs to happen for the health inspectors to approve us serving these foods is that there needs to be commercially approved kitchens in all the communities.”
She continues, “Just imagine. There’s only one Japanese restaurant in all of Tokyo. Only one. And they’re not allowed to serve their food. What would happen?” While there is still much work to be done, the breaking of bannock might be one step towards the preservation of Indigenous culture.
As Cook says: “I like to look at it as celebrating the here and now.”