by Amie Rodgers
Hailed as the best fry bread in the world by her customers, one may ask what makes Jeri J’s Indian Fry Bread so special? Is it the fluffy texture? The satisfying crispiness? The healthier twist she has added to its preparation? All these things may be true, but as a writer, I found myself endeared to the story and history of this particular fry bread crafted by this extraordinary woman.
As one might suspect, people around the world have been frying dough in one way or another since nearly the beginning of… well, flour. What is particularly fascinating about Indian fry bread is it was born in the late 18th century from resourceful Apache women using what the government gave them once they were forced onto reservations. These commodities included things such as flour, salt, baking powder, and lard.
As a member of the Tonto Apache Tribe, Jeri Johnson-DeCola grew up in the woods near Payson in what many would consider a shack. Without water or electricity, Jeri’s mother cooked her fry bread outdoors over an open flame and this is where Jeri learned that even when ingredients were scarce, she could create a special dish when it was made with love and care.
Many years later with the help of her loving husband J.J. (a Boston-born disabled veteran), Jeri saw an opportunity to share her special tradition and story with a much bigger audience. “In the Spring of 2002, the tribe was holding their first Pow Wow and I told my husband we should sell some fry bread. He asked why would we want to do a thing like that and I just said, ‘You’ll see,’” said a grinning Jeri.
Using her mother’s recipe with just a few secret adjustments on her part, Jeri’s fry bread became such a hit the couple bought an RV and began selling fry bread on the weekends. As the demand continued to grow, so did the couple’s operation. They later bought an old school bus, which they have completely renovated with an impressive kitchen and can now be found parked in front of Payson’s iconic Western Village. Interestingly enough, the recent Pokémon Go craze has brought in even more hungry customers as the location is apparently just crawling with the little creatures.
Open Thursday through Sunday (and on holidays), Jeri J’s Indian Fry Bread serves up her fluffy fry bread as a taco, with beans and cheese, and as a dessert with honey and powdered sugar. “I have had visitors, locals, and even Native Americans tell me it is the best fry bread they have ever had. My mix is just a little fluffier, with a little more crisp. It is not thick, doughy, or chewy. I also put love and blessings in my fry bread mix so that is why it is different than any other you will ever have,” says Jeri, smiling. “We have really enjoyed getting to know our customers on a first name basis. We frequently get calls from customers traveling up from the Valley and so we stay open later for them.”
With such demand from customers all over the countryside, Jeri and J.J. decided to package Jeri’s mix and today it is available in a number of fine retail locations and shipped all over the world. You can even visit www.jerijsindianfrybread.com for a tutorial with Jeri on how to cook your fry bread mix at home.
Of course, to truly appreciate Jeri J’s world famous fry bread, I would recommend visiting Western Village in Payson to meet this friendly couple for a little taste of heavenly fry bread and history you won’t soon forget.