Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
In the early days of the fur trade in Turtle Island, especially after the hudson's bay company (hbc) took to recruiting men from the orkney islands of scotland, one or more of those recruits taught members of the Cree communities around james bay how to make bannock. Or at least, that's the official explanation since officially european women weren't allowed anywhere near north america until the 1700s, and even then they certainly weren't heading to fur trade posts. Either way, the people who brought the scottish bannock recipe probably never dreamed that such a basic recipe would be so widely embraced by Indigenous people all over Turtle Island, or that one day a former chief of Mistissini visiting scotland would end up teaching his hosts how to make bannock.
At root, bannock is just flour and water, maybe with a little oil or grease added to prevent it from becoming rubbery when it cools off. Versions of it have been made and eaten anywhere people had ready access to cereal grains, from familiar wheat and oats to less familiar maize and millet. Today the dough is often made with some baking powder as well, to help the dough rise as it cooks. In fact the most familiar version of bannock in Indigenous communities today is made with four of the cheapeast ingredients you can find in the grocery store: white flour, salt, baking soda, and lard. In fact, these have been some of the cheapest ingredients to make something edible from for the entire history of canada, making bannock a key "famine food" for Indigenous families struggling through tough times. These ingredients were also the primary goods provided in "relief packages" to starving Indigenous communities in the settler state of canada from the late 18th to the mid 20th centuries, a practice that is a direct contributor to skyrocketing levels of Indigenous diabetes.
Some of the fine bannock from Neechi Foods in winnipeg, may 2011. Photo courtesy of westjet magazine
In central and south America, rather than making their bannock in loaves or biscuits, nations like the Maya and Mexica traditionally roll the dough very thin and cook it on a hot griddle to make tortillas. They have considerable motivation to treat the dough this way. Making traditional tortillas starts with the work of shucking fully ripe, hard maize kernels from their cobs. Corn on the cob and corn from the can is actually unripe and from a different species, which is why it can be so sweet. After gathering up enough kernels, they have to be soaked in lye water, which makes the nutrients in the corn available for absorption by the body. But lye is poisonous and corrosive, so the soaked kernels have to be thoroughly rinsed in seevral changes of water. Then the kernels may be dried a bit, and the determined tortilla maker has to grind the kernels into flour, in fact a moist paste. Then at last they get to make the dough and roll it out for cooking. Of course you aren't fooled by any of these generic pronouns. Making tortillas has long been women's work in Indigenous communities, and after all that work, they were determined that that batch of dough had better stretch as far as possible.
But be warned, if you try out corn tortillas you find in the grocery store and you're not at least in "new Mexico" which is really still Mexico, or Mexico that is still labelled Mexico on settler maps, they won't give you any sense of what the real thing is like. If you look at them closely, you'll see the tiny grains of cornmeal used to make them. This is not the same thing at all as the corn flour just described. Worse yet, those corn tortillas may even be tough and a bit vinegary smelling. They are most emphatically not the real thing or terribly pleasant to eat.
The first Turtle Island bannock-type recipe we know is a Hidatsa one, who still live in the missouri river valley, although they are no longer allowed to farm their maize fields, and the maize grown there now is the wrong species. Maxi'diwiac (Buffalo-Bird-Woman), who grew up in a Hidatsa community before it was overrun by white newcomers and scattered, explained the recipe to anthropologist Gilbert Wilson in the early 1900s. In this recipe, you start with fresh green maize kernels, gathering up kernels from at least 8 or 9 ears of maize. Rather than letting them dry, you next had to pound them up, making a soft dough. After wrapping the dough up carefully in corn husks, it is cooked in the hot ashes of a steady fire.
The Haudenosaunee have their own traditional recipe, better known today as "Iroquois corn bread." Similar to the more southern recipes already mentioned, the Haudenosaunee traditionally start out with fully ripe, dried maize kernels that they treat with lye water before redrying them and pounding them into flour. In fact, this is one more shared practice that leads anthropologists to wonder if the Haudenosaunee learned it from Nations much further south. Even more adventurous anthropologists wonder if this is another indication that the Haudenosaunee themselves once came from much further south. Unlike the more southern recipe, the Haudenosaunee also add a portion of thoroughly cooked kidney or pinto beans which they mix into the flour before adding water to hold the dough together. Vegans have rediscovered beans' ability to serve where eggs would in breads and pastas, especially because they were looking for a bread that doesn't need anything else to be a complete meal. The maize and beans have complimentary proteins, so meat is optional. This innovation makes good sense in a colder climate.
Further north, it was much more difficult to grow maize in part due to cold and severe weather, but especially because of how hard it was to break prairie sod. Therefore, maize had to be acquired by trading or raiding. A good raid was one in which no one died or got too hurt, and the raiders brought back a few good-sized bags of maize kernels or flour. Plains First Nations and Métis typically made their maize last by using it mainly to thicken soups and stews rather than making bread. It wasn't until trading companies like the north west company and the hbc began trading larger amounts of wheat flour at better prices that bannock began to be more widely made.
But bannock's popularity was increased by tragedy: invader policies in both canada and the united states included systematically starving Indigenous people so that they could be forced onto reserves. Having destroyed Indigenous farms and imprisoned Indigenous people so that they could neither gather nor hunt food, the federal governments had to provide rations. The rations might have to be provided under treaty, or simply to avoid looking too much like they were deliberately allowing people to starve. But providing rations was expensive, especially when all of these people were expected to die out of their own accord in twenty-five years or so. So the most minimal and cheap rations were provided, predominant among them flour, salt, and lard. Officials conveniently insisted that they were sure "The indians" would supplement the rations with meat they hunted and plants that they gathered. This is how bannock became known as "famine food" in Indigenous communities in northern Turtle Island.
It can be a strange experience, especially if you are part of a plains First Nation, to encounter people whose entire set of associations around bannock are fun times like camping trips. This is the case even though many Indigenous people in canada and the united states now consider bannock a traditional food, and it is a staple of every sort of community event or ceremony involving a feast. At any one of them you're bound to find bannock and tea. The bannock is usually deep fried, and if you're really lucky fresh made and piping hot, with a big jar of chokecherry jam for topping. Inuit have a special bannock recipe of their own, and of course, they don't call it bannock but an Inuktitut term, palauga. They form the dough into twisted rings and deep fry it. It is quite possible you will find someone who still refers to these as "eskimo doughnuts," but that is a term well worth avoiding if you are in canada.
In other words, Indigenous people have been busy reworking bannock into something associated with good times again. More recently, as the knowledge that white flour and lard in reality have almost no real food content even though they can make you feel full, and worse yet are among the high carbohydrate foods that contribute to a whole range of illnesses, Indigenous communities have been resurrecting their original recipes and ingredients. The resulting bannock is better for you, but many Indigenous families are so poor that they are still eating the famine food version of bannock by necessity, especially now that as of October 2008, even wonderbread costs $4 a loaf.