In our continuing Canada's Tastemakers series, we profile people who are making an impact on Canada's food scene, from authors to producers to chefs and more. Today Tiffany Mayer visits with Rachel Eyahpaise, the proprietor of Saskatoon's Bannock Express. Her comforting bannock is helping with reconciliation and bridging cultural divides.
Rachel Eyahpaise isn’t secretive about her bannock recipe.
All it takes is oil, water, baking powder, flour and “a lot of love.” A generous dash of tenacity is in the mix, too.
Eyahpaise is the proprietor of Bannock Express, a two-year-old venture that, had everything gone according to plan, wouldn’t actually be the Saskatoon resident’s bread and butter today.
The catering and food delivery business that showcases the versatility of the popular indigenous quick bread was supposed to help the entrepreneurial Eyahpaise launch a social media platform for First Nations people. Sales of her bannock as vessels for tacos, burgers, sweets, or for dunking into soup were only intended to fund her online venture.
Capitalizing On An Entrepreneurial Drive
But it wasn’t long after hanging out her shingle for bannock that Eyahpaise realized people were hungrier for her funding model than her website. Within a couple of hours of setting up shop in her yard, Eyahpaise turned out about 30 orders of her fry bread in its various incarnations. Soon after, she began turning all her attention to a business based on bannock.
“I was searching for my calling,” Eyahpaise recalled. “The demand (for bannock) was really big from the beginning. People were just waiting for bannock to come to Saskatoon. So I just went all in on bannock. I’ve always loved cooking and I realized this was my calling.”
Whether bannock or social media, Eyahpaise discovered and capitalized on her entrepreneurial gene early in life. That drive to make it on her own sustained her through a tumultuous childhood.
Both her parents died when she was a child and Eyahpaise spent many of her formative years bouncing between extended family, residential schools and group homes throughout Western Canada. (Eyahpaise’s mother was from Treaty 4 Territory, Sakimay First Nation, a point of pride for the Bannock Express founder, who asked that it be mentioned in this story.)
She became a permanent ward when she was 13. It was traumatic, she recalled, but one happy memory set her on a path to self-employment: Eyahpaise did door-to-door sales of slurpees she made with a toy ice shaver and used her earnings to buy candy for her brothers and sisters.
She may have only been in Grade 3 at the time, but she was hooked on the independence that came from running her own business.
“I think I was forced to grow up a lot earlier than other children, just how I was raised and how I bounced around at an early age. I was just trying to grow up faster than everyone else,” Eyahpaise, 34, said. “I wanted to be my own boss and work for myself. I feel so good working for myself and supporting my family.”
Healing Through Food
Especially doing it with food. Cooking and feeding people for a living has been as much a source of therapy as self-sufficiency for Eyahpaise, who recently wrote up her 400th invoice for Bannock Express.
“I find healing in cooking and making people happy with food. Since I was very young, I was always cooking in the kitchen and it was always happy in the kitchen.”
Cooking bannock over a fire figures into her early food memories. It was carb-loaded comfort food then just as it is now for Eyahpaise and her customers.
Serving bannock as burgers, tacos, pulled pork sandwiches, with jam or speckled with Saskatoon berries as dessert speaks to the versatility of her muse. Though there are regional variations, she noted, bannock is a blank slate. The only limit is the cook’s creativity.
“I’ve seen people put chocolate bars in bannock. People do pretty much anything with bannock.”
That includes using it as a tool for reconciliation and bridging cultural divides between indigenous peoples and colonizers of Turtle Island.
Eyahpaise feels a sense of obligation to tell the story of bannock to school children, her customers and anyone else curious about the flat bread, which was a common food for fur traders. Bannock means baked dough, and those versions that sustained early European settlers were heavy and flat, made with oats and barley, and cooked over fire.
The concept spread post-contact but First Nations peoples have always made bannock biscuits using wild flours, Eyahpaise explained.
“When (wheat) flour became widely available, we switched over,” she said. “I feel like I have a duty to inform people where bannock came from because there are so many misconceptions. A lot of people want to know and are happy to know.”
Eyahpaise’s list of customers shows just how much her bannock can be a healing salve. She’s catered cultural education events for the Saskatoon Police, an organization with a history of disturbing treatment of the city’s indigenous residents.
An Insatiable Appetite For Bannock
Other businesses, big and small, run by indigenous or new Canadian owners, are also regulars. It speaks to an insatiable appetite for bannock, Eyahpaise explained. Even Taco Time, a Western Canadian Tex-Mex fast food chain, has put bannock tacos on the menu in neighbourhoods with large indigenous populations.
As pleased as she is to see the love for fry bread, Eyahpaise is even happier about how readily fans and imitators have adopted a culturally sensitive name for the dish topped with chilli and cheese.
“I don’t like the term Indian taco. [Indian] has never been a proper term to call First Nations people so I didn’t think it was appropriate to call it anything but a bannock taco,” she said. “Everyone calls it a bannock taco now and I’m happy about that. You want to create good memories around it and the times are changing as well.”
Another ingredient in Eyahpaise’s recipe is a liberal sprinkling of passion for empowering indigenous youth. A protege helps her at Bannock Express, and Eyahpaise hopes the young woman will eventually set up her own version of the business. There are aspirations to establish an indigenous commercial kitchen to engage more youth in food-preneurship, too.
As for Bannock Express, Eyahpaise is aiming for another 400 invoices, at least. She wants to take her business on the road in a food trailer and travel the “powwow trail,” feeding people at the celebrations of nations.
Mostly, she wants to continue spreading joy one batch of bannock at a time.
“It’s how I’ve healed myself,” Eyahpaise said. “And you make a lot of people happy.”
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Tiffany Mayer is a freelance journalist and author of Niagara Food: A Flavourful History of the Peninsula’s Bounty (History Press, 2014). She blogs about food and farming at Time For Grub. You can also listen to her food podcast, Grub and read more of her work here on FBC.