The story of WoodenKnife fry bread mix began when Mary WoodenKnife taught her son, Ansel, her Indian Taco recipe using her homemade mix. In the past, Mary sold the tacos out of the back of her station wagon in Rosebud, South Dakota.
The fry bread mix became popular in the region, combining flour with Timpsila, a root vegetable sometimes referred to as the “prairie turnip.” WoodenKnife is the only fry bread mix to ever use the starchy, white vegetable.
Ansel, who took over the business in the late 1970s, said Timpsila has always been important to the Lakota people. It is a sacred food that governed the migration routes of early Lakota people.
In the 1990s, the WoodenKnife family was contacted by two universities — Iowa State University and the University of Michigan — to study Timpsila. The studies concluded that the vegetable was, indeed, endangered, unable to survive in modern environments.
Ansel knew he couldn’t be responsible for the extinction of such a sacred food. He made the decision to stop using Timpsila in the fry bread mix and instead worked with food scientists to maintain the Timpsila flavor in the fry bread mix without actually using it.
In 2000, the Wooden Knife family was contacted by Food Network to be featured in the show “Fine Dining.” A camera crew and producers visited the Wooden Knife headquarters in Interior, South Dakota, near the Badlands National Park. The WoodenKnife family didn’t have cable at the time, so they weren’t sure what to expect.
The day after the segment aired, they received 15,000 orders. The family stayed busy balancing the needs of the fry bread mix with the demands of their restaurant business, The WoodenKnife Drive-in, located between the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Badlands National Park.
Since then, the company has been covered by various news organizations and featured on the Food Network and QVC.
Today, Ansel WoodenKnife continues to sell the fry bread mix to local stores as well as chains including Fareway, Spartan Nash and Safeway. Despite the major success of the restaurant and fry bread businesses, Ansel remains humble and true to his traditional roots. He says none of it would be possible without his family.
“This was, and still is, a family business,” he said. “My wife Teresa and our children Shiloh, Brandy, Rebecka and Nathan have all contributed to the success of this family-run business”
In November 2019, Ansel retired from his position as a volunteer firefighter, where he was on the frontlines of wildfires in Northern California, Texas and Montana since 1973. He is also a volunteer emergency medical technician (EMT). In addition, he served for 11 years on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Ansel said his father, Ansel Sr., taught him the importance of serving one’s community and helping others.
“That’s just the way I was raised,” he said. “When I was young, my dad helped put on the pow-wow and did things like help elders get to the hospital. English was our second language. I was raised very traditional.”
Ansel said he is thankful for the fry bread business and what it’s done for his life and his family.
“It’s raised my family, put them through college, and it’s provided a good living,” he said. “I couldn’t do the things I do for our community if it was different.”