Soul food

Stories about food are the stories of connection

Soul food

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedIt is through food that I pass my knowledge, stories, language, and love to my sons. It is through food that I fight for a better world for the people that will call me an ancestor, and for the elders that we all truly answer to - the oak trees, the river, the salmon, all the plant and animal relatives and ecosystems that rely on us to protect them. ~ Chími Nu'am, Sara Calvosa Olson.Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedIndigenous rights include the right to eat from the land where they live, but this does not include the deeply rooted African communities living in diaspora. ~ The Cooking Gene, Micheal W Twitty.

We are rock people.

I heard this in a workshop years ago that considered our relationship with rock and soil through the movement of phosphorous across various boundaries. We like to think of ourselves as distinct from nature, or perhaps we’ve simply been trained to think of ourselves that way, but we are not. This is a fundamental thing, and we know it to be true because even our cereal lists the minerals that are in the box of whatever flakes or crunchies we’re having for breakfast. Our interconnectedness with the world around us just isn’t something we think about very often. And if we do think about it, I’m not sure that it always translates into action. Maybe because we don’t know how to turn it into action. But that’s why I love Sara Calvosa Olson and Michael W Twitty. Both of them explore food as a way to not only nourish ourselves, but to form connection and community across time and geography.

In The Cooking Gene, Twitty recounts his “Southern Discomfort Tour” in which he took jobs at various plantations cooking as close to the way that his ancestors, if they had in fact been cooks, would have done. Olson has given us a cookbook that also narrates those ancestral relationships in Chími Nu'am: Native California Foodways for the Contemporary Kitchen. Both talk about the importance of relationship with land and reading Olson’s words about how food forms a connection between herself and not only her human relatives but also the land itself and other than human relatives. Reading that alongside Twitty’s words about the way that the Black diaspora is excluded legally speaking from that relationship, I thought about something that Lee Maracle, a Sto:lo writer, said in her book I Am Woman:

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedThe land does not belong to Black people, but the fruit of their labour does. They alone have earned their place in the sun-dome of our future. Black people paid for this country with their blood, sweat, and tears. … I am not insensitive to the plight of the early white immigrant. I know that your own people threw you into filthy, disease ridden ex-slave ships and sent you here, penniless … But, quite frankly, the persecution you suffered you perpetrated on me. That changes the terms of our alliance.

I think often about the importance of who we are in solidarity with. Are we reaching vertically or horizontally, because the outcome hinges on that. And as an Anishinaabe person, when I think about the outcome of our solidarity I am always thinking about the seventh fire and how the way we prepare, or don’t, will shape the nature and outcome of that fire. Are we reaching towards each other, or are we grasping for the power held in the hands of mostly white mostly Christian mostly men. Whose hands are we reaching out for.

In a podcast interview at the beginning of the pandemic Kerry and I spoke with Sara about her work in Northern California where she is a food writer. I admitted to being a reluctant gardener and in the intervening years I’ve just gotten worse. This year we only planted a couple of planters with herbs, tomatoes, and peppers and even that didn’t do well. My strawberry plants are overrun by an elderberry bush. The birds enjoyed my raspberries and the nettles have all gone to seed with nary a leaf in the dehydrator I bought at a yardsale in a fit of hopeful delusion. It’s always too hot or too sunny or too windy or I have too much writing to do and my husband shakes his head saying I’m the most indoor Indian he’s ever met. Which, I mean other than my friends he hasn’t met loads but still. That stings just a little.

Back to Sara and Michael.

In his book, Michael laments that “everything Black folks gave became spun gold in the hands of others.” He points out that even Indigenous farming techniques get repackaged and coopted in ways that avoid responsibility or even acknowledgement. The latecomers keep discovering the things we already knew and somehow manage to take credit for it. So at various points, we decide what to just keep to ourselves lest it be discovered. Wendy Makoons Geniuz talks about this in Our Knowledge is Not Primitive when she describes the notebooks of elders who deliberately leave out key information so that the knowledge can’t be used outside of it’s proper context, outside of relationships. Sara’s cookbook is like this. She says that she doesn’t put in much in the way of traditional recipes or the things that would be part of a cermonial gathering. She protects those things from the discoverers of everything and offers alternatives that are, I may add, beautifully photographed. These are traditional foods being used in contemporary kitchens and just to prove her point she gives us a blackberry smoked salmon smörgåstårta, one of those ridiculous sandwich cakes invented by the Swedish that looks right out of a 1950s cookbook. I’ll admit I kinda want to make it. She also gives us a tomato sauce which she introduces by saying “ok, this sauce isn’t a food from Native California, but I’m a Native Californian who is also of Italian heritage and this is my cookbook.” I may have laughed out loud when I read that.

Not everything is for everyone. Twitty points out the risks of discovery, the way that the latecomers, the discoverers of everything, just take whatever knowledge comes their way and then exploit it. Turning it into spun gold while the people who developed that knowledge get further marginalized until we can’t even afford our own food. For example. Quinoa is a global commodity now, vegans love it for the protein it provides and people who can’t tolerate gluten love it to. Personally I’m ambivalent about it, but I know a lot of people like it and that’s the problem. It’s a super-duper food and it’s popularity has driven demand and pricing to the point that the people who grow it can’t afford to eat it and they’ve lost a food staple. This isn’t the only example of this kind of thing, these shifts in food which contribute to the high rates of diabetes and heart disease in Indigenous populations. Post-genocide ethno botany is a sub-speciality in the larger field of botany, studying the impacts of genocide on Indigenous food systems around the globe. Our foods become spun gold in the hands of the discoverers, and so people like Sara and the elders referenced by Wendy keep some knowledge to themselves. Preserving what is traditional by diluting it with tomato sauce and cream cheese.

One of the things that Sara and I talked about on the podcast is how easy it is to become overwhelmed by new information. There’s just so much, particularly when you begin to learn about wild harvesting or gardening or even your own family history as Michael is doing in his book. Sara suggests that we choose one thing, learn about that one thing. Then look at the relationships it has with other things and work out from there. Twitty does that by tracing his family’s path through food and although his book isn’t a cookbook, he does end each chapter with a recipe. I’ve made his mamma’s lemonade and it is amazing.

Twitty writes about food as memory, as mnemonic device, as history, evidence of identity and evidence that we existed, that we exist. The place names that identify where we are, and at times our social place. For Black and Indigenous people, even though these places may bear our names, we remain invisible. They are, as far as the latecomers are concerned, places that we used to be and with us comfortably in the past they can honor us as fallen heroes, tragically gone too soon. It reminds me of something I saw years ago on TV when somebody was grieving rather theatrically and the person they are grieving tries to tell them that they are still alive but the person is too invested in their over the top performance of grief and refuses to listen to them. The US and Canada are like that. Crying perfect tears over the tragedy of our demise while we jump and poke and insist we’re still here.

Part of food as memory is the handing down of recipes but also the mechanism of obtaining that food. In her book, and in the podcast interview, Sara talked about the labor instensive practice of harvesting acorns. Her book includes a fun story about acorns that will help you remember the different species as well as many recipes calling for acorn flour. There are photographs of her boys harvesting and shelling, and she talks about this as time spent together sharing stories. Yes harvesting acorns is labour intensive. My son did it one year while he was at home and it’s a lot of work for little gain if you are measuring it by the hours spent vs the cost of a 5lb bag of white flour from the grocery store. But what if we didn’t measure it by that. What if we measured it by the hours spent together with several generations and little ones underfoot and the story telling, both the family and community gossip and also the stories like the one Sara shares about acorns.

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedThe result does look like a giant brown dirt cake, but at least it tastes like a buttery, savory, herbaceous, salty, giant brown dirt cake. ~ Acorn Focaccia with wild edibles.

Our traditional stories are more than fables with morals, though at their most superficial that might be true. They are also social stories that teach us about being human, or they contain other knowledge like how to tell different species of acorns apart or the importance of fire as an agricultural tool. This labour intensive process as a mechanism for building relationship and sharing stories reminded me of something that Kerry has talked about many times: braiding Black hair. This is also a labour intensive act, always hours but sometimes spanning two days which is a lot of time to be spending with somebody either doing a repetitive task or sitting still while somebody else works. And you could just doomscroll while they comb and section and repeat, but it can also be a time of relationship building. Of mothers and aunties and little children running around talking and laughing. Kerry has also talked about incorporating food into this gathering, particularly when she was doing the hair of girls in foster care who had little contact with their families anymore. Having her own memories of food prepared by aunties and grandmothers, she prepared things to share with them during breaks, talking with them about what they were eating and regaling the girls with stories of her own girlhood. Food is a mnemonic device. It is relationship and, sometimes, a path home.

Being connected with our food in the ways described by Sara and Michael results in something else. You become deeply aware of the land in which the food is growing. Remember, you pick one thing and learn everything about it and in that way you will learn about its relationships with other beings. There is a lot going on and it can be overwhelming. We were at The House on the Rock this past summer and if you haven’t heard of it I recommend it to you. We heard about it because there’s some pivotal scenes in American Gods set there. Talk about overwhelming. That place is a chaotic mess that is only very loosely organized into themes. But there’s a clear path through it, the path itself meanders straight through all the chaos and you can spend as much or as little time as you want examining all of the oddities and details of the space as well as taking in the enormity of each room. That’s what Sara is suggesting, that you pick one thing to be your path through the chaos and for her that means acorns and salmon.

Ok she picked two things. Like she says about the tomato sauce, it’s her cookbook.

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedhorseradish grows anywhere, but you need clean running water to grow salmon. Salmon, relatives that travel back and forth to the ocean in a reciprocal relationship of care and care taking that keeps the world healthy. ~ Chími Nu'am

There are some teachings that we descended from animals. Not in the sense of evolution, but that they agreed to become human to help us be better humans. My clan is caribou because we are descended from caribou who agreed to become human. The Karuk are, as are many west coast peoples, salmon people and their relationship with salmon is as intimate as that with any ancestor. Keolo Fox, a geneticist and bio ethicist, has said that when Kānaka Maoli, fight to defend the Mauna from further disruption, they are not just fighting for the land, the āina. They are fighting for their ancestor. And then he says, when I say that the land is my ancestor, that is a scientific statement. We talked with him too, because that comment was so profound to me. The land is my ancestor shaping my genome just as my human ancestors. The salmon and the acorns are Sara’s ancestors. In his book, Michael writes that “yams come from the bodies of an Igbo king; they are ancestors, relatives.”

They are our relatives, both in the distant past and in the present. Cousins and siblings as well as ancestors, and they need running water. They need nourishing land. They need wholesome interference as my son is prone to say, some of them anyway. While walking through a forest picking labrador tea he commented on how some plants have evolved to thrive on human interference. The very act of harvesting and traveling spurs growth and relationship. We are deeply connected despite the best efforts of capitalism to disconnect us from the natural world. To turn us all into indoor Indians seeing the world through glowing screens and smudgy windows.

Sara’s cookbook is arranged by seasons, which is an interesting and completely sensible choice given her focus on relationships and rhythms. We cook with what is available, what has been preseved, not the same six vegetables I am comfortable with that I eat no matter what time of year it is. I hope you buy it, even if you don’t use it as a cookbook, who does anymore when you can just google the recipe you are looking for. Because it’s not just a cookbook, it’s a journey through her world. An invitation to look differently at your own, to find that one thing that interests you and follow it through the chaos of your own house or community. I’m also going to invite you to follow foodgetter on instagram because too often we think about the outdoors as a wilderness we need to drive to and he focuses on urban spaces and the wild he finds there.

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedAccording to J Edgar Hoover, the most dangerous thing the Black Panthers did was feed the next generation ~ The Cooking Gene, Michael TwittyText within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedI hope you will begin to see the interconnectedness of storytelling, art, ethnobotany, climate change, agricultural practices, and how they all come together to provide context for our traditional foodways. In collecting, creating, and compiling recipes using some of the oldest foods in California, I hope it is a first step in restoring the rhythms of sustainability that our ancestors have refined since time immemorial. ~ Chími Nu'am, Sara Calvosa Olson

bowl of vegetable salad with walnuts
Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash