On potato salad and home

The email inviting me to a day of learning Indigenous perspectives in the park pinged into my inbox and the initial “Yay! I was accepted,” quickly gave way to nervous anticipation when I read the last line: Please bring a potluck dish to share and be prepared to tell why you chose the dish you did.

What food can I bring that has a story?

I’ll tell you a story about me and food… When I had my boys I wanted to be a Pinterest mom. A mom who makes beautiful things out of nothing: cakes and cookies, quilts and halloween costumes. Failure. After failure. After failure. I started to feel like maybe I was less of a mom.

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall-Kimmerer tells the story of learning to speak her traditional language. She asks her teacher, “How do I say ‘Pass the salt, please?'” Her teacher, after long consideration, says that there is no word for “please” in relation to food. Food is understood in the community to be a way of caring for one another. This is home.

“I can make potato salad,” I thought. “That’s home. That’s a story.”

I spent a week seeking someone to gift me potatoes or other gifts of food from the Earth. Two weeks earlier, on a trip home, it had been easy to find gifts of food. Everybody gardens. There are fruit-bearing bushes everywhere. A neighbor away for the weekend had implored us to harvest the raspberries in her yard before they dropped, too ripe, from the bushes. A food walk around my mother’s yard as we explore the bushes and trees planted by my grandparents. A wander through the old pasture where pigs, chickens, and cattle used to be. A section of land exchanged for a cow. Where it was normal to come home after a day of playing in the sun to find a bag of zucchinis on the front step. If one garden overproduces, food is given away and to another. Where do we intuit each others needs? Home.

Email sent to collect the recipe, I jumped in the car to drive to the grocery store for a bag of potatoes. Having recently switched to a new phone, the blue tooth didn’t connect the way it was supposed to. I swore a little under my breath and stabbed the stereo as I pulled out of the small asphalt bay, at the top of which is my house. Unexpectedly, the stereo jumped to life with a country tune and I was instantly transported “home”. You see, I don’t often listen to country music. But do you know who does? My brother. So country tunes take me to speedboats where the wind rushes through hair and the air smells like lake. It’s not where I live, but this is home.

In Calgary, in the city, I found myself in a “food poverty” situation; not for lack of food but for lack of gifts of food. The land around my house doesn’t provide food. The fruit-producing trees in my neighbor’s yard produce apples that belong to them. How easily we are separated from the land and how easy to forget the power of reciprocity. When I pay for my vegetables I come to believe the Earth owes me these things. In these times where smoke from fires in BC has blotted out the sky for over a week and I am afraid for my children’s futures, I wonder what have we left our children if we have literally scorched the Earth. In circle teachings, Saa’kokoto said of the future: I’m not afraid because the children have the stories. These loving stories told to students that connect the past to the future. I have to admit I lack his confidence.

Cooking brings me close to my ancestors: potato salad, apple pie, potato cake. Some of the dearest memories I hold are of closeness to the ones I love at the kitchen sink; peeling apples with my Grandma, washing dishes with my Mom. When my Step-Dad lovingly prepares potato cake, he at once touches the past and the future: my boys tell stories of how much they loved eating potato cake on the deck where the scent of lake hangs in the air and waves gently lap the shore. Food is tied to memory and to place. Food is love – reciprocity – the Earth provides gifts and our act of reciprocity is taking it to loved ones. Washing dishes together isn’t really a memory of getting the dishes clean — it is a memory of connection. Like inviting my son to clean potatoes isn’t about preparing potato salad. It is about connecting over food, prepared with love, and gifted forward.

I’ll tell you a secret: I mourned the Pinterest mom I wanted to be who never appeared. I don’t make beautiful things you can hold in your hand. But I did make two beautiful souls who nervously hold big knives over potatoes beside me in the kitchen. I spin poems and spring out of bed desperate for a pen and paper to capture them before they dissipate like fog in the sunlight. I make memories. I make potato salad that connects generations and Earth to people. Food, too, can be a conduit to the future, to the land, to home.

So that thing that you make? That you pour creativity and effort into? That embodies love? Do more that.

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