When I returned from Guatemala five years ago, I had never cooked a Thanksgiving dinner. I had spent ten years of Thanksgiving celebrating with pulique, the traditional soup served with tamales in the Kaqchikel village where I lived. I was always the invited. I ate multiple times. I ate to excess. It was a Thanksgiving of sorts. Upon returning, the preparation of Thanksgiving dishes seemed a challenge, a rite of passage linked to multiple certificates of being. I soon read Kitchen Literacy. Some of Ann Vileisis’ words appall the reader in the simple sense that twentieth century reformers worried that city children would grow up not knowing where food comes from. This is not unfounded. Even in my father’s childhood, his family hosted visitors who believed that milk would flow from the hoses connected to gas tanks.
Other chapters posed questions around food labels. In these square pasted on papers, I read a story of forgetting and redefinition of identities, food, female and American. Thanksgiving is an American holiday but for which identities do we give thanks? In fact Vileisis writes, it was America’s immigrants who first noticed the lost knowledge, and in fact, ate better. While Vileisis’ book asks, “What was the place of people in nature?” Thanksgiving should ask, “What was the place of an out of place people in a natural space?” Food is story in need of intermediaries, translators, tellers and listeners.
Unfortunately, for my family’s Thanksgiving, the intermediary, was industry. When I asked for the recipe for my grandmother’s pasta salad, the answer was a Kraft salad dressing. Through a combination of these boxes, my family gave thanks. Thank you for the ease, for the safety, for the verified boxes. An easy recipe made me uneasy, but, I wanted to join the ranks of womanhood by being a woman in my family. I wanted to rejoin my supposed roots, trade in the borrowed feria for the tradition to which I belonged. So, my first Thanksgiving home from Guatemala, I cooked the recipes and ate the Thanksgiving. I accepted the recipes, and so the roles, I was given.
Vileisis continues the history lesson. Leisure, and our reverence for it led to the value of mass quantity. So too, on Thanksgiving, we give thanks for plenty and too much and imbalance. The next year, what my father’s garden gave me plenty of was what I volunteered to give. Mashed potatoes. Squash. I gave something, but nothing of real value. As those first home scientists who paid no attention to the science, the value was measured in cheap (I spent little) and high-calorie foods, bowing to what was accepted. I sensed the allure of achievement, at first.
Years accumulated ingredients and book titles. Since returning from Guatemala, the Thanksgivings I attended consisted of fewer and fewer. The large, gatherings full of the years’ stories silenced themselves. I read and wrote about displaced diversity and identity. I spoke often about seeds, seeds that I could plant and should tend more regularly. Sensing cracks in bread baked too long, I altered the seasonings in the squash beyond the melted, buttery pile of orange.
“Not bad. Different.”
Would that be so surprising on a day like Thanksgiving where the story tells different people shared food? Food was subject to the suspension of old ways, of known ways, the same way that people suffered. I stopped attempting to modify the accepted recipes. I made a salad, a dish we had never had at Thanksgiving, because I knew it was something I could actually stomach taking home. That year, I had adapted the garden produce, but not the rows. I needed to address both the food identity issue of my Thanksgiving, and the story. I read Braiding Sweetgrass and reread nature and science and human interaction as beneficial to nature. I reheard the practice of planting squash, corn and beans as interconnectedness beyond the standard story arc.
November forgot autumn this year and covered the oranges and gold of my plants with snow. The whiteness, the sadness, the vacant hollow of cupboards and unwritten recipe cards. A friend posted the link to this article, The Thanksgiving Tale We Tell is a Harmful Lie. As a Native American, I've Found a Better Way to Celebrate the Holiday https://time.com/5457183/thanksgiving-native-american-holiday/?fbclid=IwAR14OcwurY3Nt-FNh8Of-syyjAghoFkKFJIDhw5BhBBLs0BKOwQetCDQ5Bc
“Native American Recipes”: after a series of Google searches, I felt as inadequate as when I had been tasked with the pasta salad. No identity, no shared story, no connection. I could not retell a new truth, nor recreate a recipe that was never mine. Perhaps, I could find an intersection, a shared table, a plate in common. I held little of those ingredients in my cupboard, nor could I easily find them. Was a high priced, purchased assemblage of ingredients my message? No. It would be as inauthentic as repeating a truth that wasn’t mine.
I checked out from the library a book called Foods of the Americas: Native Recipes and Traditions by Fernando and Marlene Divina. My fingers glazed over until “Three Sisters Soup.” Soup? Like the salad, I could stomach it. The ingredients would not be too heavy, nor too salted. The act of eating the dish would not deplete me physically, and it would feed me spiritually. I could buy the salsas at the local store minded by hands like the Kiche’ and Kaqchikel friends I had left behind in Guatemala. The vegetables listed had been harvested in quantities from the garden that I would miss in the fading cold of March when the garden treasures had disappeared, but the reinvestment of the seed could still not yet be made. This meant I would give something not in overabundance, something I valued.
“Three Sisters”: I closed my eyes and heard the story retold again of the beneficial relationship between each plant: corn, beans and squash. Natural, but not nature alone. The sowed seeds depended on human hands. Give and take. A fertile soil for ideas grown from the dead and abandoned energies that decompose until spring.
I began to make an ingredients list. I have no sisters but I dreamed of family anyway. My father the corn, first and tall and straight. It was who I was becoming. The beans my brother always avoided and yet he was the very fruit he disliked, using the first and straight as his ever support and winding whichever way he chose around it, never doubting its presence. No matter the perceived choking, my brother still gives stability and nourishment of pieces of who we are, I would have never known without him. And squash I give the honor of my mother. Its shade and protection are the comfort and tenacity of motherhood. Moreover, her sense of adventure that pushed her to stretch and curl and cover ground ahead of me. A soup, maybe not of sisters, but family and grown from seed we tended, not received in relabeled boxes. Roots and new growth would be worth celebrating.
For more wonderful videos related to teacher training or literacy program development in rural Guatemala, please visit www.child-aid.org. I have no v...