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Two weeks ago, I completed all the courses required for my doctoral degree, one of which was about decolonial pedagogies. I was asked to consider my relationship with the land. And for the life of me, I couldn’t come up with an answer.
I began by working out the six unique histories of my ancestors and their relationship to the lands of Abya Yala (South America), where my parents were born, and Turtle Island (North America), where I was born, and I kept asking myself: what do I really know about these lands, and the other lands that some of my ancestors are indigenous to?
I don’t understand land that my feet have not been on, so I listen to the stories.
What I know is the city.
I was born and raised in Toronto and, come August of this year, will have been living in Montreal for 14 years.
My folks were born in a city, as were most of my grandparents, and their own parents, too.
The city is a family tradition.
And more than four generations later, I think I look exactly like the product of my environment, the living breathing diversity that the city is famous for.
The city bridged entire continents in the blink of an eye and made someone like me possible.
But my feet haven’t touched the land in seven weeks.
I am estranging myself from her and watching from the window as she blossoms into the coming season.
I won’t have the pleasure of watching the small patch of helleborus perennially bloom in the front yard of the apartment complex that I stroll past on Rue du Fort.
Instead, I watch the plants in my temperature-regulated home produce small flowers and leaves in the longer days of the Spring sun.
This is called self-isolation, but it has not felt isolating for me. Instead, I have been deeply embedded in my family. From spending all day with my child, and checking in with my parents and grandparents, I have never been more connected. We have exchanged stories, laughs, fears, and so many recipes! And it has been during these intergenerational conversations that I started to find my way to lands that I have never been to before.
Food connects us to the land even when we can’t be there.
When my family migrated north across the continent, my father remarked that one of the hardest things to acclimate to was not eating the foods that he had grown up with. Thankfully, my folks found a West Indian store, and just as potatoes sprout in the darkness of a cupboard, so too did the eddo (colocasia antiquorum) that my father planted in the front yard of our Toronto home. Eddoes are indigenous to China and Japan but have travelled and are now globally cultivated in most tropical regions.
Over the summer months, I would peer over the railing and watch that once tiny sprout grow and develop into the largest, most expansive leaf I had ever seen in my life.
One early evening, my Dad and I sat on the veranda and watched a particularly glorious thunderstorm firecracker out lightning bolts across an almost smoky sky, water splashing down in buckets on our driveway, and branches violently teeter-tottering in the wind. When I glanced down, I was confused—the same water, which was batting down leaves on the rose bushes, like a frenzied game of whack-a-mole, was delicately pirouette-ing in beads that grew large and eventually slipped off the edges of the eddo plant’s many gargantuan leaves. I had never, in my little North American life, seen a hydrophobic leaf!
And I had the fleeting thought that, when in a pinch, it would make for a good umbrella… turns out I’m not the only one who thought so!
Produce from that same West Indian store meant that I grew up eating Dad’s pepper pot (beef and pork marinated in cinnamon, brown sugar, and cassareep—a cassava-based syrup), cook up (two types of meat and black-eyed peas cooked in rice and coconut milk), and his curry and dal (both of which require jeera, or cumin). You can’t make these dishes if you don’t have the plants that grow from that part of the world; eating traditionally is a celebration of a culture’s relationship with the land.
Food connects us to the land even when we are no longer there.
And because I can’t be on the land right now, food is getting delivered to my home in boxes and bags. So, what’s in my bag, you ask?
Well, I have cucumbers from Ancient Egypt, a head of human-engineered broccoli, a bag of onions dating back to prehistoric times and found on most continents, but my red peppers were once only found in Central and South America, and both my kiwis and apples originated in China, but those apples? Well, they travelled down the silk road from China and made many acquaintances along the way, before hop-skip-and-jumping across the pond where we forgot all about our local crab apples varieties. Incidentally, I learned that an apple a day, keeps the doctor away may have originally been: To eat an apple before going to bed, will make the doctor beg his bread.
But the real star of our show is the bag of split peas, which are native to areas in central Asia, and found their way into traditional dishes from India to Iran, over to Morocco and Greece, as far north as the Netherlands, and across the Atlantic to South and Central America.
Split peas are the primary ingredient in our version of dal. I have memories of dal, in all sorts of viscosities, and usually served over spinach, minced meat, and rice. When I re-enacted my father’s recipe, I knew what texture I was aiming for. Pity, I didn’t achieve it, but I will try-try again next time, for that’s the fun in cooking, of course.
Re-enacting family recipes reminds me just how far across these lands my peoples are spread. I imagine their hands grazing over produce that has taken routes from all corners of the earth to arrive to their plate.
I can see the hands of my father and of my grandmothers, with flecks of vegetables glistening on their fingers as they chop out a rhythm on the cutting boards to proudly feed their families, while simultaneously chiding us to get the heck outta their kitchens—they’re cooking!
I think about what it means for me and my child, their great/grand/children, to now re-enact their recipes while living on different lands.
For thousands of years, food and people have travelled across borders.
I am made of the world’s many peoples, but never appreciated that the world has been feeding me all my life. I have a belly full of the world. It grew these limbs and these hands—in fact, it’s been nurturing my development my entire life, and all of my relations.
“The land is our ancestor, teacher, parent, provider and nurturer continually shaping and defining us. […] Land/ʻāina is abundant, rich, and living.
We connect to our land as we connect to ourselves.
To see our land as ʻāina momona [fertile land] is to also see ourselves as full of life, fertile, abundant, and healthy.” (Collier in conversation with Meyer, 2014)
Meyer, M. A. (2014). Hoea Ea: Land education and food sovereignty in Hawaii. Environmental Education Research, 20(1), 98–101.