“You are what you eat” is a food saying I have already used but for this particular blog post I felt I should start with it in order to jump into the thought. November is Native American Heritage Month and I felt I should do the term some justice in this blog, but also show my pride. I am Tohono O’odham and I have a rich heritage. Miraculously food is tied into all of that, the future, the past and present. I can still taste the same variety of squash the ancestors planted centuries ago. The taste connects me but there is something more to it than the taste that makes me feels nostalgic.
The first major writing work of mine that got published was actually about traditional foods. I was attending Tohono O’odham Community College and I had a space to plant a small garden. I had never planted before and wanted to try to grow traditional crops. Since I was attending T.O.C.C., I had the resources to help me expand an idea that became this article I wrote and got published in the college’s newsletter.
Traditionally the Tohono O’odham were farmers although agriculture is not as prevalent as it was back in the day. The history of food is still vital to discussing culture. It’s what feeds us. There are specific seeds that grow well in the region but there are stories behind those seeds that influence the culture. There are seeds that are indigenous to the land but there are also seeds that were introduced to the Tohono O’odham through the contact of outside cultures. These particular seeds grow extremely well in the climate. Seeds like the tepary bean actually thrive on lack of irrigation. Planting was more than source of food for the Tohono O’odham. It was an obligation. It was survival.
Many Native American tribes have a creation or emergence story explaining how things came to be, some having guideline to maintain a balance. The state of well-being all entangled in responsibilities with the earth is the objective. All over there are wild foods growing on the planet that can be harvested by anyone willing. What if it was the only food available? From a human perspective I would say humans need food and there is a nostalgic feeling to feeding your self straight from the earth without paying a grocery attendant or some waiter at Chili’s. The concept of eating has changed in the past century. We’re not starving but we’re not hungry either. There is an experience lost when you just pay money to feed yourself. Maybe there is just a difference between being fed and just trying to survive. Knowing the history of your food might just be enough to fulfill that experience. But in the stories there is usually a reference to the people needing to live off of the land and survive. Food is just a part of who we are. All of us.
The seasons on earth as they change the plants and the availability of certain fruits and other food items that can be found outside the grocery store are ways for a person to stay connected to “mother nature.” I remember as a kid taking the sap from the mesquite tree bark. It has a sweetness resembling a molasses flavor but with an earthy twist. In Tohono O’odham it’s call u:sp but in popular terms it is the sap that trees produce to protect themselves. But as kids we would collect u:sp, I saw it as a treat, like it was candy from the desert. Our parents won’t let us eat sweets but they forgot about the candy that grew on the mesquite trees. It wasn’t an everyday activity and that’s the important thing to know about harvesting wild vegetation from the desert or anywhere is just to know when is the best time. Again location and season of a particular plant will only be available for a certain period in the year. I believe it to be a rite of passage because the person harvesting is connecting to the plant but also with the past and in a way sustaining the future. The knowledge is being passed down; not through any written forms but by just practicing these traditions of the ancestors. Harvesting the same food as the generation did before, it keeps a close relationship to the earth.
The times are changing so fast and I believe that some of these practices such as planting a small garden or harvesting ciolim (cholla buds) to stay grounded in this ongoing relationship to non-human entities. “You are what you eat” applies to the situation perfectly because the food that is being harvested is the same food that kept the people from going hungry centuries ago. If this food didn’t exist, then would I exist? If I no longer harvest and eat it, then do we exist?
Food is the element that throughout time as been this way for people to connect and relate. The sharing of flavors and stories all poured out on the dinner table spilling out closeness for the people. Acknowledging that it is Native American Heritage Month, but also remembering that besides practicing, there also needs to be sharing of knowledge with the people that need and want to know. People connecting though food but also having camaraderie built into the way people tell a story or share a simple piece of knowledge about the food being eaten at the very moment.
I think what makes this all nostalgic is the time of bonding as a whole while simply eating a meal. But to capture it all perfectly can be what might be just the taste of home.
Agriculture in America has been commercialized over the centuries. I believe that at one point in time it was only about the food. I mean the cost and worth was still placed on a crop or animal but it didn’t have to be some dollar currency. The self-sufficient farms run by the community or a large family declined when the men joined the military and left their fields to wither, or left their own fields because they got paid in dollars, in a commercial field where they grew a crop like cotton. It is a very complex situation but as America grew there became a business aspect that accompanies agriculture. The farm’s produce is really unknown when it gets to a grocery store. So convenient that we have the ability now to buy a pumpkin or squash and never see a seed until the fruit is open. So futuristic but what is the cost of losing the experience of labor or initiative to just to get food?
The commodities program implemented into the United States really shifted native communities because there were new ingredients and unfamiliar things that had to make due. The influence of American culture produced the famous Popover or Fry-bread depending on your stance. I know it as Popover. But lard, grease, flour, and salt are the broad ingredients for making the fried bread. Fry-bread is the taste of making due with what you got but doing it deliciously. I know it is unhealthy but just writing about it has me googling it for images because I know I’m over my annual limit of popovers. But it is Native America Heritage Month.