‘All of Us Have Something to Say About Food’

A new book edited by Vancouver’s Poet Laureate explores food, culture and belonging and acts as a love letter to a complicated place.

By Rachel Rose 29 Nov 2017 |

Rachel Rose has won poetry, fiction, and non-fiction awards, including a 2016 Pushcart Prize, and a 2016 nomination for a Governor General’s Award. Recently a fellow at The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, she is the Poet Laureate of Vancouver. Her non-fiction book, The Dog Lover Unit: Lessons in Courage from the World’s K9 Cops, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books in 2017.

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Writer and editor Rachel Rose: ‘When we build tables, we sit eye to eye in the sacred relationship of guest and host, mutually obliged and interdependent.’ Photo by Ayelet Tsabari.

As an anthology, Sustenance is unique: unpublished writers, some of whom are in elementary school, stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the best writers in Canada and abroad.

Famous chefs share recipes in these pages, and Project Chef kids cook together at our local schools. Buddhist monks and nuns teach us how to eat with mindfulness here, and without bloodshed. Refugees share their longing for lost homelands and grief at not belonging, as well as resilience and recipes from home. Immigrants grateful for the prosperity Canada has brought them write hymns about farming in the Fraser Valley, hymns tinged with the fraught task of becoming Canadian, in their own eyes and in the eyes of those who came before them.

Words of pain and hope from within our fractured literary community sing on these pages, as we collectively struggle to find a way through our own complicated inheritances.

When I became Poet Laureate, I knew I wanted a project that would engage those outside of the poetry community as much as those within. Writing inspired by food invites us all to the table. When neighbouring politicians insisted that we must build walls to keep out Mexicans and Muslims, I wanted, as Poet Laureate, to do the opposite. I wanted to build a table. When we build walls, we do so out of fear and anger. When we build walls, we can’t see the people we exclude. But when we build tables, we sit eye to eye in the sacred relationship of guest and host, mutually obliged and interdependent.

As we recognize Canada’s 150th Anniversary, and create and publish an anthology on the unceded Homelands of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, we also are compelled to recognize the history of this place. Whoever we are, however long we’ve called this place home, we have an opportunity to contemplate what it means to be living in a City of Reconciliation, and how we can make the spirit of reconciliation manifest in ourselves, individually and collectively.

Together we have written provocative work about the environment, class, motherhood, women’s roles, immigration, and occupation, and together we have written work that celebrates our strengths in a way that connects us. We are a city of diverse cultures, belief systems and economic backgrounds, a city of great wealth and grinding poverty. But, as Muscogee (Creek) Nation poet Joy Harjo reminds us, “The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.” All of us carry memories of those first foods we ate, the foods that taste like home. All of us have something to say about food.

The table is symbolic, but symbols matter. Writers will be donating their honoraria to the BC Farmers Market Nutrition Coupon Program. Every book sold will provide a local refugee or low-income family with fresh, locally grown produce through these vouchers, and at the same time will support B.C. farmers. Nothing is simple; even the act of feeding people is fraught and complicated — but this project is, simply, a love letter to the city in which I was born. All the writers here, many of whom also struggle to make ends meet, have generously donated their work to create community and to sustain others.

Sustenance is also a reminder to myself, and to all of us, that we never know when the seeds of kindness and connection will germinate, and what they will become. It was more than 10 years ago when my family and I first began to volunteer with Shar Yu, a widowed mother of six children, and a refugee from Myanmar (Burma). Our job was to help her and her children settle in and deal with the many challenges of Canadian life. We delivered food, drove people to medical appointments, did a joyful and stressful Christmas gift drive, and gathered people who wanted to help, like Dr. Ian Macdonald, who visited and assisted several of the hundreds of new arrivals struggling with diabetes and malaria. I invited the wonderful stylist from Volution, Jennyfer LeClaire, to spend a day at their apartment building in Surrey, where dozens of the families had been resettled. That day, Jennyfer volunteered to cut and style people’s hair, which was probably the most popular welcoming initiative ever.

It is not easy to lean over the sink of a small bathroom apartment in Surrey, in the project where all the refugees were housed, sudsing the scalps of people you’ve only met a few minutes ago, as a crowd of hopeful teenagers jostles around Jennyfer, hoping for a cool new haircut. None of it was the least bit comfortable; all of it was worthwhile.

No matter what we did, we were always fed. As soon as we showed up, Shar Yu or a neighbouring woman would start the ginger and garlic frying. It is a very intimate thing, to be invited into the kitchen of strangers, and to invite them into your home to eat at your table, to play soccer in your yard, to sleep on your couch and to bounce on your trampoline.

I have watched Shar Yu’s family struggle, persevere, and enter the work force. I’ve watched two of Shar Yu’s daughters graduate from high school, and one from college. I met hundreds of other refugee families from Burma, and I became close to another family, Paw Thi Blay and her children. We’ve attended Karen New Year’s celebrations and one heartbreaking funeral. We have been given hand-woven sarongs and many gifts as well as meals — but most of all, we’ve been willing to take a chance on each other, on connecting. I think it was at Shar Yu’s table and at Paw Thi Blay’s table, where every child who entered the door was made welcome and fed, as we were, that the seeds of this book were planted. I am so grateful to them for all I have learned about generosity and community.

We have refugees coming in now from Syria, but also from many other areas of conflict around the world: Eritrea, Iraq, Congo, Columbia. The needs of new arrivals are great; the connections and friendships made can be transformative. (If you are interested in learning more about volunteering, you can call Mount Pleasant Family Centre, Circles of Care and Connection Program and use the program manager's number 778-372-6552.)

Each of you has a place at the table. I invite you to make your community and your city more compassionate, more joyful, more ethical. May you find sustenance within these pages, and the inspiration to make new connections within our city when you finish reading and set it aside. I close with a poem I wrote after visits and interviews with two women, Ayat and Yasmeen, both recent refugee arrivals from Syria, as they patiently tried to explain to us how to cook Kebbeh.

Cooking Lesson: Kebbeh

I would not wish to welcome you with rain, Ayat,
with this bitter wind, Yasmeen. But here we are,
one young son banging plastic nails into a plastic board,
turning it over to hammer the other side.
Isn’t that life? All noise and repetitive energy,
and so we turn and begin again: the work song of mothers
at the stove, at the table, at the cradle.

Today I drove through hard rain to meet you.
I came empty-handed, asking for your recipes,
which Sarah translates, which Lynda writes down. We cannot speak
directly to each other, though the eyes take measure,
the hands. Let’s avoid the war for a moment, politely, like ladies,
let’s look the other way. Six women in a community
kitchen: every story we tell is a door to another story.

Thank you for teaching me the art of Kebbeh,
though I’m not sure I’ll ever understand
your lesson on how to prepare bulgur, how to use pomegranate molasses
to add depth and sweetness. We used to watch wars in other countries, you say.
Soak the bulgur, drain it and let it dry, then add pepper—
suddenly it happened in our own country.
Children as young as this one don’t know the sound of bombs,
they aren’t afraid of anything. Blend the mixture either in a machine
that is not to be found in Canada, or with the hands.
Cook the meat separately, though in Aleppo we eat it raw.
Do you have any Canadian friends yet? I ask,
and you both shake your heads.
We came here as refugees; we will stay refugees.

When the mixture is ready, add flour.
Press the meat into the centre, then deep fry in oil.
We used to cook all together. When we made Makoubeh,
we turned it over with many hands. Now we cook alone.
Yes, now you cook like Canadian women, each in her lonely kitchen.
Yes, like that. We lost everything.
My parents are still there. My cousin’s cousin’s family,
all of them killed. We can never go back.
Dice a pound of onions, cook them in a shimmer
of oil, cumin, seven spices
—Oh, here’s your baby pressing his mouth
against the side of your face, he wants to be fed,
the windows stream rain. Crying
has become a habit; we do it every day.

This wind is a daughter knocking at the door
of a bomb shelter. Let her in. Let me hold your hands
as the tears begin; even Sarah, the translator, is in tears.
Add them to the onions, simmer until all is translucent,
until the moisture is out, the baby asleep, villages dreaming
under their soft blankets of gas, pomegranates split on the bush,
grinning their blood-toothed grins.

No, I would not wish to welcome you here with rain, Ayat,
with this bitter wind, Yasmeen. But welcome all the same
to my homeland, where many are hungry but not for food,
welcome to the cold shelter of this stolen place, welcome with songs
of rivers and ancestors, of boats that brought us here
and boats that sank on the voyage. One day
may you have a garden and the blessing of grandchildren,
may you run out of tears. Welcome.

—Rachel Rose

An upcoming reading for Sustenance will be held Dec. 2 at the Vancouver Public Library nə́c̓aʔmat ct Strathcona Branch, 730 East Hastings St., at 2:30 p.m.  [Tyee]

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