It’s in the Porridge

“Then we would cook cornmeal porridge,
Of which I’ll share with you…”
-“No Woman No Cry” – Bob Marley


“Porridge is such a subjective thing.”

Subjective, certainly. This article, in “The Salt,” NPR’s Foodways blog suggests porridge is a traditional Scottish food eaten during cold winters. Multiple truths exist. For me, porridge is Jamaican breakfast. It has cousins as Brazilian São João street food (mingu,curau, canjica, and mungunzá) and Haitian late night snack (laboyi). I’m sure it is connected to Akamu, Ogi and Pap in Nigeria. It is grits in North Carolina. Perhaps it is polenta.

It has many names.

It is eaten in the constant year round heat that radiates from the equator.

But I don’t see these words in this article. So I will write them.

We must make the colonies visible.

Those far away islands that are at the heart of the identity, economy, and politics of those metropolitan British isles. Those places that seem to be easily ignored when talking about the roots of British and Scottishness. When talking about “changing the course of history.” When writing about how we came to be.

This article reminds me  that I have a lot to learn about my history, personal and collective. About my ancestors before they came to Jamaica, Cuba and the United States, by will and by force. About Jamaican colonial and plantation society. About my African ancestry. About my Scottish and British ancestry. About Vikings. About the knots, contradictions and tensions that are my family tree. How love and violence, evil and good, power and oppression, wealth-building and poverty-making bumped up against each other to make us.

There is so much I do not know.

Porridge is tied up in slavery, growth, expansion, and capitalism. The British Isles and the Caribbean Sea are intimately related, in economy, identity, and genetics. For those on and descended from the Jamaican side of the relationship, it is impossible to make invisible the Scottish-ness, the Britishness, the Irish-ness of what we are. It’s in the skin, the food, the talk, the names. Sometimes, we choose to celebrate it. To simplify it. We do not have the choice of forgetting.  We also don’t always have the choice of knowing.

When I think about Porridge I think about my Grandma, daughter of Lena Hall, from whom I get my middle name. I know that surnames in my Jamaican family – Hall, Robertson – have Scottish origins. I do not know how we got them, except for in vague terms that describe the violent and coercive ways that power, race, and gender collided in the colonies. I do not know the names that we lost, that we had before we were forced onto boats and crossed oceans.

I ask about my name. I learn that Hall is a name with origins to lands that border England and Scotland, and prior to that Norman Vikings. I ponder connections between my mother and my father’s family. My father’s family – Kibbe –  is also potentially descended from Vikings that landed in England.

It’s in the porridge. It’s hot, and mushy, and mixed up.

Porridge references the class and identity divides amongst those in in both the metropolitan isles and the colonial islands. The type, consistency, and level of sweetness is code for wealth, status, prosperity and struggle – past and present.

I learn about identity constructed in contrast. About blurred lines of slave, free, white, black, ownership and immigration.

I ask about whiteness in Jamaica. I learn about the trade of Irish people as slaves.

I learn that a large number of Scotsmen (literally, male bodied people) voluntarily went to Jamaica, many as a way to increase their lot in life, and via their lives in the colony shed their marginal “Scottish” identity, replacing it with the more powerful “British”. By going “away” and into the contact zone of the colony plantations they built wealth and a new identity. Once color was constructed as the ultimate differential, these ancestors national difference from the British became relatively less important compared to my ancestors who were forcibly brought to the Caribbean island from Africa. Scotsmen were then able to re-enter metropolitan society as “British.”

I learn about spiritual forces that support us. About Brigid, the triple deity of fire, poetry, and inspiration. About Yemanja, the goddess of and mother of the ocean. About the meaning of corn, celebration of harvest, and how to celebrate and honor the earth.

I learn I have a lot more to learn. I learn to have more questions.


Porridge


Porridge is sweet and creamy
So sweet and hot
It fills me up
I am overheating from the inside out
So hot
It is too much

 

I can’t finish it Grandma
I’m full

 

Porridge is cornmeal, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is oats, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is green bananas, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is wheatena, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is cream of wheat, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is green plantain, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is hominy, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is peanuts, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.

Each ingredients holds so much
Tells stories of trade of people, spices, sugar, rum
Lives and labor stolen, resources pillaged, people pushed to periphery
To create a metro center

Cream of wheat needs to have lumps
The strawberry jam was never in a spiral in my bowl, like in the commercial
My mother was not entertaining that kind of whimsy on weekday mornings

 

How do you eat porridge in the Caribbean?
It is so hot!
I’m overheating from the inside out

 

Sprinkle sugar on top
Stir in milk to cool it down
then
butter
It forms a glossy film on top.
I don’t stir it in
I like how it forms lakes and rivers

 

I can’t finish it,
Grandma
I just can’t

It is the only thing I can’t finish
I am a dumpling child
Round and soft
I love food
I even love porridge
But a whole bowl!?
I can’t take it all in

It’s too much

It contains the story of sugar
Of cheap grains to feed forced laborers
Of food stretched too far

Eat the outside edges first
It cools faster on the edges
You won’t get burned that way


The richness of my porridge – the fresh milk, the butter – is a privilege
My grandma cannot comprehend my inability to finish
Like she cannot understand my identity crisis and anxiety about my light-white skin and how I fit into the world I live in
The Triangle,
of North Carolina,
circa 2003

It is a privilege

“Eat your porridge”
“Enjoy your lightness”
“You are who you are,
why ask questions?”

The sugar is not a privilege
Quick calories
Paid for in blood and burns and bodies
Eat eat
Quick energy
Eat eat
Diabetes
Eat eat
To spend/to invest in expansion
Of capitalist economies
Built on colonial foreign lands and metropolitan factories
Small islands fueling those slightly larger ones across the Atlantic

I do have questions about my ancestors
About their names.
Who came from Africa? From where?
Who came from Scotland? Why?
How did we get our names?
What names did we lose?

Porridge is creole
Is transplant/immigrant/planter/owner/enslaved
porridge is that-thing-we-do-now-that-we-don’t-remember-when-we-didn’t-do-so-perhaps-we’ve-done-it-forever
porridge is pap
is sweetness is the face of bitter

Porridge is grandma visiting
I find her in the kitchen
Stirring a hot pot
for me
my cousins
my sister
my brother

– – –

Ways with Food is a place to stir up, marinate and serve up our questions, reflections  and stories about food.

New Models: North Carolina Women in Food

In 2015, every 5th Wednesday of the month we’ll be serving up a “Ways with Food” piece. Today, it comes to us via the New York Times and Kim Severson’s article, “The North Carolina Way: A Food Sisterhood Flourishes in North Carolina.”

It seems that all eyes are on NC at the moment, for reasons of both celebration and struggle. As a North Carolina native, it is important to me that writing, images, and portraits that honor and reflect the complexity of the state I call home.

In this piece, Severson amplifies some amazing women voices and makes some interesting points on why this unique women-powered food scene has emerged in North Carolina, including:

  • NC’s food ecology and economy
  • the role of creativity and inventiveness
  • the reshaping the identity of “Southern” food
  • the gender dynamics of the food world, and
  • shifts from competition to models of collaboration, connection, and community.

I am ALL ABOUT celebrating these women powerhouses. YES! AND ALSO this article also leaves me hanging. Food is connected to everything, so even when we’re talking about a high-end niche market (as this article is), we cannot pretend it doesn’t impact every part of the network. How can there be no discussion about race and class when we are talking about shifts in power, particularly those related to agriculture, land, food justice, and cultural traditions? Also, where is the voice of Mama Dip a black woman who put NC on the food map almost 40 years ago? Women who are cooking in NC have not emerged out of an empty void, they are walking in the footsteps of women like Mildred “Mama Dip” Cotton Council and many others! And I just have to say it – the rich food tradition and scene in NC is not dependent on NYC transplants.

That said, this article has me mulling how we can take some of the lesson’s that have emerged from this sphere, into broader conversations on social justice, alternative models for leadership, and collaborative economies. My big question is:

How can we take advantage of gaps and opportunities to invent more just models for our businesses, our economies, our communities, and our livelihoods? And how can we ensure that as these new models grow, they don’t fall into the old power dynamics?

Rather than write and article about an article, below are a few highlights. What are your thoughts? Please share!

– – – –

“They are not beleaguered by how they will move up through
the system because they are the ones who are inventing it.”

– Marcie Cohen Ferris, professor of Southern and food studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and author of “The Edible South,” which chronicles in part the role of women and feminism in Southern food

“We definitely don’t adhere to any rules about what Southern food should look like,”

– Vivian Howard, chef and owner of the Chef and the Farmer – Kinston, NC

“There are more high-quality farmers per capita in these
50 square miles than maybe anywhere else but
Northern California. If you cook here,
you are automatically part of that network.”

Andrea Reusing, Lantern – Chapel Hill, NC

“As women have moved into positions of leadership and ownership, we began learning more about
community and how to take better care of
each other and our staff”

– Ashley Christensen, Poole’s Downtown Diner – Raleigh, NC

“This is an oddly progressive state that speaks of possibility.
We as women here embrace that naturally.”

– Eliza MacLean, Cane Creek Farm – Snow Camp, NC

“The women who cook there just own it, and they live so much better than us.”

– Alex Raij,  El Quinto Pino, Txikito & La Vara – New York, NY

– – –

Ways with Food is a place to stir up, marinate and serve up our questions, reflections  and stories about food.

Ways with Food

We are what we eat.
What we eat makes us who we are.
We make ourselves through what we eat.
The food we make, makes us.

Food is central to identity, both individual and collective. Psychic and political. Emotional and economic. That is why there is a field of inquiry dedicated to food, Foodways. It refers to the the cultural, social and economic practices relating to the production and consumption of food. The field of intersections that spiral out from food.

Often we encounter the South through food (like this chef in the Bronx ). Southern food travels throughout the world as southerners migrate, and similarly Southern cuisine is born out of a contact zone of culinary heritages which has continued to transform with the influx of travelers and migrants who now call the South home.

Southern food carves out spaces in new geographies and new cuisines carve out space within Southern foodways.

The links between land, food, race, economics, politics, culture and identity are tightly woven in the South. We can’t talk about food in the south without talking about the political and economic implications of food and agriculture – the plantation and the slave trade, migrant labor and immigration policies – intimately linking the South to the Caribbean, West Africa, Europe and Latin America.

This is why I’m excited to build out a series dedicated to food. Ways with Food is a place to stir up, marinate and serve up our questions, reflections and stories about food.

to cook.conjure.create

When we cook, we nurture. We feed ourselves, our souls, our families, our communities, our histories. We re-member our ancestors. They come to us scents and tastes. Guide our hands as we stir. We travel to new places. We make ourselves full. We make ourselves whole.

Cooking is conjuring. It is transforming. Making something from nothing. It is alchemy. The transmutation of properties in complex spiritual and chemical reactions that serve to sustain life.

Cooking is time travel. It takes me back to the kitchen of my childhood. To the roots of where I come from. To places that bring me comfort and joy. To places I might never physically go.

Cooking is community. As I chop, my mother and grandmother’s hands guide me (as well as the various cooking show hosts I learned from on the Food Network during ages 8-16 years old). They join me in my New York apartment thousands of miles away from where they are. Their warmth fills the kitchen as the oven heats up.

Cooking is soothingly satisfying. It is tangible. Tasks are completed, ingredients combined, and something is made. We live in a time where I can work a full day without producing one physical thing. I need to get my hands into the elements. In water and fire. Feel heat and wet. Hot cold gooey sticky sharp rough. The motions put me at ease and always result in a tangible thing that I can touch, look at, share, and consume.

I’ve recently had a very strong desire to cook. An urge to get in the kitchen. I couldn’t really put a finger on what exactly I had such a strong desire to bake an apple pie. To make pumpkin bread from scratch. This was particularly curious because I was in the midst of a period of general lethargy and lack of motivation about everything else in my life. And then I of course decided that I “wasn’t allowed” to make an apple pie, because I “should” be doing all of these other “productive” – professional, artistic, etc – things.

It took me a while to recognize that I was craving healing. Healing through my own hands.


Ways with Food is a place to stir up, marinate and serve up our questions, reflections and stories about food.