"The One Thing That We All Have in Common"
[Thursday, May 14, 2015]
Shiv strolled through
the Omaha Reservation
in search of Smoking Breath.
Boss White had sent him up
to deliver a package, and after
that, Shiv was free to spend
the rest of the afternoon there.
Someone pointed him toward
one of the pavilions in the park,
an octagon painted brightly with
tribal designs in turquoise and violet.
The shaman sat in the cool shade,
surrounded by children of all ages
who listened eagerly to his story.
Shiv leaned against a post and
tried to follow along -- something
about a rabbit stealing things.
He smiled. That was familiar.
Rabbits were tricksy critters
in any culture, it seemed.
When Smoking Breath finished,
he shooed the children away,
then said, "Hello, Shiv. What
brings you up here today?"
"Package from the boss,"
Shiv said as he held it out.
"Thank you," said the shaman.
"I'm glad to see you -- there's
someone I'd like you to meet."
Shiv narrowed his eyes. "You're
trying to set me up with a girl?"
Smoking Breath laughed. "No, no!
One of the foragers came down
from the Winnebago Reservation."
"Oh?" Shiv said perking up.
"Yeah, okay, I like foraging."
"This way," the shaman said,
waving a hand. "He set up
a campfire to demonstrate
cooking traditional foods."
Several people stood around
a small campfire where a pot
nestled in the coals. One of
them was playing a drum.
"Aho!" called Smoking Breath,
and everyone looked up at him.
"Hi, I'm Shiv," he said. "I heard
something about foraging?"
A chunky young man stepped
forward, only a few years
older than Shiv. "I'm
John Nobody Likes It."
"What?" Shiv said, staring.
"Okay, I know some of
you have weird names,
but that one sounds
kinda mean, dude."
John shrugged. "It's
true, though. I like
wild foods, and not
many people do."
Shiv looked at the table
with plants piled on it.
"Got any free samples?"
"Yeah, it's spring, and lots
of things are leafing out,
ready to eat," said John.
Smoking Breath chuckled.
"I thought you two would
get along. Have fun, now."
Then he headed back to
the after-school group.
Shiv poked at the things
on the table. "I recognize
the cattails and dandelions,
but not much else here."
"These spiral things are
fiddleheads, they turn into
ferns later," John said as he
pointed. "They only grow
where it's wet, like near
a river or a pond."
"Pretty," Shiv said,
wishing that he could
draw the fiddleheads.
"These are wild carrots,
from Queen Anne's lace,"
said John. "They taste best
in spring, but get tough later."
"Yeah, a lot of things do that,"
Shiv said. He popped a piece
in his mouth. "Wow! That's hot."
John sighed. "Yeah, I know,
that's why nobody likes it."
"I didn't say I didn't like it,
I said it was hot," Shiv replied.
"It kinda tastes like a radish."
"These are the old, wild form
before people started breeding
them to be sweeter," John said.
"Modern carrots don't have
as many nutrients, but they
have nicer flavor and texture."
"Enh," said Shiv. "Carrots are
okay, but I really like these."
"You said they tasted like
radishes," John pointed out.
"So?" Shiv said. "I like radishes."
"Well ... there's a mash of them
that came out of the fire about
five minutes ago," John said.
Shiv tried it, then wrinkled
his nose. "I think I like
them better raw," he said.
"Really?" said John. "They
taste stronger when raw."
"I like the peppery flavor,"
Shiv said. "They would
taste great in a salad."
"Hmm," John said. "I
hadn't thought of that.
Mostly I use leaves for
making spring salads."
He pointed to a big bowl of
dandelions and other greens.
"Okay, but think about salads --
they have leaves as a base, and
then vegetables or nuts," Shiv said.
"I did throw in some maple seeds,"
John said. "If you toast those,
they taste like candied nuts."
Shiv immediately dug one out.
It tasted unfamiliar but interesting.
"Yeah, great start," he said. "I'd
just throw in a few vegetable things
and some kind of salad dressing."
"You cook native?" John said.
"Not exactly," Shiv said. "I like
foraging. I like what I've had at
powwows and such -- elkburgers
are so awesome. Mostly I cook
soul food, some Chinese and Irish.
But I'm also the kitchen shopper
for Blues Moon, so I watch for
salad fixings at farmer's markets."
John smiled. "Soul food, that
goes back to Africa, right?"
"Some of it does," Shiv said.
"Other stuff is more American.
I like looking at where it's from."
"Plant knowledge is something
that we share with our ancestors
in real time," John said. "Thousands
of generations have passed down
knowledge of how to use these plants."
"Yeah," Shiv said, picking up one of
the fiddleheads to nibble. It was
faintly crunchy and would probably
work well in an omelette. "I don't
really have ancestors, because
my family history is ... complicated,
but I like looking at food history."
"If you could make your food taste
exactly like the place where you are
physically standing, then you can
really evoke that flavor profile that
resonates through history," John said.
Shiv recalled how the Italians talked
about wine and the ways that where
it grew affected the flavors in it.
"Okay, I get that," he agreed.
"The place gets into the taste."
"This way of thinking about food
provides a direct connection that
we have as indigenous people to
our ancestors and to the flavors of
their foods, because those flavors
haven’t changed," John went on.
"Really?" Shiv said. "I thought
everything changed over time."
"Food changes when people
mess with it, breeding what they
want more of," John said. "So we
have corn and squash and beans
that have been cultivated here for
thousands of years. Wild foods
aren't cultivated, though, so they
don't change in the same ways."
"I guess that makes sense,"
Shiv said. "I mean, I've seen
all different kinds of raspberries
from farms, red and yellow and
what-all else, but the wild ones
still look pretty much the same."
"It's good to have things that
change and things that don't,"
John said. "So if we make
a mistake, we can go back
to the original and try again."
"Always keep a backup copy,"
Shiv said, grinning. "I learned
that from the computer nerds.
But food nerds are fun too -- I
know one guy who likes to make
fancy French things, and then
my sister cooks Chinese stuff."
"Food is the one thing that
centers all of us," John said
with a nod. "It’s the one thing
that we all have in common,
no matter who we are."
"Yeah, I get that," Shiv said.
"Everybody eats, and when
they eat together, they mix
things around and it gets
even more interesting."
His tea cabinet sure had.
"It’s a great way to understand
somebody else’s culture," John said.
For natives to have that stripped away
by the invasion was so damaging."
"I kind of ... missed ... a lot
of history class in school,"
Shiv admitted. "Stripped?"
"When the Europeans came,
they wanted what our peoples
had here, so they took it," John said.
He poked at the pot in the coals of
the campfire, then added another log.
"That part sounds familiar," Shiv said.
"I always thought explorers were nutjobs."
"The most effective way to conquer people
is to attack their food systems – burning
crops, destroying food-storage systems,
killing bison, letting sheep and cattle
graze on ancient fields," John said.
"If you can control the food, you can
control the people. It’s a war tactic."
Shiv nodded. "Yeah, I get that,"
he said. "Some places I stayed,
they kept the food locked up so
the foster kids couldn't steal any."
"That's horrible!" John said. "That's
child abuse. I didn't know white people
treated their own kids like that. I thought
it was just us, that's why there are laws
to keep native kids in our kin groups ...
when people obey them, anyway."
"Yeah, white people pick on everyone,"
Shiv said. "I was always, always hungry.
That's why I learned to forage, not much,
but the little bit I learned, I used a lot --
cattails and mulberries, stuff like that."
"Didn't they feed you?" John said,
staring at Shiv in utter horror.
"Yeah, but not nearly enough,"
Shiv said. "I only found out
a lot later that people who have
superpowers need to eat more,
or may need different things, and
even folks with latent potential
sometimes just burn more fuel."
John nodded. "Medicine powers
do that, sometimes," he said.
"Pemmican is good for it."
"Mmm, salmon pemmican,"
Shiv said. "I love that stuff."
"Everybody loves Ben's cooking,"
John said wistfully. "It's one bit
of historic food that's really popular."
"Well yeah," Shiv said. "You can
spread it on all kinds of stuff. It's
like salmon in handy paste form.
I've shared mine with strongmen
or speedsters who faceplanted
because they ran out of energy.
If I'd had more I'd share it more."
"That's why people would bring
gifts of food to a shaman when they
needed help," John explained. "They
brought blankets and tools, too, because
working medicine took so much time and
energy that the shaman might not have
enough left to make everything things."
"It makes sense," Shiv said. "In Omaha,
people bring boss gifts to Boss White,
because if their problems spill over and
he has to solve them, it takes time that he
could have been doing something else."
"Good idea," John said. "So ... do you
want to try the salad idea? I have plenty
of different greens and wild carrots."
"Sure, why not," Shiv said. "Do you
have a peeler? Sometimes when
things have a really strong flavor,
you can shave it to spread it out."
John hunted around, then shook
his head. "No peeler. I just
cleaned them with a brush."
"No problem," Shiv said,
taking out the lump of metal
he used as a fidget. He
shaped it into a peeler.
"Here, try using this."
"Wow," John said. "You
have strong medicine!"
He stroked the peeler
along a wild carrot, making
curls of pale yellow root.
Meanwhile Shiv filled
a bowl with salad greens,
choosing mostly sweet
or bland ones to contrast
with the wild carrot curls.
Finally they put the parts
together and sampled them.
"Yeah, that works," John said.
"I don't know whether anyone
else will like it, though."
Shiv shrugged. "So?
They don't know what
they're missing," he said.
Then he laughed. "That
should be your name.
It fits you a lot better."
John ducked his head,
but didn't argue outright.
"It's the flavors, you know,
the nutrients can taste
really strong and people
don't like that," he said.
"But it's hard to show it."
"Nah, there's gotta be
books on it somewhere,"
Shiv said. "I've heard about
breeding out the nutrients."
"That's for farm crops, though,"
said John. "I don't know if
anyone's testing wild foods."
"I know where to check,"
Shiv said. "Recently we
had a nutritionist come from
Eat Healthy Omaha to help
us improve food at Blues Moon."
"Yeah?" said John. "That's cool."
"Pam Garner showed us ways
to make soul food healthier and
still good," Shiv said. "I bet if you
gave her samples of wild foods
or recipes, she could get those
analyzed in a lab for the nutrients."
"That would be great," John said.
"I don't have much science access
on the Winnebago Reservation."
"Here, tell Pam I sent you," Shiv said
as he pulled out her business card.
"Thanks," John said, pocketing it.
Smoking Breath wandered over.
"Are you boys having fun?" he said.
"Yeah, Shiv has some good ideas,"
John said. "We're making salads."
"John's the one who found all of
the food, I'm just brainstorming,"
Shiv said. "I love the wild carrots."
"When I was a little boy, we would
gather those," Smoking Breath said
as he sampled the new combination.
"I think my grandmother grated them."
"Ohhh," Shiv said, enlightened. "Carrots
are aromatics! We could grate them
to put on top of things, like ginger,
or throw them in a wok with garlic.
Jeez, now I really want to wok them."
"So take some home," said John.
"I don't have a wok around here."
Smoking Breath laughed. "No,
but you have trade pots -- the ones
that stack like cones are similar.
You also have wild chives."
"Good idea," John said. He
grabbed a handful of green shoots
and chopped them for the salad.
"I'll take some wild carrots home
for my sister to play with," Shiv said,
picking up a handful. "You wanna
keep that peeler, John? I can
always get more play-putty."
"Wow, thanks!" John said.
"I'm glad you're willing to try
things, too. Not many folks are."
"Food is interesting," Shiv said.
"You just have to play around
with it until you find things you like.
I wasn't into fruits or vegetable until
someone introduced me to things
that were fresh, not canned or frozen."
"It's hard to rebuild a cuisine almost
from scratch," John said with a sigh.
"We have a some old recipes, and
lore about food, but ... a lot's been lost."
Shiv nibbled more of the salad made
from spring greens and wild carrots,
now more complex with chives.
"Yeah, but sometimes lost things
can be found again," he said.
* * *
This poem is long, so its notes appear separately.