In her last two posts about Brian Brett’s Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life, Alexia Moyer revealed that food plays a pivotal role in memoirs, especially when it comes to reminiscing about times shared with family either around the table or in the kitchen. The collection Eating Stories: A Chinese Canadian & Aboriginal Potluck (2007) uses a similar approach, as the preparation of food and personal histories go hand in hand.
In the introduction, editor Brandy Liên Worrall traces how Eating Stories: A Chinese Canadian & Aboriginal Potluck grew out of a “Food and Family workshop” in Vancouver, where participants shared family memories and recipes— providing each other with a veritable taste of the past. (xiv) The collection’s title, Worrall explains, uses “eating” as both “an adjective to describe the type of stories”, and “an active verb” to capture the writing and reading process. (xiii)
Fittingly, the book opens with breakfast. CBC radio host Margaret Gallagher—who has many other food-related interests, which you can read about in an interview she gave over brunch—volunteers memories of her Chinese-Indonesian grandfather and her family’s recipe for an improvised Kechap Manis, a sweet soy sauce (with brown sugar, ginger, and green chili) that can be served with eggs (fried with butter and a diced shallot). Yum! When Gallagher was a child, the sauce wasn’t available in Canadian grocery stores, so her mother used to make Kechap Manis from scratch.
Food facilitates family cohesion, Gallagher tells us, because it “conquers the cultural divide that arises when families are constantly on the move in an evolving world” (ix). Perhaps most striking, though, is the fact that food creates a sense of generational continuity even when loved ones have passed away.
Gallagher recalls how her grandfather “wasn’t very comfortable in the kitchen” yet still cooked for his grandchildren and conveyed to them his “lifelong love affair with fresh fruit”— from the mangos of Indonesia to the cherries of the Okanagan. (x) And although Gallagher’s mother was typically the one who made Kechap Manis and fried eggs for the kids, her grandfather was known to have made the dish as well.
Some of Gallagher’s once-cherished family recipes have been lost over time, but others — like Kechap Manis— persist. The lesson is that if family histories are to remain ever-present, recipes must be shared and used by the living, allowing the next generations to add their own stories to the mix. The recipe (or story), Gallagher observes, “changes a bit each time someone new tells it—a detail added here, a spice omitted there…. They need to be dusted off and shared in order to thrive.” (x)
Worrall, Brandy Liên, editor. Eating Stories: A Chinese Canadian & Aboriginal Potluck. Vancouver: Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia, 2007.
Text and Photos by Shelley Boyd