As Us

A Space for Writers of the World

Elissa Washuta – Creative Nonfiction

Bred to Binge

The new thing in diet advice is that we’re only supposed to eat the things our great-grandmothers would have recognized as food. I imagine that this endeavor is meant to require a hefty dose of imagination, but I’m a literal person, so I’ve determined that this rule allows me to eat pierogies, kielbasa, holubchi, beans, huckleberries, pies made with sticks upon sticks of butter, and nursing home meatloaf.

When journalist Michael Pollan spread this notion to the masses, he wasn’t really asking us to take inventories of kitchens we could never visit—he wanted us to consider our great-grandmothers’ reactions to Handi-Snacks, Go-Gurt, and Big Gulps. He wanted us to think about the chemical additives that made their way into our foods over the last few generations. Pollan writes, “Note: If your great-grandmother was a terrible cook or eater, you can substitute someone else’s grandmother—a Sicilian or French one works particularly well.”

But that just doesn’t work. I won’t substitute anyone else for Dad’s grandma Mam-Mam, who lived into her nineties. I knew her mostly from Dad’s stories: he said she was the sweetest lady who ever lived, and everything she cooked had at least a stick of butter in it. When I knew Mam-Mam, she was half-watching Matlock while half-eating nursing home meatloaf. Until I was old enough that I should have known better, I thought Mam-Mam was her real name. Actually, it was Margaret Burke, and her birth name was Margaret Kelly.

Mam-Mam’s forebears came over to Pennsylvania from Ireland to escape the Great Famine of the mid-1800s. Potato blight brought on mass starvation and disease, and a million people died or left Ireland, because the population was entirely dependent on the potato for food. I can’t say whether life on this side of the Atlantic was better or worse, but certainly, it was a new world. The droves of immigrants would be funneled into coal mining towns like St. Clair, and the men would quickly burrow deep into this alien earth.

A generation later, a new wave of immigrants would arrive from Eastern Europe, and those men would take to the mines, letting the Irish rise up to the above-ground jobs. Anna Dembicka, my dad’s other grandmother, arrived in Pennsylvania at the turn of the twentieth century. She and Michael Washuta, her future husband, emigrated separately from Galicia, a place that doesn’t exist anymore but was something like the Ukraine and something like Poland. Galicia had undergone decades of unrest and “experiments” with civil liberties, and in the 1880s, peasants began quitting the place, bound for the U.S., Canada, and Brazil.

Michael may have worked as a butcher in the old country. In the coal mines, he came down with coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, commonly known as black lung, necrosis of lung tissue resulting from long-term build-up of inhaled anthracite coal dust that the body can’t exhale. On at least a few nights, when piss-wet porcelain has cooled my whiskey-sick cheek, I’ve reasoned, in an attempt to exhume myself from the pity pit, that at least I’m not a miner.

Growing up, I heard stories about the mines, about how Mam-Mam Burke’s husband, known to us as Pappy, and her brother Leo, were missing fingers. I would get all mixed up about who lost a thumb and who lost a non-thumb finger, and how many fingers. As a tiny child, I imagined Pappy losing half his hand in some kind of sooty anthracite explosion. But it wasn’t like that. Pappy and Leo worked up above the mines, where it wasn’t supposed to be so dangerous. Pappy lost his thumb in a piece of machinery up there; Leo was missing a finger that got smashed between a couple of coal cars. Pappy couldn’t write after that, but he kept working in the lamphouse until he retired at age seventy.

I have quite a few photos of Mam-Mam and Pappy, but hardly any of Anna and Michael Washuta. In a photo of Anna from 1949, she stands kielbasa-sturdy in a dark dress in front of a rowhouse front porch, pressing her lips together like iron and board while my grandpa smiles in his long-tailed wedding tux. Anna had a middle like a mushroom cap. Mam-Mam and Pappy appear in some of the bridal party photos taken on the lawn in front of the rowhouses, but Anna only appears in this photo, her face half-shadowed by her hat’s fake foliage.

Of all my great-grandmothers, Anna was the one whose traditional foods ended up on my plate. In my heavily Eastern-European nook of New Jersey, all sausage was kielbasa, all babka was the kind with rum and raisins, and freezer aisle pierogies were only used to get us through pierogie withdrawal between parish hall buffet lines and Ukrainian festival picnic tables.

Some of my favorite Ukrainian foods are, basically, things tucked inside of other things. Most people have had a pierogi—those are just pockets of dough stuffed with surprises. Halupkies are meat laboriously rolled into pockets of steamed cabbage. A favorite holiday dessert is a poppy seed paste rolled into a dough log and baked. Kielbasa is one part of a pig stuffed into another part of a pig.

I consider the pierogi to be the greatest culinary achievement of Eastern Europe, and I’m not talking about the ones in the freezer aisle that have too much in common with their cardboard packaging boasting that the contents are “low fat,” far cries from the dumplings handed straight down from heaven, pan-scorched pockets of hand-pressed unleavened dough swimming in butter, soaking through layers of paper plates. The first pierogi might have been bestowed upon us from above by Our Lady of Częstochowa herself.

I haven’t had pierogies in years and I doubt I’ll ever eat them again. They’re one of the few foods I miss from life before my celiac disease diagnosis, which keeps me from eating wheat and other gluten-containing grains. I’ve also been found to be intolerant to lactose, the sugar in cow’s milk, and casein, the major protein in cow’s milk. So much for eating what my great-grandmother ate. Yes, I know there are gluten-free pierogies, but I don’t think Anna would recognize half the shit on those labels.

Luckily, I have other great-grandmothers whose diets I can plunder for ideas. On my mom’s side, Grandpa Bud’s mother is still an unknown to me—I don’t even know her name, so clearly, I have a lot to learn about her. I never met my mom’s other grandmother, either, but I have photos and stories of Grandma Kate’s mother, Abbie Weiser Reynolds, daughter of Mary Stooquin, or Mary Wil-wy-i-tit, or Indian Mary, or sometimes Kalliah, the daughter of Chief Tumalth, headman of the Watlala, otherwise known as the Cascade Indians. Tumalth was hanged in 1856 under orders of Lieutenant Phil Sheridan, then a young man gathering experience before becoming a Civil War General and then the pacifier of the Plains, where he famously said, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”

A year before Tumalth was hanged, he had given his signature to the Kalapuya Treaty, along with many other chiefs and headmen in the Oregon Territory, ceding part of the Cascade lands. Disease had hit these people hard decades earlier, and there were almost none of them left to make the trip to the Grand Ronde Reservation that would now be their home. White settlers quickly broke the treaty. A group of Yakamas, already at war with the Americans, along with a few Klickitats and Cascades, attacked American settlers at the Cascades of the Columbia. This was the site of a sacred salmon fishery where Native people gathered much of their food for fifteen thousand years, but settlers now controlled the area.

After the Native people burned buildings and killed fourteen civilians and three soldiers, the Yakamas fled, leaving the Cascades behind to surrender. A group of Cascade men were hanged. With the rope around his neck, Chenoweth yelled that he was not afraid to die, but the record says nothing about whether Tumalth spoke. At the time of his death, Tumalth was around twenty-five years old. When I was that age, just a few years ago, I was an hourly desk worker for the university department of American Indian Studies that now employs me. I overburdened one of my credit cards under the weight of a closet full of situation-specific party dresses, four towering cases of lonesome books I might never open, and a flood of mojitos. While I floundered, I trusted that the American dream would buoy me above my panic. I felt too special to let money get in the way of my dreams.

My great-grandma Abbie, the last Native speaker and basket maker of our family line, probably didn’t get to dream like that. In one photo, she and her second husband Frank are standing among huckleberry bushes, paused while picking. Abbie wears a calico dress, and Frank looks sharp in a shirt and tie, his hair slicked back. I act like I’m all about the idea of living off gathered food, but really, I feel so far away from Abbie and her children, who lived off beans, jar after jar of huckleberries, and other stored foods while winter rainwater gathered in pots under the perforated roof.

The only berries I’ve ever picked were strawberries from the U-PICK farms back home in New Jersey, where my family would pick our way down a long row and pay for our haul after we got tired. We were an anonymous, pink-skinned family paying for the  gathering experience. I hadn’t yet heard the story repeated by half my aunts about a time Abbie took my Grandma Kate to the woods to gather berries. Some white people came by, saw the Indians with their baskets and pails, and they said in Tonto-speak, “You catch-‘em berries?” Abbie replied, crisp and curt, “Yes, we’re picking berries.”

I have another photo of Abbie’s first husband, Morris Reynolds, my great-grandfather, with a rope slung over his back attached to a sturgeon nearly as long as he was tall. Morris was the man Abbie married first, the handsome, hard-partying Dane she sometimes locked out of the house under threat of shotgun.

I imagine showing up at that house with my arms full of Gushers, Pizza Bagel Bites, Lucky Charms, Double-Stuf Oreo Cakesters, Cool Ranch Doritos, and Skittles. Abbie and the kids might be portioning out huckleberries gathered in summer and canned for inevitable times of need, and for protein, eating beans, a food that had no place in a traditional Northwest Coast diet. I am certain that while my Safeway offerings might not be familiar, a mother would know exactly what to do with all of it. Flour and sugar have offered a quick fix that has afflicted us since contact. I’m not saying that I’d actually offer those foods to my relatives. I don’t even know whether Lucky Charms are actually food. If I could, I would offer Abbie a Costco shopping cart’s worth of cans of salmon and ask her if I could sit with her and listen.

I cannot substitute someone else’s great-grandmother for my own. Abbie and I never met, but we are connected by a genetic rope. Some researchers support a “thrifty phenotype” hypothesis, which suggests that humans may possess a gene that enables us to store fat during food shortages to survive famines, but once food is plentiful, these individuals are predisposed to obesity and metabolic syndrome, being prepared for famines that no longer come. Answers might also come from the rapidly advancing field of epigenetics, the study of changes in gene expression that do not involve changes in the DNA sequence. Researchers have found that genes can be turned on and off by environmental triggers, including food, stress, and toxins. Fetal development is the scary time when the genes can get tagged with gloom. When Abbie was expecting the birth of my Grandma Kate, she took a pair of scissors to bed with her every night, not wanting to be messed with by any white woman, saying she would deliver that child herself.

My genes are a messy file cabinet. My medical records can fill binders. I am twenty-eight years old and I’ve had my gallbladder yanked out and my head straightened by more bipolar medications than I can count. Bipolar disorder, celiac disease, and gallbladder disease are known to have genetic components. I spent my teen years on antibiotics to treat acne, wiping out the essential gut flora I had inherited from my mother at birth and would miss so much more than I knew. Birth control pills have completely altered my body’s natural hormone balance. There are other things. I worry that when I rack up enough diagnoses, the insurance company will take me out back and shoot me.

And then there’s the bug on the back of my tongue that has begged for alcohol since I was old enough to get it legally. I waited until I was twenty-one to start pounding Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Kool-Aid with Everclear, but I quickly made up for lost time. I kept drinking after the doctor said my stomach was swollen and I needed to quit it, especially—this is what they always say—being on all those meds. Now, I endure long periods of pained, noble asceticism, then inevitably decide that I miss the taste of whiskey and smash the iron stomach I’ve worked so hard to cast. Growing up, I never saw anyone drink, except on TV. I thought beer was silly, because the silly men with accordions sang about it in the polka my grandpa listened to:

In heaven there is no beer.

That’s why we drink it here (Right Here!)

When we’re gone from here,

all our friends will be drinking all our beer!

When Tumalth signed the treaty, he agreed to an article that stated,

“In order to prevent the evils of intemperance among said Indians, it is hereby provided that any one of them who shall drink liquor, or procure it for other Indians to drink, may have his or her proportion of the annuities withheld from him or her for such time as the President may determine.”

Indians are not wicked, not children, and Prohibition is a bad idea. But I wonder whether, for me, this strange intoxicant is as foreign a food to my system as the wheat and milk that my body regards as sinister strangers. Paradoxically and tellingly, I crave all three like antidotes to my starvation once I’ve had the taste.

Through trial, error, attention, and revision, I’ve come to realize that the foods I digest best are the ones that have always been here, and workable substitutes. I am in Seattle now, not far from where some of my family lived for fifteen thousand years. My body is forcing me to figure out my Indian identity by bringing these traditional foods into my life. Gathering huckleberries is an action of the whole self, bringing together ancestry, spirit, and practical need. Running to Safeway is not.

I’m a work in progress. I eat the food co-op’s ground venison packaged in Styrofoam and saran wrap. I eat turnips and rutabagas, approximating the camas and wapato I can’t gather. I buy cans of salmon from Costco by the dozen. I try to dive back three hundred years within my own body, but I suspect it’s already too late to repair my mangled guts and carve out a hunter-gatherer’s shape from the apple that persists where I should be cut down to a solid core. At night, before my meds knock me unconscious, my brain hums with thoughts of what more I can do the next day, what ancestrally-appropriate fish I might try from the Asian market. My blood is in need. I will take my plant picture books to the woods and gather all day, close my eyes and grind the spines of fish between my teeth. I hope I can salvage this busted body, mend it, protect it, put it to use.

There are tests for celiac, imperfect ones. There are tests for half the flaws I can dream up, and I have paid hundreds of dollars for labs to read my blood like tea leaves. When my ovaries bloom and burst with cysts and my skin ruptures in anger, I need no lab readout to tell me I’ve left homeostasis.

There are Indians out there who maintain that none of us should drink at all, our blood being too shocked by hundreds of years of molten rebellion in the peaceable fluid that rises and falls like a barometer to the tides. No test has shown me anything about the drink. But I do know that my blood is up, has been since I was old enough to pitch a fit in the aisle of KayBee Toys because I had a hole in my heart that could only be plugged up with a new Barbie, a scene that repeated itself until I had filled a suitcase with a hundred identical leggy plastic bodies. My blood stayed feverish when I braced myself for ninth grade mornings with a Gatorade bottle full of Cherry Nyquil and a blister pack of caffeine pills. My innards boiled when I exceeded all the university academic benchmarks but felt certain that I could not spend another day trying to pass as normal without tiny chemical nuggets to get me from crest to crevasse. I didn’t know, back then, about the centuries-long drip of cooked blood into my panicking heart. My body, having only killed one of its minor organs, seemed indestructible—my mind was an untangleable knot, the American nightmare.

Once I journeyed West, I hardened. Life in the Old West had been a brutal slog, I surmised, but generations later, my hard-drinking, strategy for dousing the pain seemed to catch up with me more quickly than it did for any hard-partying frat boy or waifish artsy type I knew. Everyone drinks. Some people have no health insurance at all. I wonder on the longest nights, the ones when I swear I’ve seen the inside of my spleen, can I ask the surgeon to excise that part of me that is killing the rest?

Careful. You know what they say: whatever kills you makes you into a callus as indominatable as a mountain, a seer of visions of what was and what will be and what might have been if one gene flipped on or off like a winking eye. Whatever kills you stakes your claim on the only parcel that you, your mother, and her mother’s mother have ever owned. People grow into their deaths, live up to them, stumble into them. Every day, I let the rot spread to new tissue. I pass out drunk, wake up made of less water than before. I take every pill, every vitamin. I feel the panic bubbling in tiny pockets of deep tissue that I might never smooth out. I die now, and keep dying.

Elissa Washuta - headshotElissa Washutua, a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, is the author of My Body Is a Book of Rules, a memoir forthcoming from Red Hen Press. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Filter Literary Journal, and Third Coast. She serves as adviser and lecturer for the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington.

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