Monday, November 24, 2008

squeezing out thanks

Judy Dow upper left and right, Mr. Labate middle,Justin Morse, new principal of Wallingford Elementary
on lower left, and Julie Kuhn Fredette, Wallingford's art teacher, lower right

It was a serendipitous time of year for my new friend Judy Dow to be holding a short residency at Wallingford Elementary School. It’s Thanksgiving season, after all, and Judy, as A Child of the Dawn, which is what “Abenaki” means, a Native American, one called Indian by most of America, and therefore a partner with the Pilgrims on that first Thanksgiving Day, was about to dispute some of our soft and mushy feelings about the history of that holiday that some of us might hold.
Judy pronounces Abenaki in a way I’d never heard before – ahBENicki. She told me in her soft, drole voice that the pronunciation depends upon which family you come from, what strain of Abenaki produced you, and hers is French from over the border.

In her early 50s, with a round face, large, expressive eyes, and dark braid that hangs down at least to her waist, Judy is a master teacher and an award-winning artist whose hand-woven baskets are currently on a three-year national museum tour. The art teacher at Wallingford, my friend Julie Fredette, wrote the Vermont Arts Council grant, funded by the Vermont Folklife Center and the National Endowment for the Arts, that brought Judy to Wallingford for a second residency to teach the third and the sixth grades weaving and other Native American arts, and, as well, a few home truths.

Friday afternoon I entered Chris LaBate’s 6th grade class and looked over some of Judy’s primary sources, such as the letters that William Bradford wrote when he was Governor of Plimouth (sic)Colony. I took some notes, while she handed out Thanksgiving story books to the children, and then she said, “Please open your books and find words or pictures that exemplify Myth Number 1 - that the First Thanksgiving occurred in 1621,” and the children did. Then Judy explained that for as long as people have existed they have given thanks and feasted in the giving of them and that “to refer to the harvest feast of 1621 as ‘the first thanksgiving’ disappears Indian peoples in the eyes of non-Native children.”

Regarding another myth – that the colonists came seeking freedom of religion in a new land – Judy explained that by 1620, hundreds of Native people had already been to England and back, most as captives, so the Plimoth colonists knew that there were people who lived on this land, but since they had not put up “private” and “no trespassing” signs or wrecked it in any way... but what Judy said was that “nevertheless, their belief system taught them that any land that was ‘unimproved’ was ‘wild’ and theirs for the taking; that the people who lived there were roving heathens with no right to the land.” Some religious freedom, huh?

She explained that when the storybooks tell of the “Pilgrims” (never did the Plimouth settlers call themselves “Pilgrims” – another myth), “found” corn they actually had found the seed corn that the Natives had buried to save for spring planting, and took it away with them. At the same time they “found” several graves and “brought sundry of the prettiest things away” from a child’s grave.

Myth # 11 says, “Thanksgiving is a happy time.” Judy explained that for many people Thanksgiving is a time of mourning, of remembering how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land and seed corn, and of remembering the extermination of many Native people via disease and guns. “As currently celebrated in this country, Thanksgiving is a bitter reminder to Native peoples of 500 years of betrayal returned for friendship and generosity.”

At the end, one little girl asked, “How did all these untruths get started, and why don’t we all know the real truth.”
Mr. LaBate said, simply, “The victor writes the history.”

As for the food the “Pilgrims” and “Indians” ate at that “First Thanksgiving”? It was probably venison (the Natives brought five deer), wild fowl, and a dried corn pounded and boiled into a thick porridge called nasaump, and, possibly, cooked, mashed pumpkin. There would have been no bread nor biscuits because there was no wheat. There were no potatoes nor even sweet potatoes, since they didn’t appear in New England until the 18th century. There would have been no fruit, for most had gone by, no clams because it was too cold to dig for them, no fish because the season was closed, and no boats nor traps for trapping lobster. There was no sugar, so cranberries were out except, perhaps, for the most dour, and no pumpkin pie.

Judy Dow returned home to Essex on Friday Evening. She expects a house full of extended family this weekend, and there’s something about building a longhouse. your local restaurant, of course...

We find ourselves in the position of having to rescue businesses and people we didn’t want in our lives anyway. As far back as the sixties, I looked at those little beetle shaped cars that were appearing on the roads and said – that’s what I want! Guess what, American Car Companies never built them. ACC built BIG. ACC built gas-guzzlers. They built and aggressively sold those big honking vehicles with the enormous carbon footprints that make it impossible for our small cars to drive down the road without the fear of being runover by one teenager in charge of one of those things and a cellphone at the same time.
“And,” says Leo, “they sold like hotcakes!”
Well, there is that!

Nevertheless, there are some businesses we can support, and we’d better support them if we want them around when this awful spiraling mess is sorted out.
Talking to restaurant owners and chefs nowadays, I hear words like “shocking,” “flabbergasted,” and “floored,” about the downturn in business.
Say you usually go out to dinner on Friday night, and one Friday you look at the headlines about GM and investment bankers, and you say, “Hon, maybe we better tighten our belts a bit. Let’s see, what can we eliminate?” Say you usually toddle on down to Sabby’s, or Hemingways, or the Victorian Inn, or Tapas on Friday nights. You might say, “Hell, we don’t need to do that. We can cook something at home. If we get desperate we can go to MickieD’s and get us something cheap.” Say two or three parties have this discussion amongst themselves. SabSal’s CafĂ© Inn is now down three or six customers in one week. You think that doesn’t hurt? You think ONE doesn’t hurt?
It hurts.

So here’s my suggestion. While you’re having a candlelit conversation at your favorite restaurant, talk about continuing to support your local farmers and the financially challenged people in your neighborhood and state. Make out a check – for $50, for $10, for $5 – to the Vermont Foodbank , call your town office and find out what is being done to feed and help the poor people in your own community. You never know when it’ll be YOU who needs help.

Shop at the Winter Farmers’ Market and the Co-op – don’t leave your farmers in the lurch or they won’t be there when you deem your finances in order. And then, buy into the Localvore Thanksgiving that I wrote about last week or so.
Finally, we can’t forget to support the Paramount Theater with our presence. We’ve put a lot of effort into getting it on its feet but it doesn’t have a lot of resources in times of downturn. Comfort it with your presence and your money.

And then, adopt a cat – get rid of those mousetraps.

As my friend Wendy Jackson of the Red Brick Grill in Poultney told me with characteristic frankness, “We’d love to see you but, if we don’t, pretty soon you won’t be seeing us.”

...better times aren’t here again, but they’re on the way...

You may, like me, have read the Letter to the next Farmer in Chief that Michael Pollan wrote in the New York Times Magazine on October 12 but, like me, you may not be able to keep the talking points close to hand. To that end, Michael Ruhlman, one of my favorite bloggers, writers, and food activists condensed those points and posted the following on his blog. Cut it out and hang it on your fridge:

  1. —Train a new generation of farmers, spread them throughout the land, and make farming a revered profession.
  2. —Preserve every acre of farmland we have and make it accessible to these farmers.
  3. —Build an infrastructure for a regional food economy—one that can encourage and support the farms and distribute what they grow (rebuild or create regional distribution systems).
  4. —Provide cities grants with which to build structures for year-round farmers markets.
  5. —Ease federal production regulations, designed to control multi-national food companies but that hog tie small producers.
  6. —Create local meat-inspection corps so that we can create more regional slaughter facilities, perhaps the biggest impediment to our being able to find local hand raised meat. (This is huge.)
  7. —Establish a grain reserve to prevent huge swings in commodity markets.
  8. —Require federal institutions that prepare food (school lunches, prisons, military bases, etc.) to buy a minimum percentage of that food locally.
  9. —Create a Federal definition of food, to encourage people to think about what is food and what is not, stuff we consume that has no caloric value (“junk food” should not be considered food).
  10. —Food stamp debit cards should double in value when swiped at a framers’ market; give farmers’ market vouchers to low-income women and children (why does he exclude men, I wonder; a different subject perhaps).
  11. —Make changes in our daily lives: teach children how to cook; plant gardens in every primary school and equip them with kitchens; pay for culinary tuitions (or forgive loans) by requiring culinary graduates to give some service back to such undertakings such as teaching kids how to cook; increase school lunch spending by $1 a day; grow more of our own food and prepare and eat our food together at a table; accept the fact that food may be more expensive and eat less of it.
  12. —Make our food production system as transparent as possible: have a second calorie listing how many fossil fuel calories went into its production so that consumers could discourage production of fuel expensive food by not buying it.
  13. —Finally, there should be a White House vegetable garden and our President should set the first example. Our founding fathers were largely farmers. This would be a good symbolic return. about that longhouse...

I asked Judy if her family and friends just ignored the 4th Thursday in November, and she wrote back to me Saturday morning: “We do celebrate thanksgiving. We always celebrate the weekend before the National Thanksgiving day. Of course we are thankful for a bountiful harvest just as others are. We moved out into the woods Friday night. We built a long house for about 15 people to sleep in. Most of the man power comes from my husband's boy scout troop. We spent the day building tables and preparing food for the feast tomorrow. I just came in to clean three 25 pound turkeys. Tomorrow about 5:30 in the morning we will start the turkeys, prepare the venison stew, cook the baked beans, squash, gravy, pumpkin fry bread, stuffing, wild rice and berries and desserts. Everything will be cooked outside over an open fire or in a ground pit. About 12:30 PM we will be joined by friends and family for dinner. There will be about 70 people. You are more than welcome to come if you would like.”

I would have loved to’ve been there, wouldn’t you?

1 comment:

Kitten Sink said...

Great work! Yes! Information tinged with the sour realities; “We’d love to see you but, if we don’t, pretty soon you won’t be seeing us.”
It's true, we still have to support our little economy.
Excellent pictures below.