Recipes: Reading Between the Lines

In today’s post, Lisa Myers describes the possibilities in using recipes as a teaching tool to explore ideas about power, social relationships, and connection.

Lisa Myers

During breakfast at the gas station/restaurant in Shawanaga, the reserve where my mother was born, my family’s conversation revolved around food memories. The soup and skaan special roused a discussion of how our Granny made the best skaan (pronounced “skawn,” also known as bannock or fry bread). That skaan was so good, I almost convinced myself that I would never be able to make it that well. My sister explained that her own skaan always came out hard as a rock. Uncle Sonny piped up, “I know how to make scone,” and started listing off measurements: “three cups of flour, three heaping teaspoons of baking powder, some salt, then you add some water, and don’t mix it too much.” My sister turned to me and responded by asking me to show her how to make it because she needs to do it with someone to get the feel of it.[1] Confirming food’s capacity to connect people with places, history, and a sense of cultural identity, the common understanding of this simple food was enriching.

There is a tension in recipes that written instructions are not enough or that somehow the maker will miss something or not do something integral but omitted from the text. Seeing someone make it carries more nuance and offers reassurance. This simple recipe represents ingredients from mere rations, and the preparation of such ingredients show the resilience of Indigenous people across North America, but also as traces of colonization since there are simple breads like these across the globe.

Beyond personal likes and dislikes, food symbolizes visceral connections to the past and stands in as a cultural affirmation that people need to reclaim as their own.  Embedded in even the most simplistic recipes are the tensions between land, food, and culture. Taking a recipe and doing an analysis of one of the ingredients or the context in which it was made reveals so much about power relations and social conditions. This is the assignment I give to a graduate class I teach called Food, Land and Culture in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. As a writing response to the weekly readings I ask students to use the convention of a written recipe as a literary device to respond to the week’s readings. The following are two examples of these brief recipe/responses:

Tzazna Miranda Leal, Masters of Environmental Studies Student in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University:

"Pipian Recipe." Courtesy of the author.
“Pipian Recipe.” Courtesy of the author.

Rabia Ahmed, Masters of Environmental Studies Student in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University:

(PDF version here).

"Recipe for Resistance." Courtesy of the author.
“Recipe for Resistance.” Courtesy of the author.

[1] A section of this text is from: Lisa Myers, “Serving it Up,” The Senses and Society 7:2 (2012): 173-195.

Translating Recipes 2: A Drama of Butter and Pearls

By Carla Nappi

Translation 1

A medicinal oil eliminating (harmful) poison.

One kind [of oil] used if a person has just been poisoned.

Before eliminating the poison, after taking a flour-based drug in accordance with the 30th prescription, and after that drug causes the poison to be vomited up, spread this oil on the navel part of the stomach.

If the person has consumed so much poison that a lot of internal things are going wrong and the condition has become very serious, after taking 15 – 20 drops of the oil and combining it with either the fatty broth from boiled meat, or butter combined with milk, drink it. Having already smeared this oil on the navel part of the stomach again after 2 erin periods, the following day smear it again two times.

If this has still not eliminated the poison, after taking one or more drops of this medicinal oil again according to the prescription, if you smear it according to the prescription all will be well.

IMG_9087The text above is a fairly straightforward translation of a Manchu medical recipe into English, preserving the structure and form of the original. But what if we were to read the recipe in another way, translating it instead (in light of my previous post) as another kind of narrative altogether?

I’ve incorporated Manchu phrases to give a sense of the disorientingly multilingual character of the original, with includes Latin, French, Manchu, and Chinese. The story is intimate, reflecting the sensual nature of the relationship that this recipe creates among its ingredients and the human body. Some of the plot is playful. For example, “nure” is the Manchu term for wine or alcohol, leading to the “drunken conversation” with her. “Manju beye” is a term for the Manchu body.

There are resonances that aren’t obvious on the first (or fourth) reading. Partly, this reflects the obscurity of some references in the original recipe. With that, I bring you the second translation of the recipe.

Translation 2

Act I, Scene 1.

You are incense. You are pearls. You are amber, roses, sugar. You are urine and clay, saliva. You are cinnamon and bile.

It is the end of the seventeenth century and you are the protagonist. (You are always the protagonist.)

You are booxi or nicuha. You are aisin, ding hiyan, gu-i pi. You are gingina okto.

You have just arrived at the court of the Kangxi Emperor. (Or maybe you’re still at the capital, en route to the court.)

You’ve spent the last months stuffed into close quarters with different ones in different languages: Eliksir, Mei Gui, Balsamun. At the beginning, you didn’t understand each other. Some muttered uncomfortably in Latin. You thought you heard a few of them complaining to each other in Chinese. There was a very quiet one in the corner that may have been French, but you’re not sure.

The only way you’ve managed to communicate is by using some of the words you’ve picked up from the world outside your temporary home. Cold words like xahvrun, watery words like muke. You had a drunken conversation with a mysterious one about nure: though you don’t remember much of it, it seems to have been heated and she’s been stealing looks at you since.

This last one, actually, might have potential: it’s a short life, and a lonely one, and any chance for intimacy before the final, sudden coming together…well, it gives you some sense that something might be in your control. Your first words are halting, but as they melt the silence she starts to turn toward them: uju. nimenggi okto. Ge-te-rem-bu-re nimenggi okto.

The first whispers of a response reach you…ehe horon be ge-te-rem-bu-re nimenggi okto…

And then you turn away as you realize that the words are coming from outside: someone has been poisoned, and everything changes.

Act II, Scene 1.

Everything in you has led to this moment.

The foreignness of the others to you, and yours to them, stops mattering.

You come together and now the only words you have are sounds that felt dissonant before but now flow like music. They surround you and come sliding out of you like the oil you’re feeling yourself dissolve into.

You see her – she’s also dissolving and you start dissolving into each other niyalma yaya ehe horon de neciburakv and you’re both moving toward the poisoned one and you’re absorbing into each other emu juwe sabdan gaifi and into him

and you’re moving and

he retches aikabade jeke omiha ehe horon umesi amba ofi and…

…And it doesn’t work. There was too much poison.

And now what do you do? She’s also half-dissolved and looks at you, disbelieving, not comprehending.

This is it. You can’t do anymore. This can’t be all there is…

Act II, Scene 2.

Here is what you do.

You don’t give up.

You collect what there is left of yourself and you wait and you wait and the others wait.

You turn away from each other, embarrassed, having forgotten how to communicate.

You’ve lost your language and you’re starting to reel from the swaying of the poisoned one, who is jerking as his systems shut down.

You have nothing to say.

And then. And then you smell something.

Butter…?

Act III, Scene 1.

Butter.

You smell butter and milk, and you feel some of it against you, and you look in surprise as she feels it too,

…and you start to speak and eici yali bujuha tarhv sile de and you find yourself moving down the poisoned one’s throat together and dissolving together, again, and you look at each other expecting to be torn apart again…

…try to get as much out of this brief time as possible eici sun nimenggi suwaliyaha sun de suwaliyafi omi and you sing to each other this time gu-we-ji-he teisu bade ulenggu de…and…

…and…and you stop singing. You start to drift. You lose the sense of a center, of your own boundaries.

You become her, become the once-poisoned one, become beye, Manju beye, and you sleep.