As I write this, Samhain has just passed. I think about my maternal grandfather who left his family in Boston because he was tired of being beaten over a badly recited catechism. He fled north to Maine where he must have helped one of the locals work the fields in exchange for room and board. He was listed on the 1910 census and then dropped off the radar for a while as he traveled around the country doing whatever job came his way. He did stone masonry and lumbering, and worked the railroads, and eventually made it back to Maine where he married my “Old Maid” grandmother. I never knew him, and barely knew her before she developed dementia.
Connecting with them is a challenge. Grandpa is a bit easier because mom was close to him and I have more stories. I like to do things with stone and wood as he did, and I often feel him near me when I am building rough stone walls or doing carpentry. Grandma is tougher. Mom found her critical and doesn’t talk about her much. But I know she cooked. And I know she canned food because some of the jars are still in the basement, 50 years later.
They ate what was available to them on the farm. They had a kitchen garden, which my mother revived as soon as she retired to the house. They had a dairy cow and raised a pig every year. There were numerous apple trees on the property. I still come across them in the woods, often with an apple or two high in the branches and deer tracks around their base. Only one still gets attention. The tree that grows in a small gap in the stone wall bordering the garden produces huge yellow apples that are tart and sweet, and perfect for baking or sauce. They don’t keep, but harvested in early September they made a fine apple sauce and pies. We don’t always have a good year for those apples, but when we do, I am in nervous tizzy figuring out if I can make it up to Maine at the right time to pick them. I them frantically make and can apple sauce as my grandmother must have done. I make mead with them too although I’m pretty sure my grandparents didn’t do that.
Eating what our ancestors ate connects us to them viscerally. It is a connection of the gut, of necessity. When I move stones, I know this is what my grandfather felt with his hands, his spine. When I eat applesauce, I know my grandmother’s relief and gratitude at being able to serve my family something tasty and nourishing. When I burn my fingers on the hot jars, I know her frustration and fatigue.
Ancestral foods are those of place, digestibility, and maximum nourishment over the long haul. Pemmican was such a superior food that native American hunters could go weeks eating that alone while still pursuing game. Traditionally fermented, raw sauerkraut has more vitamin C than the cabbage picked fresh from the ground, with a bonus of gut enhancing, immune boosting friendly bacteria. Raw milk from cows on fresh grass provides the same friendly bacteria, plus a dose of calcium, vitamin D, and other beneficial factors, all in a great tasting beverage.
All the ancient cultures had some form of fermented food, and ways to store food that enhanced its nutrient content. These traditional foods are why we, ourselves exist. Without these foods, fertility and health decline and we would not have been born. Indeed, fertility in industrialized nations has been declining. Reproduction becomes limited because the body lacks the tools to build new cells. Health fades as the healing systems of the body fail to keep up with demands.
Our Pagan traditions have deep roots and all those peoples had their own food preferences, some of which we moderns would find deeply unpleasant, if not disturbing. Watching a few episodes of Anthony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern can give both the highs and the lows of eating as our ancestors did. And while Icelanders still eat fermented shark, they do it mostly to remember why they are grateful that they don’t have to.
Eating what our ancestors ate can bring both memories of joy and pain. A locally grown potato is delicious and full of vitamin C, and I cannot eat it without remembering that my great-grand parents came here from Ireland because they did not want their family to starve. That potato connects me with history. Food is power. As we say in my tradition:
The share food is to share life
To share life is to share joy and sorrow
Joy shared is multiplied, sorrow shared is lessened
To share delicious food is to experience community, with our ancestors, with our embodied friends and family, and with generations yet to be. To share not-so-tasty food is to share communion, and ease the pain of generations.