Anti-Know-Nothings and Great Unknowns
The bittersweet lure of culinary nostalgia
A number of both real and imagined ghost orchards populate Helen Humphreys’ beautiful, evocative book, The Ghost Orchard: The Hidden History of the Apple in North America. The most unsettling of these has to be the “glossary of lost apples” at the end of the book. Little more than an alphabetical list and brief description of a few dozen “now extinct” apple varieties, the glossary leaves the reader feeling genuinely haunted. Even just the names—Anti-Know-Nothing, Frazier’s Hard Skin, Great Unknown, Keep Forever, Republican Pippin—makes these untasteable apples appear on the page like spectres of a lost world, of a time when our industrial food system hadn’t yet reduced the number of commercial apple varieties from nearly 17,000 to the fewer than 100 grown today.
This ghost orchard glossary perhaps best captures the tone of a book that opens with the line: “Last fall I was eating wild apples, and a close friend of mine was slowly dying.” Both Humphreys’ friend Joanne and the wild apple tree—with its autumn bounty of the now rare White Winter Pearmain—don’t survive the winter. It’s here that Humphreys begins the book: in an attempt to grieve and process the loss of her friend by attempting to tell the history of a world that has been lost forever.
The book, in other words, is a kind of meditation on death, loss, and memory that is as much an autobiography as it is a history. And, to this end, the so-called “hidden” histories that Humphreys recounts are wonderfully sensory ones, shot through with the tastes and textures of ripe apples, the smells of orchards, and memories of conversations with a beloved grandfather.
Structurally, at least, Ghost Orchard is organized as a series of chapter-length historical vignettes. These include histories of the so-called “Indian orchards” of the colonial period; of Ann Jessop, the Quaker “Annie Appleseed” whose efforts to bring different apple varieties to the Americas predated Johnny Appleseed’s by nearly 50 years; the watercolour artists for the United States Department of Agriculture whose late 19th- and early 20th-century paintings are, in many cases, the only images we have left of many apple varieties; and, finally, of the orchards planted by the poet Robert Frost.
Humphreys’ history of apples is meant to be more evocative than exhaustive. The chapter on Frost, for instance, is really less about apples than about the American poet’s grief over the loss of his friend Edward Thomas, whose life was cut tragically short during the bloody and senseless final years of the First World War. Apples, here, are more of an excuse to talk about life, loss, and friendship—and to reflect upon Humphreys’ own life and relationship with Joanne—than they are the centre of the story. Other chapters, though, really do live up to the subtitle’s claim to be a “Hidden History of the Apple in North America.” Many readers, for instance, will be particularly surprised by the history of the so-called Indian orchards planted and maintained by First Nations in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Though apples aren’t native to North America, they were quickly integrated into Indigenous agricultural systems alongside pre-contact staples like beans, corn, and squash. They were planted by Tuscarora, Seneca, Algonquian, Cherokee, and other First Nations farmers and became so numerous that, as Humphreys notes, “there were once ‘Indian orchards’ literally everywhere in what is now the United States.”
The story, as one might expect, is a tragic one. Humphreys suggests that, in addition to facilitating the creation of unique Indigenous varieties of apples—like the Equinetelle, Buff, and Nickajack apple varieties developed by Cherokee growers—these orchards also attracted the interest of land-hungry European settlers. “First, of course,” Humphreys writes, “the original owners had to be vanquished. The apple thus became, in its infancy in North America, a tool for colonialism.” The result, according to Humphreys, was the violent removal of Indigenous peoples from both the lands where these orchards once stood—with only the common place name, “Indian orchard,” often remaining—but also the erasure of the apples developed by Indigenous farmers, as well, with “many apple varieties in the Indigenous orchards either renamed when the whites took over the land, or…left to go extinct.”
Humphreys’ reflections on these Indigenous orchards highlight both the opportunities and dangers inherent in the book’s broader nostalgia-tinged narrative. The story itself really does come as a revelation, painting a portrait often at odds with the stories Americans and Canadians tell themselves about their pasts. But it never quite feels like the whole story. As Humphreys travels around Eastern Canada and the United States in search of this hidden history, the reader can’t help but see the present-day world as a disenchanted one, a landscape of longing and regret. Following a scene where she drives to upstate New York in search of a lost Seneca orchard and village—now “a scrappy gas station and mini mart” and long-since plundered burial mound—Humphreys writes: “The past is all around us if we look carefully and can figure out a way to read it.”
While this is no doubt true, the problem is that nostalgia—particularly nostalgia for lost worlds and stories—tends to obscure as much as it reveals. Although Humphreys was happy to make the drive down to Geneva, New York, to stand on the site of a Seneca ghost orchard with a tragic history, she could have just as easily talked to some living, breathing Senecas about their own community’s story. After all, there are still a number of thriving Seneca communities in both New York state and Ontario, all of which are within two or three hours of Geneva.
Instead, Humphreys at one point seems to describe the Senecas as going “extinct” in 1955 and later writes, rather tellingly: “It is no secret now that white settlers very effectively overlaid their culture on North American Indigenous society and made [the latter] all but disappear.” Falling for one of the oldest settler colonial myths there is—that Indigenous peoples really did mostly disappear, that they haven’t been fighting furiously for their lands, lives, and cultures this entire time—Humphreys shows how, sometimes, the stories we tell ourselves about the past say more about us than they do about the past itself.
The dangers of uncritical nostalgia, particularly in the way they inform diasporic Indian writing, are the focus of Naben Ruthnum’s smart, slim volume, Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race. Organizing the book as a set of three interrelated essays on the topics named in the book’s subtitle, Ruthnum attempts to both define and critique what he terms the increasingly dominant South Asian literary genre of “currybooks.” This is a genre that is often identifiable by the images of saris, mangos, or cardamom pods on the cover and that Ruthnum remembers lining the bookshelves of his Mauritian parents while growing up in Kelowna, British Columbia—books that he studiously avoided reading for most of his life.
Ruthnum opens Curry with his own currybook story. It starts with his only ever trip to Mauritius as a nine-year-old in Bart Simpson pajamas and a Chicago Bulls cap—a trip that is originally planned in order to visit his elderly grandmother but ends up including her funeral. Food plays a prominent role in his memory of a traditional Hindu funeral whose pyre and torches remind Ruthnum’s childhood self of the Return of the Jedi, “the only referent I had at that age.”
Before, or after, there was a curry. Vegetables, a thick sauce, rice that I couldn’t get the knack of clumping and thrusting into the sauce with the bird-beak grip my uncles and cousins demoed for me. It had been forks and knives up until this day, as it would be afterwards. Tiny cuts I didn’t know I had at the base of my cuticles tasted the curry as I did, the elements of sauce that bit my tongue taking purchase in the blood there, leaving a sting that lasted.
Ruthnum then adds: “This is how books like these are supposed to start, isn’t it?”
Here, then, are some of the basic tropes of the currybook genre. These are novels, memoirs, cookbooks, essays, and films that use some curry-infused variation of an awkward “coming home” story like the one above or, perhaps even more common, the now-ubiquitous story of the second-generation, westernized child trying (and usually failing) to recreate their mother’s famously authentic curry while living far from a diasporic family and community. These are stories, in other words, that “typically detail a wrenching sense of being in two worlds at once, torn between the traditions of the east and the liberating, if often unrewarding, freedoms of the west.” Looking at currybook tropes as they appear in everything from an episode of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and the film Bend It Like Beckham—all the way to the literary works of diasporic writers like Salman Rushdie or Monica Ali—Ruthnum tries to grapple with the ways in which, since the 1980s, this genre has come to dominate the popular narrative of the Indian diaspora (at least, that is, in the minds of white North American and European audiences).
One of the reasons curry has emerged as such a central metaphor for diasporic experience, it seems, is that it’s such a simultaneously familiar, exotic, and endlessly flexible one, a “concept too large to be properly controlled by a recipe.” There isn’t, after all, a singular ideal of the true, authentic curry. It’s a recipe and a concept that can’t even be captured by a common set of ingredients or cooking styles. What’s more, it continues to travel and change. For Ruthnum, the immigrant cooks who invented chicken tikka masala so as to better accommodate British tastes and preferences “weren’t undoing centuries of tradition” but, instead, “were innovating and adapting a living cuisine that had sustained itself not by pandering to foreign cultures, but by absorbing them.”
After all, even the chilies that give curry its signature heat—that seemingly essential part of what makes a curry a curry—aren’t native to the subcontinent but were, in Ruthnum’s telling, “planted on our shores by some spice-route jagoff.” Drawing particularly upon the work of historian Lizzie Collingham, Ruthnum highlights the ways in which Indian recipes for curry “have been adapted or altered to suit rulers, visitors, and colonial intruders for hundreds of years.” Like the English language or complex identities like “Indian” or “South Asian,” then, curry is “a colonial endpoint: everything ended up in it, and it remains infinitely changeable, even as its complex colonial roots became disguised as homeland authenticity.”
Yet it’s the idea of the authentic curry—often contrasted with the take-out Indian restaurant’s bastardized western version—that’s always being sought by the currybook’s protagonists, whether that’s a chef looking to create an authentic restaurant experience or a second-generation child living in the west trying to find out where they fit in. Curry, in such stories, acts both as a marker of difference and a powerful connection to homeland and culture. But it’s also a symbol of a kind of authenticity that simply cannot be found in a store-bought curry powder or jar of Patak’s curry paste. Instead, it’s something that can often only be found in the curry of the protagonist’s mother—a curry that can never really be recreated by that second-generation child or captured by a written recipe.
Like Humphreys’ lost orchards, these “authentic” curries tend to trade in a kind of nostalgia that does as much to obscure as it does to illuminate the past. And it’s a nostalgia that, for Ruthnum at least, has become a kind of trap for South Asian writers. “South Asian Writer” Ruthnum argues, “is an identity, not just a pair of adjectives and a noun.” What’s more, it’s an identity that “establishes a tacit promise to an audience that is seeking it, whether the author intended it or not.” That promise, of course, is an authenticity “left behind in another time and place.”
In the end, then, it’s clear that the currybook genre isn’t a problem because it produces bad fiction (or memoirs, or films, or cookbooks) but because it’s a kind of straitjacket for diasporic South Asian writers. It’s also a narrative that tends to reproduce the racial assumptions and colonial imaginings of white North American and European readers. “Telling the same story of brownness over and over,” Ruthnum argues, “doesn’t only express a coherent notion of race and history to white readers, it creates an impression of the commonalities among a brown audience who may come from vastly divided pasts, and have little in common in the present, other than they ‘all look the same’ in communities where they’re part of a box-tick minority category.”
Looked at another way, though, the basic structure of the currybook—those personal stories and family histories as often told through culinary memories and metaphors—often works because the sensory experience of cooking and eating is so profoundly evocative of both personal and collective memories. A good example of how this can be done well is the new edition of Habeeb Salloum’s wonderful and revelatory Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead: Recipes and Recollections from a Syrian Pioneer. (The original, published in 2005, was titled Arab Cooking on a Saskatchewan Homestead.) Expertly weaving recipes with both personal and collective histories, Salloum tells a complex and largely forgotten story of the early Arab immigrants to Canada that somehow manages to celebrate and honour the foods of his childhood while avoiding many of the nostalgic clichés and pitfalls inherent in the food memoir genre.
The hidden history at the heart of Salloum’s beautiful cookbook, memoir, and celebration of Arab cuisine is, in part, the story of his own family’s struggle as Syrian immigrants to Canada during the early 20th century. Salloum’s father, George Jacob Salloum, left the town of Qaraoun in the Bekaa Valley of what was then Syria for the Canadian Prairies in 1923. His wife, Shams, and their two sons—including a one-year old Habeeb—arrived a few years later to join him on their homestead in Gouvernor, Saskatchewan, where they began their new lives in a house built using clay, straw and water. Habeeb Salloum was just one of the roughly 3,000 Syrian immigrants who had settled in Canada by the 1920s. But, as he reveals through a lovely mix of essays, recipes, and historical meditations, his family’s story is emblematic of a larger “silent saga waiting to be told”—a story that is now more relevant than ever given the arrival of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in recent years.
Although cookbooks often don’t get the kind of respect they deserve in literary circles or by professional historians—something that has a lot to do with the fact that, for much of the past two centuries, cookbooks have been seen as the exclusive domain of mostly female readers and writers—they have, nonetheless, always been the most popular and arguably most effective form of food writing. This is because recipes enable a form of reading that doesn’t just happen on the page or in readers’ heads but that, one hopes, also moves its way into the kitchen, onto the plate and, eventually, into their mouths. It’s one thing to read about food, it’s another thing altogether to sit down and eat it. What’s more, cookbooks have a potential staying power that isn’t really available to other forms of non-fiction. A good cookbook, after all, is meant to really be used—to be read and re-read, to be stained with grease and marked with annotations—until you get that recipe just right and can start making it from memory.
An underappreciated strength of cookbooks, though, is their capacity for storytelling. Salloum, for his part, uses recipes as more than just lists of ingredients and instructions. Instead, he expertly mixes the culinary with the historical and the personal, in the process telling a fascinating story of the people who, like his parents, were making bulgur, tahini, hummus, and yogurt on the Prairies decades before these foods would become common staples in kitchens throughout Canada.
As it turns out, it was these Syrian dishes—and chickpeas and lentils, in particular—that enabled Salloum’s family to survive the harsh years of the Great Depression. Although Canada is now the world’s leading producer of lentils and one of the world’s major producers of chickpeas, this was decidedly not the case during the interwar period. Arab immigrants like Salloum’s parents, it seems, were the first to plant these hearty crops on the Prairies and they were lucky that they did. Because legumes like chickpeas and lentils were so perfectly adapted to Syria’s desert climate, they were among the only crops to thrive in the midst of the dust bowl that enveloped southern Saskatchewan during the 1930s.
Salloum’s neighbors, it turned out, weren’t so lucky. “None of our fellow farmers were familiar with lentils,” Salloum writes, “and we, like other Arab immigrants, kept the knowledge of cultivating lentils well hidden” and “safe from the prying eyes of our neighbours.” The reason wasn’t fear of competition on the market. Rather, it was the powerful desire of Salloum’s family, like most of their Arab and Syrian neighbours, to simply assimilate and be treated as ordinary Canadians. Arab food, after all, acted as a powerful marker of difference during this period—something that Salloum learned early on, as his classmates regularly taunted him for being a “foreigner,” “black Syrian” and “garlic eater.”
It is clear in Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead that one of its main goals is to celebrate and commemorate the Syrian culture that his family kept hidden as much as possible and that, as a child and a young man, Salloum had actively tried to escape. “Like most Syrian immigrants of that period,” Salloum writes, “we wanted to become white—what we saw then as being ‘undeniably Canadian.’ ” The fact that the main Syrian immigrant lobby group in Canada successfully convinced immigration authorities to consider Syrians as being “white” in origin during the 1930s shows that Salloum and his siblings weren’t alone. For Salloum, himself, it was only when he left the Prairies and moved to Toronto that he began to question his desire to escape his Syrian identity and assimilate into Canadian society. “First I became proud of my Syrian ancestry,” he writes, “then, as I became more enlightened, of my Arab heritage.”
The book, in other words, is somewhat nostalgic for the food of Salloum’s youth and of his homeland, but not for his life on the Canadian Prairies. He refers at one point to Saskatchewan as a land where he and his brothers “tasted bitterness.” And it’s not just the years of blowing dust and failed crops: The racist taunts from the other children colour many of his otherwise fond recollections of Syrian cuisine. At one point, Salloum suggests that, had he stayed in Saskatchewan with his parents, the price would have been nothing less than total assimilation. “I have no doubt that if I had not left the farm,” he writes, “like the majority of the early Arab homesteading immigrants I would have disappeared into Anglo-Saxon society, too ashamed to expose my origin.”
Added to this is Salloum’s realization, later in life, of how much his own family’s survival on the Prairies was dependent upon the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their traditional lands and territories. “No one acknowledged the fact,” Salloum writes, “that, like almost all the Western pioneers, we were living on stolen land.” Even as a child subject to racist taunts and bullying, Salloum remembers internalizing his white schoolmates’ racism toward their First Nations and Métis neighbours. “Feeling inferior, we aped everything our classmates said or did,” he recalls: “This was especially true when it came to our attitudes toward First Nations peoples.”
Food, in other words, is used in Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead to evoke both bitter and sweet histories, histories of plenty and want. Although each chapter highlights a different food that helps to tell the story of Salloum’s Prairie childhood—whether it’s qawarma (preserved meat), chickpeas, dandelion, Saskatoon berries, kishk (powdered cheese), or yogurt—they also each tell complicated stories about what it meant to be a Syrian immigrant in Saskatchewan during these hard, lean years. The recipes, of course, are all chosen presumably because they’re delicious. But the book allows you to do something else besides simply enjoy their flavours. It allows you to place these flavours in context, to think about what it meant to make these foods on a lonely homestead in a very different time and place.
Food writing, when done well, offers so much possibility. It can remind us that the things we take for granted are the product of complicated, often unpleasant, histories and that these stories—whether they’ve been lost or hidden or have become dangerous clichés—can nonetheless allow us to think about the world in novel and expansive ways. We are what we eat, sure, but we are also a product of the way we think about what we eat. Good food writing, then, is most nourishing when it asks us to rethink and challenge those stories we thought we knew, or that we have always simply taken for granted.