Food and Lost Heritage

Last night, I experienced a fit of food nostalgia. This happens periodically, usually in winter when the urge for comfort food is at its strongest. I begin to have visions of pyroghi, cabbage rolls, paska, and a sweet grain Christmas pudding I only recently learned is called kutia. And so, today I found myself preparing mashed potatos and frying onions to make pyroghi.

Here in Alberta, Ukrainian influences are everywhere. Despite being a genuine Canadian mixed-breed, my child-self identified most strongly as Ukrainian-Canadian. I’ve recently realized how peculiar all of this is. I do have a legitimate claim to Ukrainian heritage, but only if one goes back three generations on my maternal line. It makes up only a tiny part of my ancestry. This is in part why it is the food that has come down to me, not the language or material culture. That fragment of knowledge passed in an unbroken line along with mitochondrial DNA, manifest only in my mother’s cooking and now my own. It’s also why I use a potato-based dough for my pyroghi and fill them with mashed potato and cheddar, make my cabbage rolls with sour cabbage filled with peppery rice and bacon, and make my paska without raisins.

I suspect the critical factor is the maternal line. Cooking is a skill that has traditionally been coded as women’s work, and thus passed down from mother to daughter. Thanks to generations of history in which sons inherited and daughters were (and still are) taught that their identity matters less than their future husband’s, this was one of the few things that did. Skills are an intangible thing; they’re among the easiest things in the world to transport, and it’s difficult to take them away. A woman holds onto that piece of her past even if she’s cut off from her family and is known outside her home only as her husband’s wife, as so many settler women here were.

Recently, I’ve begun to feel that lost. It doesn’t sit right with me that this is the sum total of my cultural inheritance. One small wedge of culture from just one lineage is all that’s been passed down, and that from a great-grandmother whose name I’ve never known.

That’s what really gets me: the disconnection of erasure. Even with how little family history has been taught to me, I still know most about my paternal grandfather’s side. It’s all scattered facts; no-one has tried to hold on to the rituals or beliefs or practices or stories. There’s nothing one can hold onto and identify with, and within this framework, the women are disproportionately cyphers.

I am left with only two tangible connections to my own heritage: A patronymic, and some food.