Don’t it always seem to go / that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.
Joni Mitchell’s voice floated into the kitchen, mingling with the clink of dishes and the aroma of sizzling onions and rosemary. I swirled the red wine in my glass, inhaled deeply, and took a sip. I’ve always believed that good music, warm food, and a house full of friends are the perfect recipe to brighten a cold February day. That night was no different.
In March, everything changed. As the reality of the pandemic settled in, I felt scared, overwhelmed, bereft. Many of the coping strategies I’d developed over the years were forbidden. Zoom dinner parties just didn’t cut it.
As spring shifted to summer, I learned to find comfort in simple things: baking bread, scheduling phone calls with long-lost friends, bearing close witness to the slow budding, blossoming, and fading of the pink and red rose bushes two houses down. These simple actions, juxtaposed against the backdrop of the summer’s racial reckonings, helped give me strength.
As summer shifted to fall, my sources of nourishment shifted as well: less baking, more puzzles; less phone time, more losing myself in fiction. I invested in a new electric toothbrush, one that buzzes every thirty seconds with a reminder to just keep going, keep going. I found this frustrating and mildly embarrassing at first: two whole minutes felt like an eternity. Couldn’t I just get on with my day? This year has taught me the hard way, though, that sometimes, I have to slow down. I’ve started using those two buzzing minutes to think of things I’m grateful for. Health, warm socks, clean teeth.
As fall shifts to winter, I find myself wondering once again how nourishment will look different this season. What moments can ground me, what small shifts in perspective can help me find meaning? What will I remember several Februarys from now? What might I miss?
Every time I pass a rosemary plant in my neighborhood, I run my fingers along its branches and hold them up to my nose. The scent on my fingers once reminded me of warm nights in the kitchen with laughter and wine; now, through my mask, it simply brings me back to the present. I take a deep breath. After hundreds of moments just like this one, I hope I’m lucky enough to have hundreds more.
—Marta Hanson, Portland
Mixing Halo Halo
Growing up on the island of Guåhan, my closest conceptualization of snow came from halo halo; halo halo means to “mix mix” in the Filipino language, the language of my heritage. This dessert is an assortment of local ingredients, such as jackfruit (langka), saba bananas, sweet potatoes (kamote), red mung beans, young coconut (buko), flavored gelatin, and the quintessential purple yam (halayang ube), which are mixed together, with the colors and textures displayed in a large clear glass. The ingredients are added, mashed, combined, and apportioned according to taste. Shaved ice is piled atop, and evaporated milk is poured over the mixture. The taste is altogether the result of blending distinct, vibrant flavors. Halo halo is both a dessert and a process.
I am halo halo—or at least that is what I tell people when they ask me what I am and where I come from. I am all mixed up. Who I am is a process. I am descended from two generations of Filipino immigrants added, mashed, combined, and apportioned through the island’s colonial history. Now, surrounded by the white and the snow of eastern Oregon, this metaphor for identity is even more salient. I think deeply about both the privileges and oppressions that come with mixing.
I feel the weight of assimilation pour over me, attempting to hide my native ingredients. What gets displayed and what remains hidden?
New experiences add color and texture to my experiences. What other flavors am I adding to my mix?
Have my tastes changed? What gets added, mashed, and crushed in the process of mixing?
I am all of these questions blended together. I find nourishment in this complexity, drinking it all up, and recognizing that different cultural elements move fluidly through my ideas and experiences. Some days the feeling is cold and isolating, sending a wave of ache to my brain and my heart. Other times, I let these thoughts melt away, until all that’s left at the bottom of the glass is what I had in the first place.
—Tabitha Espina, PHD, La Grande
Choosing a Feed
Hummingbirds appear dainty—little bitty feet perched on a feeder, sipping sugar water through needle-like beaks.
But these aerial jewels, they fool us. They are neither sweet nor delicate. They are loud for their size and defensive. They claim territory and fight off other hummingbirds who try to encroach. They will dive-bomb a human who gets in the way of their goal, which is always the same: to eat.
Hummingbirds are hungry.
When you are the weight of a nickel and move constantly, you are always hungry. Your heart beats 1,200 times a minute as you zip and zoom. Your wings beat seventy times a second. These madly beating wings are why you sound like a mini-helicopter. They are what propel you near to starving almost every hour of the day.
The hummingbirds in my yard are Anna’s hummingbirds, the only kind common to Oregon who do not fly south for the winter. It is November, and the others have left for warmer climes. The flowers that feed hummingbirds with their nectar have closed up for the season. The hummingbirds are as hungry as ever.
Surveys show that humans check our phones once every ten minutes. That is roughly how often hummingbirds eat. Some mornings, I try to replace my phone checking with hummingbird watching—to replace my news feed with their actual feed. In one ninety-minute span, I counted fourteen hummingbird visits to the feeder that hangs from an eave outside my office window. The males sport a showy deep-pink hood and collar that sparkle in sunlight. The females are grayish-green.
I am alerted to their arrival not by an iPhone chime but by the wild vibration of beating wings. Both feeds, the phone kind and the hummingbird kind, are buzzy and addictive. But with the bird kind, the news is always the same: time to eat.
Watching hummingbirds makes me feel old. Isn’t this what old people do? Stare out windows at birds? Or maybe getting old is less about the years stacking up behind us and more about surrender—to doomscrolling and distraction, to the constant checking for the latest outrage. That, to me, seems closer to death.
A female hummingbird veers in to sip from my feeder. She dips her beak into a feeding port, sucking in sugar that will power her whirring wings and sustain her tiny, thrashing heart. Like any good feed should.
—Shelby Oppel Wood, Portland
Of Love and Food
I am older now. I can reflect upon the language of food. It was the language she could speak. Life had taken away the other languages of family. Time, disappointment, and hurt carried from one generation to the next, stole what remained.
I remember the food. Arthritic hands, aching in the morning, at night made wonders of foods great and small. Love and pride were not used at birthdays. But towering cakes, crafted for days, castles, or dragons of chocolate flour and sugar said what she could not.
I remember how meals changed as I grew. Mutual misunderstanding and disappointment spread till there was no food left. Meals stolen at night, hoarded away as we both pretended all was well. I am older now. We talk of food. I make new foods. Not hers. Both of us hoarding or making still. We do not talk of hurt, of mothers and sons. We speak of breads and puddings. Homemade jams and French tarts. Food for animals. It has been three years since we saw each other. She will send chocolates this year. It is enough.
—Edward Pay, Ashland
Eating in Pandemic Times
About a month into the quarantine, my mother and I began spending time together at food pantries. I remember her calling me one morning in April, after she was officially done with her chemo. “I want to go get some food,” she said. I assumed she wanted to go to the grocery store.
She’d stopped driving almost a year ago when she got the cancer diagnosis, at age seventy-one. When the doctors told her that she should stop driving, she was heartbroken. Driving was a big part of her identity.
When I showed up to her apartment, she told me she wanted to go to a food pantry. I was confused. “Don’t you already have food?” I asked, “Yes,” she said, “but I want to see what they have.” My mother is very, very frugal. So, I drove to the food pantry run by a local Christian organization.
Today, the line moved slightly forward. Finally, it was our turn. We waited for the volunteers to load up the food boxes in the trunk of the car. Today, there were four boxes total, filled to the brim with a variety of foods. “Not just beans,” she said.
The following week, she called me again. “Do you have time to go get food?” she asked. It was early May by then, and for almost two months, I’d been unemployed. I was laid off unexpectedly, but I didn’t tell her that. “Sure,” I said. “Let’s go.”
Several pantry trips later I realized my mother’s true reason for visiting them. What she really wanted was for me to translate her mail. Her English is sparse, she said. She can only understand bits and pieces.
Sometimes, when I’m not translating her mail, we sit in silence as I drive, thinking. For most of my life, up until I had my first child, my mom and I had a rocky relationship. We didn’t understand each other. We argued a lot.
Over time, our conversations have slowly evolved. Prior to the pandemic, she’d criticize my lifestyle choices. Now, when we are out together, she asks me about my kids. She adores my kids, and they adore her.
I know she doesn’t have much longer, even less if the cancer comes back. But in the meantime, while she’s cancer-free and we have this time together, this is what I will choose to remember about my mom.
—Hoang Samuelson, Portland
Leaving the Farm
My husband and I started our farm fifteen seasons ago, at the very young ages of twenty-five and twenty-six. We had worked for two years on another farm, but did we really know what we were getting ourselves into? Could we ever have anticipated the ways we would be challenged and how we would grow into adults fundamentally shaped by the work of growing food and the land that grows it?
We became farmers because we fell in love with the community supported agriculture (CSA) model, in which households sign up to be farm members for an entire year, receiving their carefully planned share of the seasonal harvest each week.
Some of our first batch of forty families have stuck with us through it all, even as we’ve grown, stretched the limits of CSA farming, and made inevitable mistakes. We’ve watched floods cover our field, greenhouses blown down by wind, the skies turn red with wildfire smoke and ash. Through it all, the only scheduled harvest we ever missed was the Tuesday after the birth of our first child.
In 2020, we’ve felt the particular satisfaction of continuing to feed our members through a year marked so much by uncertainty—offering the simple joys of seasonal eating even as the pandemic stripped away so many other forms of pleasure and connection between humans.
We ourselves have been fed by the work and by the food. It is hard to imagine ourselves doing anything other than participating in the miracle of life by placing seeds in the ground.
Fifteen years can feel like a lifetime. And yet a lifetime is longer yet. And as we hit mid-life and our forties, we’ve realized that a good life can (and maybe should) have more than one Grand Adventure.
And so, here we are, at the end of our fifteenth season, saying thank you to our longtime farm community, finally stopping the endless cycles of CSA farming, and looking ahead to what awaits us next, both here on the farm and beyond. In a year marked by uncertainty, we’ve added more unknowns to our plate. If we are not feeding others physically, how will we be fed spiritually?
We don’t know yet, but we are stepping out in faith, grateful for all that has come before and trusting that the unclear path will take us somewhere equally as nourishing.
—Katie Kulla, Dayton
Food as Affection
Later that night, I place my hand over Robert’s navel to quiet his stomach. I don’t think he’s in pain, but he smiles at the gesture.
Robert takes medication before meals to ease his digestion. Blueberries, yogurt, shrimp—all are easy enough for him. Tomatoes are a no-go, a shame because I make a comforting Chinese tomato-egg dish that is quick and easy over rice.
This night, I’m stir-frying bok choy and tofu in the house he rents in Southern Oregon. The kitchen is questionable. An electric drill charges beside a drawer of over a dozen unused spices that is still somehow missing black pepper. We make do. I wait while he slowly finishes his meal. Even a couple years out of college, Robert isn’t much of a cook. He thanks me for this elusive skill.
My mother doesn’t know I’m here. It seems like a silly thing to say. I’m not in high school anymore. I don’t live under her roof. But part of me thinks back to that summer I ate two dinners almost every night—one dinner of mac ’n’ cheese with Abby in her house by the park, and another two hours later with steamed fish and leafy choy sum. I didn’t want to tell my mother I had already eaten. I didn’t want to reject her love.
In a house of strained English and Chinese and clashing cultural expectations, I never quite learned how to accept my mother’s criticisms as her form of affection. Instead, I accept the meals. I accept the bag of oranges she leaves in my car before I leave town and the extra fried rice she stores with a plastic fork for the drive. I use the years of cooking I’ve watched her do from the kitchen island and use it to fuel my four-hour drives to places she doesn’t know about with a person she hasn’t met.
After dinner, I ask Robert about the election. He tells me about the local city council races, and I tell him about my new job offer. He’s excited for me. With bellies full of generational cooking, I rest my head on his chest and bask in our warmth.
—Judy Jiang, Keizer
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