Thursday, September 24, 2015

Food and knitting: a connection

When there's a lot going on it's hard to notice connections between things, but a big one occurred to me today and I wanted to tell you about it.

The first thing, one that's been staying with me a lot these days, is that I finally started listening to my audiobook of The Graves Are Walking, John Kelly's harrowing look at the great potato famines in Ireland that drove at least two of my ancestors to Canada.  (yeah, you can see why I put off picking that one up.  but it's totally riveting now that I'm listening.)

When I was having our internet installed at the condo, I chatted with the gentleman who did the work.  He had immigrated here himself a few years back, and noted that I am lucky my family has been  here a long time because it takes at least two generations for a family to be secure in a new place.  I was really struck by the truth of this: I have the comfortable life I have today, because my great great grandparents left their home to find a better food supply. I mean, Ireland is a fabulous place I know, but there's a good chance that if my particular people had stayed, I wouldn't be alive at all.

There is a park at the waterfront in Toronto that commemorates the Irish immigrants who survived their journey and lived long enough on arrival - many didn't - to put down roots.  The statues in it are emaciated and desperate, and MAN, listening to The Graves Are Walking, I can't not think of them.

But the weirdest thing is, I always seem to be listening to this book while eating.  Or doing laundry in the comfort of my own home, or looking for one of my several pairs of shoes, or engaging in some other activity that underscores the difference between my life now and their life then.

Mostly this makes me feel guilty because Hello, I'm a nice Irish Catholic girl, and we're raised that way.  But I also feel intrigued to think of how my ancestors would feel about this.  If somebody had told them they would go through what they did, but that their descendents would be where I am, would they feel it was worth it?  It's so hard to imagine any answer but No, from where I stand.  But maybe when you are ripping yourself away from all you have known with not a huge chance of outliving the trip, the answer would have to be Yes.

The other thing I noticed is that ever since I had perogies at the Ex a few weeks ago, I have been longing for more.  There's a good shop for blintzes and knishes and perogies at the market and today I finally went over there to buy some, because it was one of those moments when nothing but comfort food will do.  When I was a student, I lived for a year on Roncesvalles which is the main street for a huge Polish community here in Toronto, and that's where I had my first plate of perogies - as well as the many I ate afterward.  I was so shy then it must have been nearly impossible for me to ask the motherly women behind the counter how to heat and eat this unfamiliar food - probably my roommate took care of that.  She and I had next to no money, between rent and transit and books and laundromats, and perogies became a huge cheap staple of our diet.

I was thinking of those humble but amazing meals as I put my fresh perogies into boiling water to cook for one minute, and as I took them out, I realized they have a potato filling.  So, like my ancestors, I relied on potatoes when I was most in need.

How did I not figure this out before?

The link between these two things ties into something else I've been thinking about as I learn how to use the market - the way that food is love, the way that having food prepared for you and served to you feels like love.  I think it's a big part of why restaurants are so popular, why it feels good to have a place you can go to again and again.  It's not just about the time you didn't have to make your own food.  It's about the other diners around you, and the people who (hopefully) know what they're doing in the kitchen and are feeding you.  It's why, I think, I'm drawn to coffee house decor for our house.  I want to enhance the feeling that somebody is taking care of me, just as I take care of other people.

When I bought the perogies, I bought a blintz and a knish to try as well.  And it occurred to me as I crossed the street to come home that these are all classic humble comfort foods, things that people from a culture that is not mine would come home to from the time when they were very young.  And here I am, reaching out to see if that culture can adopt me - if it can be my comfort food too - just as I did with an empanada I bought on the weekend.  (not so much on the empanada, I think, but I will definitely try again with it.)

Okay, so none of this is knitting, obviously.  It's all food and family.

But here's where it all led me.  Knitting, like food, is full of regional differences.  I mean, every culture in a cooler climate has some form of sock or hand protection in it.  And an awful lot of cultures, regardless of climate, put fillings into pastry to carry away with them to where they work.  But within those forms there is sooo much variation.  Think Aran stitches versus Fair Isle colour, or Estonian lace, or all the other specialty work we admire so much.

This is the sample I knit for Kathleen Taylor's pattern book Fearless Fair Isle - highly recommended!

And none of it is new, any more than perogies or potates are new.   They come to us from our ancestors, and here we are, still knitting them.

It feels like security, don't you think?  I do.  And now if you'll excuse me, I think this is a good time for tea and that apple blintz I picked up today.

Henri-Victor Regnault, photographer (French, 1810 - 1878)
Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard, printer (French, 1802 - 1872) - See more at:


Yvette said...

Thank you for a wonderfully thoughtful post.

Mary Keenan said...

I'm glad you find it so, Yvette! It was helpful to me to write these ideas down :^)