Survival Food by Thomas Pecore Weso
A review by Ben Furnish
Writers and readers of mysteries, and not just culinary mysteries, often enjoy using food as an element to move the plot forward in some way. Thomas Pecore Weso’s new book Survival Food: North Woods Stories from a Menominee Cook, gives brilliant insights into food, revealing motivations of character, powerfully evoking a sense of geographical and cultural place, and capturing the spirit of the times it depicts. Some readers may experience nostalgia on hearing about certain foods mentioned (those wax-paper-wrapped tamales in cans or jars, anyone?), while others might experience new historical understanding of bygone days.
The word survival
in the book’s title takes on several meanings—cultural, family, and individual
survival. Weso calls this book “a backward food memoir…the stories appear
first, with the characters, and then the food memories and recipes.” This
memoir’s 21 stories document the adventures of Weso and his family through the
changes that swept the Menominee Indian Reservation and the United States
overall in the last several decades. Each story’s strong narrative captures a
different scene of Weso’s coming of age, skillfully blending moments of danger
(a snapping turtle that bites and won’t let go; a car sinking into the spring
mud miles from anywhere), humor (skinny-dipping boys find they are not alone),
and wonder (the ghosts that inhabit his grandfather’s house, which was once a
As Weso writes, “I cannot separate foods from the moments in my life when
I first tasted them. Each meal triggers memories. Some create new memories.” But in Weso’s hands, these memories about food
and life create a vivid world for the reader—that of the Menominee and of rural
Wisconsin and the changes that unfold in Weso’s youth and adulthood. Even
though this book continues to describe some traditional Menominee dishes (bear
stew, roast porcupine), for me some of Weso’s most evocative subjects appear
when he describes such everyday items as boxed potatoes or Chef Boyardee
SpaghettiOs, as these foods begin to take precedence over such traditional
Menominee dishes as turtle, squirrel, and fry bread. For Weso, these common
foods create memories also. Yet Weso shows us how all his food subjects are survival
food in one form or another.
writes powerfully and unsentimentally about his family. His relationship with
his mother was sometimes strained—at one point as adults, they went thirteen
years without seeing each other. In his childhood, she spent long days
commuting to finish her education. Yet by remembering the choices she made in foods
she prepared and ate, we readers come to understand her much more: “It was the
wrapper’s tagline, ‘Building strong bodies 8 ways,’ that hooked my mother, who
considered it the healthy alternative. For her, buying Wonder Bread at the
supermarket was visual proof to the outside, White world that she loved her
family, despite her absences.” Tom’s mother had gone away to Indian boarding
school in her own youth, an experience that changed her tastes and preferences.
Back on the reservation, she came to equate the new, mass-produced commercial
foods with sophistication. She eventually decided to pursue an advanced degree
and a career, two things that limit her time and energy to cook and incline her
further to choosing such as Wonder bread.
traditional Menominee recipes and foods described in the book emerge directly
from the Menominee/Wisconsin landscape going back countless generations. In the
20th century, the federal government started the commodities program
(“commots” as the Menominee call them). As with many tribes, the Menominee made
fry bread out of flour they were provided through the federal commodities
program. Fry bread became a recent traditional food, even though it was derived
from a program the government used to try to displace traditional tribal foods.
Yet his mother usually refused to make it, although other relatives did.
fondly recalls some of the German and Swedish food traditions of Wisconsin that
he also grew up with, including exquisite sausages and cheeses. Part of
survival means taking advantage of the opportunities in front of you. Just as
the traditional Menominee foods yield space to the new mass-produced commercial
foods, so too do the old ethnic European cuisines.
of these stories are not outwardly mysteries, they do--like a fun culinary
mystery—come complete with vivid recipes at the end of each story. They include
traditional, contemporary, and syncretistic delights, the last including such delights
as grasshopper tacos (yes, with actual grasshoppers) and macaroni and cheese
with tuna and milkweed buds.
passed away just before the publication of this book, so we are all the more
fortunate that his voice lives on in it and in his previous Menominee food
memoir, Good Seeds. Weso can remind each of us how food can play a part
in how we tell our own stories.
Furnish is a teacher and editor in Lawrence, Kansas.