Extended family gatherings were infrequent when I was young. But when my cousins, my brother, and I did see each other, a game of touch football was in order. Our college-going uncle served as quarterback for both teams, and most plays involved a pass towards the end zone. If we were playing behind my great-grandparents’ home, that end zone represented far more than a 6-point score. It signified the fears of a nation during the Cold War, embodied in a family fallout shelter.
The few times we braved the rickety stairs in, we were engulfed in the musty smell of old mattresses and cobwebs. The walls were lined with shelves, each of them filled with faded canned foods. It all looked so mysterious and forbidden, and thankfully became an unnecessary relic.
Resonating through that dark family foxhole was the fact that they canned all those foods themselves, in good old heritage-rich Mason jars. Home-grown sustenance, preserved for the family to nourish them through fear.
Portions of this preservation ethic continued into my teen years, as my mom canned food from a variety of small family plots. Yet the majority of the food in our home was prepared and packaged under corporate aegis. We practiced backyard husbandry in the very suburb that supplanted my father’s boyhood rural home. For a while, an ancient Ford tractor stood in our garage, as my father meticulously restored it, hoping for a field to plow. These contrasts created in me nostalgia for things that never existed all in one place, fragments of heritage, disconnected parts of a massive body of knowledge.
Cultural heritage is a rich but delicate thing, with family heritage being even more so. It contains cultural components like music, folklore, biases, and philosophy. It contains physical elements, ancestral hand-me-downs like grandfather’s fiddle, photo albums, furniture, and old mixers. It extends tradition across generations.
Heritage’s delicacy lies in the fact that our memories are such temporary holding spaces. My personal memories cannot exceed my lifetime—so I cannot remember the legacy directly. I must depend upon family folklore—which can be shattered through local or worldwide disturbances, such as a Great Depression or a Cold War. Sometimes it just fades from neglect.
Given the tumultuous nature of the past century, I was born into a ruin: Artifacts existed, but they were broken or separated from their normal use. Traditional ways had succumbed to emergency measures. In the relief of waning emergencies, convenience had a strong appeal. The heritage went on hiatus.
In a sense, the home-grown and family-preserved sustenance was held captive by the fallout shelter. I had to decide which was of permanent value and which was pervasive but temporary fear.
The fear relates to many elements: compromised security, lost independence, increase in hunger, forgotten family, and a state of want.
Permanence relates to these same elements, at a level significantly higher yet nonetheless grounding: the sanctity of life, compassion, fairness, progress, and even creative deviance from the norm.
The common message is to listen to the fear: Build the bunker, stock it, and lock it.
But the less common message holds more power: The bunker is not part of your heritage. The heritage is in those jars. Everyone in the bunker gets to eat. Everyone comes out alive.
At some point in my own never-ending enlightenment, I realized that I would have to recreate who I was as an eater. My consumption had to keep pace with me as I became a more ethically-focused person. The traditions I might have been given in an uninterrupted stream across two centuries were sadly in disrepair. This meant that I had to recreate my heritage also. In my favor, I could build upon timeless values drawn from my family’s lived-in experiences. The remnants that I inherited—compassion, a sense of fairness, and self-reliance—were now mine to interpret in the New World. I had the honor and duty to craft them into a legacy for moving forward.
Heritage is what we are immersed in. It’s an ambient life-giving support system that stabilizes us as we progress. But it is not only ours: it belongs to those coming after us. By building wisely, with foresight and an expansive vision, we are bequeathing a better world for those yet to live.
We’ll have more to discuss at the New York City Vegetarian Food Festival, March 2, 2014. See you there.