I wrote this with the following theme in mind: pride and shame in relation to one’s heritage.
My Grandma on my dad’s side used to make a dish called Boiled Dinner, an East Coast standard when it comes to Sunday supper. It’s got simple ingredients: smoked pork shoulder, potatoes, carrots and one or two other vegetables; simple tools: a wooden cutting board, knife, and a 2-gallon pot; and simple prep: chop up the ingredients and throw them in the pot with enough water for four or five hours of boiling. Its unappetizing name does it far from any justice; my mouth waters as I reminisce.
I loved Sunday dinner at grandma’s. I can picture her moving about the steamy kitchen in her faded florally blue and yellow housedress, its hem revealing wrinkly knees still dirty from working out in the garden, as she excitedly relays tantalizing bits of gossip that have wound up her over the past week.
“Sit down now, Tracey. I’ll bring ya yer dinner.”
I loved my grandma.
From what I can gather, my grandmother was mostly Irish and maybe a little Scottish although her maiden name, Langille (also my last name), is French. In Pictou County, Nova Scotia, where my grandma raised her six children, our surname is pronounced “Lanjul” almost as if it were one syllable. I’ve heard other variations such as Lôngilly, Lônjill, but my favourite for a time was Lan’jill. Langilles were so ubiquitous in Nova Scotia that classes evolved. The poverty-stricken Langilles (Lanjuls) were given the nickname: Skints. My dad used to call me Tracey Skint, a name I adored until I discovered its meaning. As it turns out though, I am not a Skint or a Langille; I am a MacKenzie.
In Massachusetts, while working as a camp cook, a job my grandma took to support her family because the man she’d married had turned into a nasty alcoholic, she met and fell in love with a man named MacKenzie. A man of means, he’d asked her to stay, but his refusal to care for her two daughters who were waiting at home left her little choice. She returned to her family with a little baby that would one day be my dad.
My background doesn’t stop at Scottish, Irish and French either, we’ve got my mother’s side to consider and she’s just as mixed up as me with English, Australian (via England) and Basque. You can see how that oft-asked question, “So, what’s your background?” can feel like a punch in the face, particularly when it comes from someone with a strong cultural heritage, the kind that goes back many generations. Regardless, I’ve gotten over the insecurities I used to cart around about my ‘culture’. By travelling and experiencing other cultures, I’ve grown to appreciate my varied background; I’d even go as far as saying I’m proud of my motley heritage, a heritage that’s a bit like a boiled dinner: a simple mix of ingredients left to simmer until it becomes an unpretentious, well-balanced dish.
I could say more on the subject, but I’m finished writing about it, for now anyway. I will say that this exercise has me thinking about actually cooking Boiled Dinner, something I’ve never done. In fact, I can’t recall the last time I ate it, probably something like 3 decades ago. I wonder if it would stir up some memories of my grandma cause that would be cool.
One more thing:
If I’ve also managed to get you thinking about cooking Boiled Dinner, I urge you to choose your pork directly from the farmer – my heart would break a little to know any pigs were harmed as a result my story.