My cousin was serving the coffee. We’d just made it through lunch without any emotional mishaps: my eighty-year-old mother, my brisk, patrician sixty-year-old cousin, and forty-something me. The clafouti was delicious, the conversation only mildly treacherous. For some reason, we’d chanced upon the notion of queer theory and though it gave my cousin a fit of the giggles, she’d managed to regain her composure and ask some respectful questions.
But now it was payback time.
She’d found out I don’t know how to drive.
“Not even for emergencies?”she asked, as though driving was something I’d sworn off of but would heroically resume to save someone’s life,say, or, to achieve world peace.
I shook my head – no hero I.
“So,” said my cousin, honing in for the kill, “You don’t have a licence.”
“Never even got a learners?” she asked, wringing the hubris out of me as though I was one of her designer washcloths.
“Unh-unh,”I said, every bit the shamefaced queer academic.
I had threatened her sense of intellectual safety, but only for a moment. She’d gotten me back.
Having lived many years in big eastern cities with good public transit, I have that seemingly shameful handicap that so many New Yorkers, Montrealers and Torontonians have: I don’t drive (not even for emergencies). Neither does my best friend Penny. And so, a lustrous, pearly winter morning found us in the comical position of being driven through slippery Victoria streets by my octogenarian mother. There was no repose for me as I craned my neck, looking fearfully in all directions while my ma executed a smart U-turn. I curled up against the window, a large child, submitting to my mother’s unruly ways of the road. We had the whole day, but she had no time to spare. After all, she’s eighty, and what’s more, this was the day of the Ukrainian Catholic Christmas Bazaar.
While other fairs may feature everything garish, from glittery, home-sewn Christmas table runners to shortbread coloured every chemical shade of red or green, this one is all about plain, wholesome, labour-intensive food. No crocheted tree ornaments or ceramic, lit up Santas to get in the way of the pie, the the perogies, the garlic sausage and the borscht.
A Ukrainian Christmas bazaar is an artifact of history, but it’s no museum piece. Most of the iron-armed, big-bosomed, lipsticked ladies who run it have living memory of The Old Country, of war and migration. Their dreams are cluttered with details of Siberia, or of German labour camps, of trains and tattered shoes, and mad escapes through unfamiliar forests. If they didn’t experience such things, their parents or grandparents did, and trauma drifts through the generations like dust that won’t go away. Now these ladies live in gentle, British, Victoria, and food is their semaphore, their secret dialect, their code.
At the bazaar, I wandered among tables laden with cookies, cakes, and pies of every description. I saw the ladies laughing raucously behind tables of freshly-made sauerkraut. I overheard them passing on seriously juicy gossip to one another while selling wheatberries, the essential ingredient for kutya, signature dish of Christmas Eve. The exquisite food these women make, the dough they roll out on worn formica tables, the cabbage leaves they stuff with brightly seasoned rice, the desserts they create with expressive, blue-veined hands, is essential to my survival. I’m not in the driver’s seat here. This food tells me where I’m from in a stern no-nonsense voice. It lays sweet flavours on my tongue and welcomes me home.
Recipes handed from grandmothers, history in every bite: an old, frayed map you thought you’d lost.