Happy St. Patrick’s Day! In keeping with my last post about soda bread, here’s a poem that seemed fitting to share on such a holiday as this. This poem began quite randomly. A box of barley went missing in the apartment. Poof. Gone. I searched everywhere to no avail. As no one had eaten it and it’s not like someone would break in just to steal half a box of barley, I jokingly blamed the trolls. I’m a mythology major, I do that.
When I wanted to write a poem a few weeks later, my boyfriend suggested this title and I ran with it. The poem was intended to be a humorous one about losing things, but somehow it turned into a commentary on immigration and identity in America (and for Americans abroad). It’s not specific to Irish Americans (my ancestors came from pretty much every place they make pale people). I hope that its themes are universal enough to resonate with Italian Americans and Russian Americans and Armenian Americans and Guatemalan Americans and Persian Americans and Korean Americans and Finnish Americans and South African Americans and Sri Lankan Americans and every other flavor of American and combination therein.
For most of the food items mentioned, I just asked the people in my life what their grandmothers made. What did your grandmother make? Your great-grandmother? Or any other far-flung relatives, male or female? I’d love to hear about your family’s “Old World” recipes. Do you still make them? Do they live on in a gluten-free/vegan/paleo/store-bought/Americanized incarnation or as a special holiday dish?
The Troll that Shakes the Barley
by Shannon Barnsley
They’ve shaken me down again,
those no good trolls,
and taken the barley.
A whole box of it-
half full last I checked-
up and vanished from the shelves.
And because I’m part Scandinavian,
I blame the trolls
(or maybe the elves).
And because I’m part Irish,
I take the theft of my barley very seriously.
(All the lamb stew that could have been.
A can of Progresso instead now.)
And because I’m American,
I think I’m Irish and Scandinavian.
They say I’m not.
I’m probably not.
That up and vanished too one day,
somewhere along the line,
though no one can quite say where.
When did exiles become ex-isles?
When did refugees become citizens,
refused their heritage,
when the trip home that never happened
becomes their grandchildren’s trip abroad?
A diaspora disappeared
as countryless men made a new world their own
and somehow became homeless in new houses.
Americans with no homeland to claim,
no longer anyone’s countrymen, deshi, paisano.
Alone in a land of immigrants
When does it stop counting?
When the last trunk that came over
is sold in a yard sale?
When family heirlooms vanish from the shelves,
pieces of back home that’s only a home far back
and a story Ancestry.com can’t quite piece together?
An Old Country left in the back of our minds
like a box of barley in the back of the pantry-
its expiration date long expired,
found too late to do anything but lament its absence-
an absence we didn’t know to feel before it was found,
lost when no one was looking.
Is it when grandmother’s recipes vanish?
When Oma’s cookbook and Nona’s specialty
and Dadi’s secret ingredient and Abuela’s tricks
are lost, unused until we want them back,
always a little too late to reclaim,
when Amma’s secrets are folded nice and neat in a box
just like her-
both now forgotten til they turn to dust-
and Yaya’s handwriting needs a Rosetta Stone to decipher?
Somewhere along the line they were lost
as the flavours of home faded into exotic aromas,
foreign to newly minted noses used to dollar menus
and All-American palates of grandchildren
huddled masses yearning to breath free
in kitchens that don’t reek of cabbage or curry.
Sarma and boxty, rømmegrøt and cholent, kishkes and aloo gobi
up and vanished from the shelves
until the cabinets were bare of lutefisk,
no miso or avgolemono to be seen.
The pantry full of boxed macaroni and canned vegetables,
cookies in uniform boxes with no spoon to lick,
just a great-aunt’s recipe licked.
Wonderbread that never wondered why
we don’t make soda bread or lussekatter or pane dulce anymore.
And maybe an old tub of Fluff
with Grandmama’s recipe stuck to the bottom-
looping curves too faint to read-
and all we’re left with is Fluff.
Our pantries raided by trolls,
recipes faded into Elvish scrawl-
elegant but unreadable-
knowledge quietly moldering away in the back of the shelves-
a real shakedown.
The unharvested fruits of our family trees
past not passed.
Just the barley was left,
seeds of an Old World
that bloomed where they were planted.
A whole history of it.
Half-Irish last I checked,
with a hankering for stew
and a habit of blaming trolls.