In Vancouver, I experienced a perfect trifecta of place, memory and meal.
To understand how amazing this was for me you need some background. It was 1968. The world was in upheaval: an unpopular war raging in Vietnam, protests sweeping over college campuses, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Tet Offensive, White Album, My Lai, Zodiac Killer, Apollo 7, Hot Wheels, Sergeant Pepper, Apollo 8, Led Zeppelin live, Yale admits women. Nixon is elected.
I know about these things now, from books and music and movies and the like. But at the time I was only five and living on the side of a mountain in Sitka with my parents and younger sister. (The two years we spent in Alaska has become so deeply ingrained in our family memory that my brother, who was born several years after we returned to the Midwest, even remembers living there.) Life was quiet; there was no internet, no cell phones. In Sitka at that time there wasn’t much television or radio, either – the world might have been going crazy, but it was happening outside of my consciousness. I was living the idyllic life of a kindergartner: sliding down glaciers, picking blueberries, and eating bannocks. Mom made lots of bannocks.
Bannocks are a type of Native American fry bread. I must have loved them because I still remember the aroma and flavor of the oat-y sort of biscuit as clearly as I do my blue-stained fingers in the berry patch and running from imaginary bears. For a few years after we moved back to the Midwest my sister or I would randomly ask Mom if she would make them again, but she no longer knew the recipe, and it was a dish that was new to her in Alaska. Now a Google search for “bannock recipe” turns up over 20, 000 results along with the cultural history of the dish – turns out bannocks were adapted by the Native American tribes of the northwest in the 18th century from Scottish fur traders and are a staple among the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest. But information was harder to come by in 1970, and bannocks fell off our radar.
Until Vancouver. The last night of my visit, that spring of 2005, I was invited to join a group that included several Native American poets for dinner at Vancouver’s Liliget Feast House, a Native American restaurant. The restaurant was gorgeous, soothing, intimate: a river of shiny black rocks, a path of richly stained wood, and platform seating floating above that gave the illusion of sitting on the ground. Music wafted through hidden speakers; the poets told us the selection was basically a Native American top 40 – one song I liked in particular was a morning song performed by Rita Coolidge’s Walela.
We all chatted for a bit over pots of berry tea and heard about the evening’s special – poached salmon served with pickled red cabbage, steamed broccoli, and carrots – then started to browse the menu. And right there in the first column – bannocks! Heavy, dense, and just a little sweet – these were our legendary bannocks from 1968. I don’t think I did a very good job explaining to the group exactly why I was so thrilled, but these were writers and they understood my depth of feeling. I excused myself to use the restroom then ducked outside to immediately call my parents and enthuse with them. On that rainy night in Vancouver, in an echo of Sitka, a glimmer of my memory came to life, and it was perfect.
Liliget is out of business in Vancouver now, but I’ve discovered that the owners, a mother-daughter team, wrote a cookbook called Where People Feast: An Indigenous People’s Cookbook. I think I’ll buy it and try my hand at the bannocks; I’ll let you know how they turn out.