Monday, November 2, 2015

Pickled Mushrooms & Rocket Fuel: Wren Awry on cooking & writing

Pickled Mushrooms & Rocket Fuel: Notes on food in (a couple) communities of dissent


First it was “kitchen culture,” then it was “dissident kitchens.” This was in Russia, after Stalin died and Khrushchev allowed families to have their own apartments. Public spaces—cafes, bars, streets—were all still carefully monitored by the KGB and, therefore, still silenced places. But family kitchens, tucked away behind closed doors, afforded social privacy and allowed incendiary discourse, underground publishing, and underground music to flourish. 

"I wrote this cycle of songs called Moscow Kitchens," says composer Yuliy Kim in the Kitchen Sisters' radio piece Hidden Kitchens: How Soviet Kitchens Became Hotbeds of Dissent and Culture, "telling the story of a group in the 50s and 60s that are called dissidents. How they begin to get together, how it led to protest, how they were detained, forced to leave the country. This is how this subversive thought grew and expanded in the Soviet Union, beginning with free discussions in kitchens."

Of course, this kitchen culture wasn't only about smuggled copies of Dr. Zhivago, music recorded on salvaged x-ray tape, and resistance to an authoritarian regime. It was also about food. "When you came to the kitchen, you put on the table some vodka and something from your balcony — not refrigerator, but balcony, like pickled mushrooms," Alexander Genis says in the Kitchen Sisters' piece, "Something pickled. Sour is the taste of Russia."


This was the scent of mornings: Coffee brewing in a ten-gallon pot, steaming to the treetops. Camp smoke from a just lit fire. Canola oil crackling, ready to fry chopped potatoes or whisked eggs. This was the taste: Coffee so strong that college kids spit it out when they visited us (we called it rocket fuel). Pall Mall cigarettes. Eggs & potatoes drenched in hot sauce. And it felt like this: Too much coffee and shaking by noon, shaking as I tried to write press releases or make outreach phone calls or drive up a holler to record a blackwater spill.

It was 2009, I was twenty and living in a community of anti-mountaintop removal organizers in West Virginia. We were mostly from outside the region and we formed a motley and, at times, chaotic crew: career activists, college dropouts, liberals, socialists, anarchists, teenagers, retirees. Some of us continue to live and work in Appalachia, many—myself included—left after a year or two.

That year in West Virginia was a coming-of-age of sorts. My memories of it are crisp and clear and dripping with nostalgia. They're also, as so many coming-of-age memories are, sort of embarrassing. I wasn't a responsible, fully-formed adult, or even the best version of my own, angsty, just-past-teenage self. I was too young, always saying the wrong thing, and riddled with an anxiety disorder aggravated by the intensity of my life in a direct action campaign. But I found sanctuary—as always—in the kitchen.

Our kitchen moved around depending on what time of year it was and who was cooking. Sometimes it was inside one of the community’s four houses, and for a while our meals were prepared on a retrofitted school bus. By the time that spring came, it was an intricate set up of tarps and turkey burners in the backyard. It was the tarped kitchen that I really started to cook in, preparing breakfast on some mornings, learning quickly to always err on the side of making coffee that was too strong rather than too weak. I would find my way in there, too, on certain afternoons, and help our cantankerous and hardworking cook make salad or ribbon-slice cabbage for slaw. Putting out trays of food for hungry comrades always gave me a sense of satisfaction that writing a press release or sitting in an organizing meeting never could—a meal had a beginning and an end, it was manageable to produce, and it nourished people.


In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit draws comparisons between the distinct acts of cooking and of writing. "Perhaps it's that cooking operates in the realm of biology, of things rising and falling away, sustaining bodies, while writing tries to shore up something against time," she writes. ". . . Time itself is our tragedy and most of us are fighting some kind of war against it." Solnit's ideas about writing and time also apply, I think, to political and ecological resistance. 

Consider dissidents living under an authoritarian Soviet regime, trying to organize and carry out protest before they were arrested or deported. Consider, too, the attempt to halt the destruction of the Appalachian Mountains and the poisoning of communities below strip mines. It’s a struggle against rapidly moving rock trucks, drill rigs and draglines that tear apart the earth; and against corrupt permitting practices that approve strip mines with little regard for the environmental and social havoc they will wreck. 

Dissent is also mostly informed guesswork. While some strategies have been more effective at, say, stopping strip mining than others, you never really know what, if any, impacts this tree sit or that legislative campaign will have on blocking certain mining permits. A campaign can stretch out over years, nearly-met goals waylaid and postponed unexpectedly. Cooking is different. "The tasks are simple, messy, fragrant and brief," Solnit writes, "and success and failure are easy to determine." Chopping, frying, and mixing offer reprieves from goals that seem, at best, uncertain, and at worst, impossible. It is, as Solnit says, "immediate and unreproducible and then it's complete and eaten and over."

Of course, cooking and resistance have things in common, too—a point impressed upon me when I sent an earlier draft of this essay off to a friend for feedback. “Neither are exact sciences,” my friend wrote back, “You hear a recipe worked for someone else and bring to it the skills and resources you have. You deviate from it, find better ways to do things. Both [cooking and organizing] entail finding ways to work with chaos, basically.” 


To make and share food in many of the communities of dissent I have heard of and known is to cleave something solid and temporary and delicious out of the entropy of resistance. The sour taste of a pickled mushroom while thumbing through a typewritten and smuggled manuscript. Rocket fuel caffeinating another day of struggle somewhere in the Appalachian hills. Onions and potatoes on a cutting board, chopped just right, ready to be fried and served and turned into the calories needed for a day of bold, uncertain work. 

Wren Awry is a writer based in Tucson, AZ. They’re a contributor to and founding editor of Tiny Donkey, a journal of online, fairy tale non-fiction affiliated with Fairy Tale Review. Their essays & poems have been published in Rust + Moth, Anarcho-Geek Review, Tiny Donkey and Loom Art Zine. Their essay “Baba Yaga Burns Paris to the Ground” was published as a zine by Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness in September 2015.

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