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  • Writer's picturejeffmcm

We Get These Boxes (2010)

The 2018 occupant of the White House has suggested doing away with SNAP, the program that gives cash to poor families to purchase the food they need and want. He would replace that with handing out "non-perishable" food (canned/frozen/not fresh) and no doubt surplus food. Let's call it CRAP. So I offer the piece below, written several years ago for a performance examining food

From Changing Courses: the Real Dinner Theatre (2010) created collaboratively by Jeff McMahon, Jacob Pinholster, Lance Gharavi, and Jennifer Setlow, on the campus of ASU in April 2010.  Excerpt below written by Jeff McMahon, based partially on an interview with one of the performers from the production, Wilana Ortega (White Coyote).

CHARACTERS: W: young Cocopah woman M: middle aged anglo male

SETTING: Two chairs, with the performers sitting on them, on opposite sides of a long table.

W: We get these boxes, the surplus commodities; that’s something we’ve always gotten. Lots of canned pork and beans and canned veggies. And cheese and white flour and lard. Mostly that.

M: We get these boxes! All this food from the CSA. Community Supported Agriculture. Which I want to support. Local farms. You sign up for a share, or a half a share, and they deliver it. Or you pick it up. It’s so great. So healthy.

W: The boxes have all the ingredients to make fry bread. Which isn’t really native. It’s not native to me.

M: And it’s native. Local.

W: A gourmet meal for me? That would be beans, tepary beans, blackeyed peas, pinto beans, tortillas. There was this one day, my dad came home with these big bags. “Guess what I’ve got?” He was all excited. Tepary beans. We sat under flood lights and it took all day to get two bags of beans from these bushels of bean plants. We had to separate the beans from the stems. But it was like Christmas, Thanksgiving. For us.

M: There was this one box. I couldn’t recognize a single vegetable in it. Probably all very healthy and good for you and all that. Those winter vegetables. I grew up in California. What to do with rutabagas? Parsnips, turnips? Half of it I didn’t touch. It’s challenging. But I like challenges. And I can go to the Safeway if I panic.

W: There was this cartoon. These kids they were really poor and they would dream and there was all this food that they were just drooling over. Food growing out of trees, actual cupcakes on trees, clothes growing out of the ground. An amazing world. It was this really good dream. Then they woke up. But the community, the baker, the chef, came into their shack and brought food to them. It was a great cartoon! My sister found it recently and she put it on my Facebook page!

Excerpt from DREAMLAND (1936) Somewhere in Dreamland

I had no idea how old that cartoon was. 1936. But it was pretty true for us in 1995. We got the video from the Dollar Store.

M: I kept thinking of that Lucy episode. Where she decides to grow a garden and then can’t figure out what to do with it. Am I making this episode up? Anyway, she cooks this meal that is barely edible and Ricky and the neighbors try to be polite but then they “accidentally” run the lawn mower over it. (pause) But it is a challenge. We got so used to a certain kind of food, available all the time, everywhere.

W: We used to grow these beans, tepary beans. My tribe. The Allotment Act took the tribe’s land away. We were farmers, fishermen. It’s natural to us. We were fisherman along the Colorado. But they moved us, a long time ago, farther and farther from the river. Our river. The Allotment Act. They got a lot. We lost a lot. (pause) And then my grandad’s own land, his farmland, got levied over. My granddad, the man who held on to the traditions, the farmer, my hero, lost his land. Then we started getting the boxes.

M: The last box had dried beans. Tepary beans. I had never heard of them. OK, I go to Google. Actually Wickipedia. I know, I know… So it says: “Tepary bean” native to the southwestern United States and Mexico and has been grown there by the native peoples since pre-Columbian times. It is more drought-resistant than the common bean. “Phaseolus vulgaris,” isn’t that funny? It’s grown in desert and semi-desert conditions from Arizona through Mexico to Costa Rica. The crop will grow where annual rainfall is less than 16 inches. That’s definitely us! The name tepary may derive from the Tohono O'odham phrase t'pawi or "It's a bean". Recent studies from the United States and Mexico suggest that lectin (which has something to do with sugar) toxins and other compounds from tepary beans may be useful as chemotherapy for treating cancer. So that’s good. It fights cancer!

W: My parents helped him and worked on farms outside the rez. The other workers were mostly Mexicans. And us. We knew how to farm, but we didn’t have any farmland. Not anymore. My granddad. He got diabetes, then cancer. He was an alcoholic. It’s this sadness that we have. Every day. Depression I guess you call it. We don’t really talk much about it. We’ve grown to laugh about our failures.

M: It’s funny. Finding recipes for turnips. A box full of turnips. My grandparents were from the Midwest, from Germany and Ireland before that. Turnips were peasant food. So here we are with our big modern house in a gated community in Scottsdale cooking peasant food. Sometimes I just want to drive to the Safeway and buy broccoli. In February.

W: Diabetes is huge on our rez. I lost a lot of family members with it; leg amputations and infections and more serious infections in their system. I’m always aware of it. I've always thought my whole life I’ve always thought that getting diabetes is something natural to me. Everybody in my family has it. I'm eventually going to have it, so, yeah, that's my view on it. When my mom got diabetes she didn’t know how to control her levels. Early in the morning she wouldn’t eat and would take her pills. Her sugar would get low and she would have attacks. That was really terrifying to me as a 17 year-old. It came down to health. Let’s stay alive and cook what we know; the basics, beans and rice and squash. So my sister… she’s struggled with obesity all her life. But I don’t talk to her about it. She put it upon herself to take action. She just did it. That’s how we do things. And so we say “Oh, you’re not eating this anymore,” and “I’ll make this dish for you” to accommodate this new diet. That’s how we deal with a lot of things. It may not be a good way of communicating, but it’s our way of doing that.

M: We’ve talked a lot about this. It was a decision we made together. I talked to my therapist. ‘Cause our lifestyle was bothering me. We have been trying to eat healthily, Locally. Localvore and organic if possible. And keep the money circulating here. In Phoenix. Who wants to give it to some giant farm in California or god forbid some agro-giant in the Midwest who doesn’t even go into his own fields because they’re so filled with chemicals? Why would I want to do that. We have to be conscious of our decisions. And how they impact us. And the land.

W: My tribe, the Cocopah, we were the messengers. We lived between the other tribes and ran between them, the communicators. Now my mom travels to other tribes, they are larger than us so they get more, to get the surplus food. A lot of us are on food stamps and they changed the rules so that if you are on food stamps you don’t get the commodities. So she goes to neighboring tribes. It’s usually beans, day old bread. Some days she is really excited because there is some lettuce. And I’m like “Mom, that’s so cool.”

M: If I have to plan a bit more to get something local, it’s worth it. It’s a trade-off, I guess. Sometimes a neighbor gets a CSA box and it’s too much, or they are going out of town, so we do a share or something. A lot of my neighbors, though, don’t really cook.

W: There are good stores 8 miles away, but a lot of the community doesn’t have cars. There’s a lot of holes in our tribe. Their needs don’t get met. They have to plan any kind of trip. Like my aunt. She’s extremely obese and can’t stand up. Her daughter takes care of her but she’s 13 and can’t drive. So it’s hard to get food. It’s easier to get the boxes.

M: And I don’t have to drive. So we help the environment. It feels like Meals on Wheels. But it’s from the farmers and it helps them. And it’s making me a more adventurous cook. I feel like I’m connected to the farmers in my own little way. Like they are part of my circle somehow. It’s a kind of activism, I think.

W: So now I’m the activist. I grew watermelon outside our house when I was 8. I’m gonna do something about this. Now the tribe is organizing. They rallied up and got some funding to buy some farmland behind our cultural center. And to buy seeds, fertilizer. The tribe employees have to take time to work in the garden; it’s a requirement. I call my mom now and she says “I just came from the garden. I was pulling up weeds!” So I ask her what they are growing and she says beans, squash, peppers. And we’re gonna start broccoli. My community’s finally understanding that we have money, we’re taking action, we’re buying land back.

M: We have to do this. It’s going back to some basics. We’ve gotten so far away from, I don’t know, our grandparents. Even our parents. In the Great Depression, both my parents’ families kept chickens in the backyard. During the war. My mother used to say “stop running around like a chicken with your head cut off!” Where did she get that? She knew!

W: We know we have to do this. I think it’s kind of always been there. My hope is in that, this need to preserve, to take our land back. It’s hard being there in such a confined little space. It’s hard knowing outside of this little steppe it’s not yours. There’s always been this urgency to keep what is ours and what our culture is and if that is farming or fishing we need to go back to that or we’ll lose our mind.

M: It’s more expensive. But it’s worth it. I feel like we are giving the money back to the community. To people who otherwise would have to go out of business. It’s clean money, if there is such a thing.

W: The money comes from the Casino, from the golf resort. That’s why I’m here. I’m the only one from my tribe at ASU. When I first came to ASU, I ran out of money! I explored. I didn’t know what this city was about. It was so weird to be so close to a theatre, restaurants walking distance away. I’m used to planning a trip that will be your one trip of the day, like going into Yuma which was only 15 minutes away but make sure you get everything you need because you’re not going back to Yuma today! Here, everything was so close by. I went crazy. I ate what I wanted. I saw movies, I bought clothes. That lasted less than a semester. But it was making me sick. Fast food got you sick. I felt tired all the time. I went back to what I knew, which was cheap; beans, rice, corn. I felt better. Now I go back to the rez and I cook. My sisters call me for recipes. Red rice with sweet peas. Squash and creamed corn. We grind our own corn with a mortar. Make our own tortillas.

M: I should start a garden of my own. But we’re so busy. And this is so much easier, really.

W: I would love a good amount of land for gardening and maybe a few chickens. I would want to have my own little farm for me, my family, my own little tribe. I think that’s the way to do it, by example. That’s how I know how to do things. Maybe eventually I’ll get there.

M: Chickens with their heads cut off! Maybe we’ve found our heads. This is helping us all get, I don’t know, somewhere. More “here.” There. These little boxes.

W: I don’t want us to get anymore boxes. I want to do it ourselves. And we are.

2010/2011 Jeff McMahon

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