The anxiety of making Bannock

By Richard Wagamese
News From Indian Country

In the Ojibway world there’s two ways of doing things. One is the slow methodical Ojibway method and the other is the slow non-methodical Ojibway method. Either way works, it all boils down to the amount of anxiety you want to build into the process.

I learned this elemental science soon after I reconnected with my Native family in 1978. I was gone for over twenty years. I had disappeared into the vortex of the foster care/adoption system and when I emerged I was citified, broken down some by the subtle racism of Canada and unprepared for life as an Ojibway man of twenty-four. But Ojibway science reached out to save me.

Oh, there are people about who will say that our ways are not scientific, that they never have been. There are those who will say that if we had any sort of technological/innovative sense we’d have been further along the developmental trail at the time of contact. These are the same people, or their descendents anyway, that needed to turn to us for survival sake when the North American winter descended. Science and innovation, apparently owns a picky definition.

But the science of the earth is a different creature than the science of numbers and theorems. It’s a discipline of co-existence. It’s the knowledge and acceptance of the mystery that surrounds us – and the awareness that allowing it to remain a mystery, and honoring it and celebrating it rather than trying to unravel it is a testament to the humility it fosters in us and the keen sense of the spiritual it engenders.

See, my mother is the best bannock baker going. When her bread comes out of the oven every Indian in the bush comes running. It rises elegantly and the texture of it is spongy and soft and tastes golden like the color of the crust. With jam or a thick smear of lard even and washed down with strong black tea, there’s nothing like it in the world.

She gave me some on my first visit home and I fell in love with it. To me it tasted of reconnection, all warm and welcoming and oddly familiar. It still does, actually. Anyway, I wanted to learn to bake it just like she did. She laughed when I told her. To my mother’s thinking, the thinking of a bush raised woman, men didn’t bake but I was insistent and she undertook to teach me.

I’d been raised with the western science that called for precise measurements and a decisive experimental process and I still clung to the security of numbers. But what my mother taught me that day had nothing to do with grams and ounces, teaspoons or cups.

Instead she told me to take a couple handfuls of flour, a splat of lard, a splotch of baking powder, and a nip of salt. Then, swash it with milk or water, pat it about until it felt all warm and soft and bake it until it looks good. Then, once it was out of the oven you gave it an earnest slap to settle it all and left it on the counter to cool. The whole splotch, splat, nip, slap process was odd – but it worked.

That first bannock was glorious. I watched it rise like a little kid with my face pressed to the glass. When it cooled enough to cut I sheared off enough for the two of us and sat down at the table and stared at it on my plate. It was the first Indian thing I’d ever done. It was the first event in my life that I could consciously remember that involved actual Indian teaching to get done. It was the first time I had physically expressed myself as an Indian person and it was unforgettable.

When I tasted it I smiled. My mother was a good teacher and the texture of that first Indian bread was sublime. With marmalade and butter melted into it, my bannock was a rip roaring success and we shared it with my step-father and uncles who waited patiently in the living room. Standing there, watching the men of my lost family enjoy a tribal thing that I had created was as poignant a moment as I’ve ever had.

I still bake my bannock the same way after all these years. Friends marvel at my apparent non-methodical manner at the stove. I laugh and tell them its Native science – and it is. My mother told me.

When I bake bannock these days I feel Ojibway. There’s something about the science of it, its apparent randomness, that evokes images of a bush life and an open fire and a lump of dough on a stick and a circle of people gathered about in community to share the fresh bread. There’s something about knowing that I hold an Ojibway skill, a part of our science, and that I can pass it on, that instills pride in me.

The process of baking bannock, whether it’s on the open fire or in the oven, is a reconnection experience every time. It’s a vital thing because it shows me that our culture is vital and alive. It’s enormous in its significance. And when the plate is passed around and there’s the usual lip smacking, finger licking compliments from non-Native friends, I smile to think that our Indian science is still being shared. Unaware perhaps like it always has been, but shared nonetheless.

Oh sure, it’s an easy thing, something a child could do, but if it’s all you’ve got its huge. That’s what matters in the end. Passing it forward. Our cultural survival depends on passing on what we know no matter how small or how huge that might be. There’s always going to be someone, somewhere seeking to know themselves, seeking their identity in the sure small ways we do things.

That’s true for everybody, Indian or not. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure that out.

 

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