Christmas in the WestBy TIMOTHY EGAN
Timothy Egan worked for The Times for 18 years – as Pacific Northwest correspondent and a national enterprise reporter. In 2001, he was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that wrote the series “How Race Is Lived in America.” He is the author of several books, including “The Worst Hard Time,” a history of the Dust Bowl, for which he won the National Book Award, and most recently, “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America.”
http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/22/christmas-in-the-west/ When I was old enough to drive I loaded up the little car that my dad got for the price of a lawn mower with some of the most durable of food staples and took them to my high school so I could feel good about the holidays. This was the annual Christmas Food Drive, our chance to give something back to the community, or as the more liberal Jesuits put it, “to commit an act of social justice.”
Most everything about the food drive was a mystery. Where was the food going? Indians, we were told. What kind of Indians? Poor Indians, who lived along the Columbia River, north near the Canadian border. How does the food get to them? Never mind. Will they really eat this stuff? Sure. Should we gift-wrap the Twinkies and Ho-Hos, dessert with a shelf life of John McCain? Maybe a Christmas bow, nothing more.
It wasn’t until years later that I found out something magical, even miraculous, in the unintended charitable symmetry of the food drive.
The rule was: no fresh food was accepted, with the exception of potatoes, because spuds could last through the long winter in the interior Pacific Northwest. Other than that, nothing that looked like it came from a farm, or a cow, or the sea. The more unrecognizable as an actual product of nature, the better.
From our part of town, this meant a surfeit of a certain kind. Powdered split-pea soup. Powdered mac ‘n’ cheese. Powdered white cheese. Powdered milk. Sloppy Joe mix. Hamburger Helper. Refried beans. Dinty Moore beef stew. Spam, of course, which Dwight Eisenhower said helped the Allies win the war. AndSpaghettiOs — “the round spaghetti you can eat with a spoon!” Indeed, we were heavy on the Franco-American product line, which even then raised a question about why something of nominally French origin was selling a nominally Italian standby.
I’ve since learned that the inventor of SpaghettiOs, after a year-long study of the appropriate shape for a kid-friendly pasta, considered producing noodles that looked like cowboys and Indians. That would have complicated one of our major contributions.
Heavy on sodium and nitrates they may have been, but these foods filled many a winter pantry, and left us with a warm feeling, for multiple reasons, as they left the house. I loaded up my dad’s SIMCA, a Flintstones-era foreign car with less power than it takes to run a toaster, and headed off through deep snow drifts to school.
I parked on a residential side street, in a neighborhood where rusted appliances would often appear on front lawns when the snow melted in the spring. My plan had been to unload the food at the end of the school day, when I had more time. But a teacher told me I could be excused to bring everything in now. Why the hurry?
“Your food might get stolen, Tim.” Stolen? The problem was the neighborhood, I was told, in a hushed voice. Our school was in a poor part of town — called Hillyard, named for the railroad baron. Truth be told, we feared the kids of Hillyard, and made it a point to avoid them except when we had to crush them in sports.
With help, I dutifully carried my donation into the school, where it was stored in the football team’s weight room. From there, it would be delivered to poor Indians on Christmas Eve. Mystery intact, and a better Christmas for some people up north.
About 20 years later, I ran into a man who was raised on the Colville Indian Reservation, home to 12 bands of native people who have lived for centuries along the Columbia River. Growing up, it was rare to spend time with an Indian. Our minor league baseball team was called the Indians, and I raced against a kid from another school who was a full-blood Flathead, but Indians were abstractions for the most part, summoned into rosy view during the food drive.
It was Christmas time, in a social setting, and the man from Indian country started talking about the donated food that would arrive on the rez every year in late December. He said they welcomed the Dinty Moore beef stew and the Spam, but couldn’t stomach some of the other donations. I was amazed — that was our food drive!
“That powdered cheese — it’ll make your guts blow up if you take it with milk,” he said. “Man, that stuff was nasty.”
Well then, I asked, what did you do with it?