“Da, could you pass the greens?” I spoon a verdant tangle of steamed cavolo nero onto my plate, delighting in the contrast between the forest-green veg and the ochre-hued pea and paneer curry. It feels good to be sharing such fresh, life-giving food; I harvested the cavolo nero from my allotment just an hour ago.
“I hope the curry’s areet,” says Da, the familiar note of self-doubt in his voice. This is his second attempt at the recipe, and he’s only a few months into learning how to cook fresh food. Yet despite his novice’s lack of confidence, everything he has tried his hand at so far has turned out brilliantly.
“Areet? This is grand!” I reassure him.
We tuck in. A year ago, this scene would have been unimaginable to us in so many ways.
I dozed in my hammock through the early afternoon heat, half-counting the abundance of fruit hanging from the carambola tree. It had been a challenging few months – the indigenous community I was working with continued to be threatened by people associated with the palm oil company, which had appropriated their ancestral lands, destroying their forests and rivers and replacing them with a monoculture plantation. The stress of it all had put my body under considerable strain. Like a rainstorm pounding a city street, all of the pressure had canalised, surging toward my weakest point – my asthma. I could withstand the company tactics and the intimidation – I never anticipated that coming to the Amazon to do this work would be easy – but feeling continuously enervated, my respiratory system hopelessly inflamed, was gradually running me down. My phone pinged amidst the cacophony of bird and insect song. It was Mum, asking if we could talk over Whatsapp. Her uncharacteristically terse message unsettled me. Something wasn’t right.
The weeks after passed in a blur – they discovered that Da had a brain tumour. At least I felt some clarity once I decided to leave Peru and return to Scotland to be with my parents. A few days before taking the road out of the Amazon basin, I visited the rural community I had been working with one last time. Ricardo, one of the young men from the community, with whom I had worked closely and had become friends, invited me to his family home for breakfast. Eating freshly caught fish from the lagoon, wrapped in parcels made from leaves and baked over an open fire, we discussed the community’s situation, why I was leaving and what the future held. The fish was deliciously oily, tender and filling; ‘real food’ as his people call it. ‘Real food’ under threat as never before from a predatory mode of capitalism with an endless appetite for profit, I thought in sorrow and anger.
As I stood up to leave, Ricardo reached for a ceramic bowl fashioned from the reddish clay typical of the Amazon. “Here, my Mum just fired this this morning. It’s a gift for you. Take it back with you to Scotland.” I had used bowls like this one many times before (in fact, two dozen times the night before, during a village celebration) to drink atsa xeati, a traditional drink made from fermented cassava. Amazonian societies are built upon these values of sharing and reciprocity, especially when it comes to food and drink.
“Ichabires irake, wetsako,” I replied, thanking him in his maternal language, feeling humbled by his family’s generosity towards this outsider from a distant place.
After leaving Ricardo and his community behind, I returned to Glasgow and a daunting new reality. Da had bounced back incredibly well from his operation but now faced at least seven months of further treatment; a monumental test of resilience, determination and spirit, not only for him, but also for Mum and I as his main care-givers. How to recover, rethink and rebuild after the devastation of the tumour?
This was the journey we embarked upon during the weeks and months which followed, as we spoke with others who had not only survived but thrived in their lives following cancer. We learnt new recipes and grappled with new ways of understanding the food we prepared and shared, like improving the ‘terrain’, countering an ‘acid environment’ and the ‘anti-inflammatory’ ingredients to look out for. We began to empty our kitchen of processed and sugary foods and started replacing them with fresh vegetables and fruit, pulses, grains, fermented foods and an arsenal of proven anti-cancer ingredients, ranging from green tea to turmeric.
During the fleeting, dark days of winter, we answered each session of radiotherapy with spicy soups and wholesome winter salads. Fully aware that so much lay beyond our control – not only in the hands of medical professionals, but also ultimately in the unpredictable developments that shape all life. Each meal was an act of hope; an act of trust that, given the right kind of support and nourishment, the healing processes at work within Da’s body could overcome the cancer. A loving act of defiance against such clinical and unfeeling terms as ‘malignant’ and ‘terminal’.
My Da, Mum and I each looked for interior sustenance in different places. In my case, I was drawn to a community garden on reclaimed land overlooking the Campsies, near our home. By now, most of what the supermarkets had to offer by way of food was irrelevant to us, but the question arose: “If not this, then what?” Occasionally, I would gaze at the ceramic bowl on my shelf and think of my friends back in the Peruvian Amazon, of how much it means to them to be able to produce and share ‘real food’ together. What has become of ‘real food’ in Scotland today, and where is it to be found?
Winter has passed now and Da’s treatment is over, his energy levels are rebuilding by the day. We do not know what the future holds for us, but each day and each meal holds out an opportunity for us to rediscover, celebrate and share ‘real food’.
This piece was originally published on the Scottish Book Trust website.