In Search of My Husband’s Gardens, or Settler Dreams of Home – Mark Rifkin


What does it mean to yearn for home? What does it mean to yearn to belong to a place that is another people’s home? What does it mean to desire to be part of a place from which others have been displaced, where the possibility for your being located there is the history of their dislocation?

In 2008, I moved to Greensboro, North Carolina. It was for a position at a university there. While I previously had lived outside the northeast, I still considered it home, more or less. I don’t know that I ever really had very much of a sense of home. Well, there was where I grew up in central New Jersey. My parents had moved there from New York before I was born. They were in search of something for their children, something that I guess they thought the suburbs would give us. It was fine as things go, but I never had any nostalgia for it or a sense of it as a place to which my heart would return over the years. How could it be that way? It was New Jersey. The closest thing to home in a kind of existential sense (rather than, say, the spot where my blood relatives happen to reside) would probably be New York City: my parents grew up and had my sister there; their parents grew up there; my aunts and uncles lived in the environs; my cousins and a plurality of my friends from over the course of my life moved there eventually. Descending from Jews who descended from Jews who came from all over Eastern Europe and who, at one time or another, came through New York, it has over the years become something of the homeland in my mind. But also not. Jews have a homeland, but I certainly don’t want anything to do with that particular Zionist nightmare of colonial aggression. So, I guess New York it is.

Or, maybe, was. While living in Greensboro, I met my now-husband through the online dating site OkCupid, and after a couple years, I moved into his place in Durham. About two years ago, I was in his/our living room there, when I turned on PBS and found “A Chef’s Life,” a reality show featuring Vivian Howard. The premise (as captured in the show’s surprisingly compelling, and jaunty, opening, set to the tune of the Avett Brothers’ “Will You Return?”) is that Vivian and her husband Ben were working at restaurants in New York and wanted to open their own. Her parents would give them the money to do so, but only if it was in her home town of Kinston in eastern North Carolina (only about an hour and a half from where my husband and I reside). We see what’s happening in Vivian and Ben’s lives as they go about the business of running their restaurant, a farm-to-table place called The Chef and the Farmer (we’ve eaten there – it’s really good), and each episode is organized around a single ingredient, like corn, tomatoes, beef, pork, moonshine, yams. We see Vivian talking with local farmers about how to grow, raise, or make the ingredient, and she demonstrates how she incorporates it into something she would serve. Along the way, we hear about her relationship with her parents and sisters, how things are going with the house they’re building, seasonal rituals that include extended family as well as some of the other assorted folks we’ve seen on the show from whom she gets the produce, meat, and dairy for the restaurant. It’s really well-produced – a well-balanced mix of sentimental infotainment with a nice how-to component that lets viewers feel like they might cook along, as it were. Nothing too dramatic or profound. So why, pretty much every episode, do I feel myself tearing up from an immense sense of longing?

I don’t know that I so much watch it “with” my husband as he’s there when it’s on, occasionally offering commentary. When they featured butterbeans, for example, he talked about picking them with his mother on her uncle’s farm. He’s a Raleigh native; he’s lived near where we live almost his whole life. While his family’s time in the U.S. extends back about as far as mine (his from the northern European contingent at the turn of the twentieth century), they’ve been in North Carolina pretty much since they got to this country. He lives within a generational legacy of relation to the place where we are. For this reason, he lives being here in a way that I don’t. North Carolina is home for him in a way it never will be for me. He has an attachment to this place, a genealogical connection to the land, that I never can have. One of the reasons I find “A Chef’s Life” so moving is because it allows me to connect with that part of who he is. However, it’s more than just wanting intimacy with him. It’s wanting intimacy with here. Watching the show becomes part of a process of attaching to the land by proxy. Emotionally, I merge into his history.

Or at least that’s the attraction. That’s the fantasy: that by watching a show about North Carolinians growing, cooking, and eating things in North Carolina with a North Carolinian who has memories of picking, cooking, and eating things in North Carolina, I can have a connection to North Carolina. To the place of North Carolina. To the soil. I can somehow become native to it. I can be home here. “A Chef’s Life” often features Vivian talking to farmers about their families’ multi-generational connection to the land, interspersed with her own memories of eating things as they were prepared in her childhood. Like my husband, they are rooted here, and the show’s interweaving of various cycles of family and food in this shared location creates the feeling that the people are born and reborn from the land. I find myself wanting that, hungering for it. I want to feel as if my body emerged out of this place, as if it were gestated from it, as if my metabolism was in sync with the crops and animals that live on and in this land, as if genealogy and geography were fused such that I mingle with the landscape as an extension of it. The show whets and feeds my implicit, unconscious desire to be indigenous. To be Indigenous.

But I’m not. Neither is my husband. Neither is Vivian Howard or anyone on the show. They may be native to North Carolina, but they aren’t Native. They and I descend from people who came across the sea at some point in the not-too-distant past. Not-too-distant in light of the duration of Indigenous peoples on this land. First peoples. Those encountered by Europeans at least as early as the seventeenth century. Those with prior claims to this place from before the extension of English, and then American, jurisdiction and settlement. Those whose tenure here precedes the violence of the Middle Passage and enslavement. Often on the show, Vivian will talk with African Americans about their family recipes. Sometimes some of the farmers will invoke the history of slavery and its relation to local foodways. No one talks about Tuscarora, Saponi, Lumbee, Cherokee foodways. No one talks to contemporary Tuscarora, Seponi, Lumbee, Cherokee people. Slavery and blackness in some ways become figures for the long ago, marking primordial forms of struggle and violence from which the present can be traced, by which the present is marked, but also which the present has transcended – at least enough for everyone to make cornbread and biscuits.

Indianness seems like a bridge too far – something the show can’t quite metabolize. Maybe it’s just too much. It exceeds the frame of food, family, and farming because it suggests why home isn’t quite home for those on the show either – why their homeliness will always be unhomely. Unheimlich. Uncanny. Haunted not so much the ghosts of the Indian dead (why is it that Indians always have to be dead? gone? past? spectrally there but not really?) as by the ongoing history of colonialism that lets them feel themselves to be home. On someone else’s land. On what should have been someone else’s land. On what will always be someone else’s land.

The show performs the feeling of being settled. Of being in place. Of having found one’s roots. Literally. As being rooted in the place of the land that provides the food that feeds your family – for generations. I want to feel that way. So do the folks on the show.

They may be natives. But they’re not Native. Neither am I.

Mark Rifkin is Director of Women’s and Gender Studies and Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is the author of five books, Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination (forthcoming Duke UP), Settler Common Sense: Queerness and Everyday Colonialism in the American Renaissance (U of Minnesota Press, 2014), The Erotics of Sovereignty: Queer Native Writing in the Era of Self-Determination (U of Minnesota press, 2012), When Did Indians Become Straight?: Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty (Oxford UP, 2011) (winner of the John Hope Franklin Prize for Best Book in American Studies), and Manifesting America: The Imperial Construction of U.S. National Space (Oxford UP, 2009). He is the co-editor of “Sexuality, Nationality, Indigeneity,” an award-winning special issue of the journal GLQ, and he has published articles in a range of scholarly journals and collections. He is former president of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association.

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