A new food memoir serves up nostalgia from the Menominee reservation
Born in 1953, Thomas Weso grew up in a time of economic transformation on the Menominee reservation. When commodity goods from the federal government, like canned pork and powdered eggs, were eaten alongside fish, game and plants hunted and foraged in Wisconsin's Northwoods. And then there was the rise of processed foods, like Wonder Bread and JELLO.
All these things would shape Weso’s youth and the food he loved for the rest of his life, stories he shares in his second memoir, Survival Food. Weso, an author, educator and Menominee citizen, passed away in July before the book was published.
“Cottage cheese, hull-corn soup, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, mashed potatoes, chili poured over macaroni — all of these evoke the locations where and the people with whom I consumed them, as well as the delicious meals,” Weso writes. “I cannot separate foods from the moments in my life when I first tasted them.”
Weso often wrote about food, connecting the dots between what we eat and where it comes from.
“We should think about where food comes from,” he said in a December 2021 interview with Wisconsin Historical Society Press. “If we think [about] where food comes from, we’ll take better care of the land around us. And if we take better care of the land around us, we’ll take better care of ourselves.”
By “ourselves,” he didn’t just mean us humans.
“When I talk about ‘the world,’” he continued, “I don’t mean just the human population. I mean there are populations of deer and bear, animal populations. And we are a part of that.”
Weso writes with warmth, humor and a deep sense of nostalgia for the foods that brought light and levity in his youth. The writer Denise Low, Weso's wife of 30 years, said her husband was interested in writing about Indigenous people as they lived.
“He had a very zen sense of like, ‘what’s here now?’” said Low, who has Indigenous Delaware heritage. “Not what were Indians or Indigenous people like 100 years ago. ‘Here we are now.’”
That’s why you’ll find all kinds of recipes in Weso’s memoir, from tamale pie to turtle soup. He offers instructions on how to forage and clean milkweed pods, which Weso says are tasty blanched and served with butter. But especially good mixed with canned tuna into a box of mac and cheese — the best you can find, he insists.
To Weso, food couldn’t be separated from the memories that surrounded them. His taste would always celebrate that unique mix, found only in Wisconsin, on the Menominee reservation.
Low joined Lake Effect to discuss her husband's work. The conversation below is edited and condensed for clarity.
What do you want people to know about Tom?
People should know that he was an elder, in the full sense of the word, for Native American and other contexts. As he grew into that role, he understood he needed to impart information to his children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren. And to preserve the heritage that he was so proud of, of the Menominee reservation.
What did he want to accomplish with this book?
He actually started out thinking about the trails that go through the Menominee reservation and Wisconsin and connect it to the Great Lakes trading routes of previous centuries and today's highway system. As he started to dig into that, he realized that everything he did connected to people and to memories and to the environment. Because people interact with the environment through eating. We eat the forest, we eat the sugar maple, we eat the animals of the forest. Certainly he did as a child as they did subsistence hunting. He ended up doing this whole snowball of stories that are important information for people to understand from a Native perspective about the world, the environment, the ecology, the culture.
How did he grow up?
He had a very complicated childhood, because he was not born in wedlock. His mother married a guy who had come back from World War Two, a German American who had post-traumatic stress syndrome and was violent. So Tom ping-ponged between that very toxic home and the very loving and structured home on the reservation with his grandparents. Mostly what he writes about is the good parts. He was a very strong-willed person by nature. That got him into trouble.
He really struggled with demons and did a lot of healing through his life. He did have that strand of family support that helped him and that's the part of him that was easiest to love.
Tom writes about differences he observed between white and Native people, like there were "White cars" versus "Indian cars." Were those very obvious to him from a young age, or did that come with growing up?
There's a story when he was a three- or four-year-old kid. They could hear, by the motor coming, whether it was a res ride or a white person's car coming down the road. And the radio stations, and the difference between the Scandinavian neighbors and the German neighbors and the Polish neighbors. They also had Ojibwe neighbors, they had some stray Dakotas coming through. It wasn't a hierarchy. But it was a difference.
I will say that there were times when Tom knew that he was disadvantaged by being an ethnic minority. One of the stories he told me once that was so insidious and heartbreaking is that he and his cousin are taking algebra in the local middle school. They had the highest grades. But at the end of the semester, they both got C's, because Indigenous people could not get higher grades than white kids.
Like you said, he mostly writes about the good parts. But every now and then, he throws out a line. Like "I had to drive slowly in Wisconsin, so I didn't get pulled over by the cops."
He wanted to move beyond a bitter outlook in life and to embrace the positive things as he got older and mellowed. As you become an elder, you seek to harmonize. And in the foods he presents, he doesn't just stick to Indigenous foods or Menominee foods. He tries to embrace the diner foods that he loved also. And accept that there was an intermixture that had been there.