Brett Nelson

American Stew: Brett Nelson

American Stew

I cook with a lot of spices and don’t measure,
experimenting just to see how it comes out.
Generous with garlic, and basil is a favorite.
Sage, turmeric, ginger, oregano,
cumin, cilantro, rosemary, tarragon –
in chicken cacciatore, chicken posole with green chile,
pasta and sauce with mushrooms and sausage,
chicken stroganoff, red beans and rice.
My grandfather, a salesman in rural Illinois,
would mimic the ethnic voices of the customers he served,
not mocking but instead savoring the flavors
in the ethnic stew America has always been.
I remember Swedish, Italian, Jewish, Irish voices, maybe others.
I don’t recall him doing German accents,
though his grandfather was a German immigrant.
He fought in the US Army in WW I,
but maybe the 50s were too close to World War II and Hitler.

Before we were a country, we were English, Dutch,
Germans, French Huguenots, Catholics, Irish, and  Scots –
people from anywhere they had reason to get away from.
Native peoples already here were just kept out of the stew,
(except in Roger Williams failed Rhode Island experiment)
sent to reservations, then moved, and moved again.
Aside from them, we’re all immigrants.
I grew up liking the stew, the mix of flavors
like those in the stew my mother made.

America has a love-hate relationship with its identity,
welcoming immigrants to its shores in compassion
but also to do the jobs Americans don’t want,
resenting them for their presence once here.
Labeled dirty, thieving, and violent
and blamed for the virus of crime.
Every ethnic group that settled in the cities
inevitably had a sub-group of organized criminals –
Irish gangs, Jewish gangs, Italian gangs,
Puerto Rican gangs, Black gangs, Chinese gangs.
Each group had a few who found in crime
an economic opportunity in ghettos
where opportunity was thin as a thirty-year-old shirt.
America is idealized as a melting pot
where ethnicities mix and boil down to become “American”,
with previous cultures shed like clothing no longer fit to wear.
But the old cultures have never disappeared,
especially in large cities with ethnic neighborhoods
like Chinatowns and Little Italys.
We still called ourselves “Swedes” in the 50s
on my dad’s side of the family
even though we had little left but certain attitudes –
nobody made lutfisk at Christmas,
and only one aunt rarely made Swedish meatballs.

But in the 60s ethnic Americans started calling themselves
Mexican-American, African-American, Native-American,
then Italian-American, Asian-American, and more.
I like Italians full of their Italian-ness,
Jews full oft their Jewish-ness,
Hispanics full of their Hispanic-ness,
I like Black folks full of their Black-ness,
Native Americans full of their Native-ness,
Asian-Americans full of their Asian-ness,
Iranian-Americans full of their Iranian-ness,
and Garrison Keillor’s Norwegians
full of their Norwegian-ness.
Those are tasty flavors on my palette.
I don’t want the melting pot to melt them away.
I want the stew to remain a stew, not a puree.

Brett Nelson grew up in the Midwest but has called New Mexico and Albuquerque home since 1978. He has published two books of poetry: In Another Skin (2017) and Just to See What’s There (2020), and a photography book with 170 images of the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau: Wild in the Southwest, A Photographic Odyssey in Canyon Country. He has spent the last 27 years hiking, backpacking, and photographing in New Mexico and on the Colorado Plateau and has exhibited his photographs at the Johnson Gallery in Madrid, New Mexico and other venues in Albuquerque.