Christ­mas in the West

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.

The Pak Banker - - Editorial - Ti­mothy Egan

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 magi- cal, 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. And Spaghet­tiOs - "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.

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