Filmmaker and scholar Marusya Bociurkiw’s Food Was Her Country condenses a lifetime into a few hours’ read—reflecting on her life as the queer daughter of immigrant parents, giving readers exactly what her title promises.
Food. The memoir is a smorgasbord of culinary delights, describing (in mouth-watering detail) several significant meals Bociurkiw shared with friends, family and lovers. In her traditional Ukrainian family, “food was a long-standing non-linear conversation,” and her memoir loops accordingly through a lifetime of lunches and dinners, revelling in gastronomic metaphors. Light is buttery gold. Snow is icing sugar dusted on coats. Every scene is imbued with tastes and smells, from “fragrant, freshly made sauerkraut” to pears oozing “sweet, ice-wine-like nectar.” After whetting the reader’s appetite for 140 pages, the book ends with a dozen recipes—a greatest-hits list reprising pivotal moments from the author’s life story.
Country. Bociurkiw struggles to reconcile her family’s cultural traditions and expectations with her second-generation experiences. Bociurkiw was born in Edmonton and lived her childhood in the city’s suburbs—“land spread out like a run-on sentence.” She spent her teen years exploring Ottawa’s hippie subculture before moving to Halifax for art school, then to Toronto and Vancouver. In Calgary she is accidentally outed by an event poster describing her as a “lesbian filmmaker” (“I decided: OK why not.”) Visiting her home city she goes on a Christmastime visit to Woody’s gay bar after her mother “had inadvertently moved into Edmonton’s tiny gaybourhood.” Bociurkiw’s peripatetic lifestyle reflects her internal conflict—trying to find her place, trying to construct an identity that can include her queerness, her heritage and her family.
Which leads us to the most important element of Bociurkiw’s memoir: Her. The author’s mother, Vera, is the main ingredient in this feast of memories, infusing every scene with the spice of a strong-willed Ukrainian babushka. Bociurkiw realizes that her mother is her muse. Their relationship evolves from tough maternal scrutiny, “love humming inaudibly in the background,” to something approaching genuine friendship, “companions in all manner of culinary adventure.” They struggle with Marusya’s queerness, Vera’s cancer diagnosis, and the discomforts of a literary career airing the family’s dirty laundry. But by the time Bociurkiw returns home following her mother’s funeral—carrying a china set of symbolically empty dishes—their conflicts are settled and their story is clear: Food was her country and it is how her daughter will remember her.
—Bruce Cinnamon is author of The Melting Queen (NeWest, 2019).