The Women's Salad

A dozen years ago my mother invited some of her students from Europe over to New Zealand for a spiritual hikoi around our Marae. Paranui Pa in Himitangi, Foxton, was their first stop. I wanted to help take care of them for a couple of days so I wandered up the line from Wellington with my boy Tamati. 
It was Saturday and my uncle, a Kaumatua of the Marae, informed me we somepeople from Bougainville were arriving for lunch and could I take care of the hakari for him. Not a problem, super marae cook chick extraordinaire at your service (and oh so modest with it).

I am used to working alone or with women who slip into their roles in a marae kitchen as I do. There’s no need for instructions between us apart from the occasional question concerning the location of some ingredient or other. For the most part we work in a harmonious tangle of song, stories and laughter. It is these times I love the most. We meld, weave and intertwine like the beautiful patterns of a finely woven kete. Today was different as none of my aunties or cousins were there. It was okay, it was only forty or so people. I could do it by myself. 

I was hacking away at a collection of sorry looking little chickens when the women trooped into the kitchen wanting to give me a hand.
I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to have to interrupt my rhythm to divide up tasks and explain jobs. I didn't want to give up ownership of my job either. There were also added complications such as language; culture and I doubted these women had worked collectively before. 

Suddenly I hit on an idea. I told them all to get what they needed from the chiller and make a salad. I didn't care what sort of salad, it was up to them, depending on what vegetables we had and their imagination. 
I flitted around the kitchen baking this, stirring that, and peeling assorted other things oblivious to what was going on around me. After a while it occurred to me I ought to check they were okay. 

The women had circled the central workbench chopping, shredding and dicing what they found in the chiller. After a few minutes one woman started to share a story. She talked about her daughter, how she had brought the girl up alone and how difficult it had been. She spoke of struggles, laughter, self-sacrifice and delight, the pain and joy her child had given through the years. 
Her pride was obvious when she described the woman her daughter had become. I knew this story, it was a shared woman’s experience, and I put my arm around her shoulders and gave a quick hug before tossing the chicken in oil and tarragon and shoving the pieces into the oven. 

Her anecdote encouraged others to open up and when she stopped talking someone else started, then another and another. They yielded snippets of their journey through life and in doing so bound us together with another strand of shared intimacy.

A beautiful energy built quickly in that kitchen swirling, expanding and growing like the mounds of prepared vegetables which started appearing to pile up all over the bench. 

As they got more comfortable they broke off into their own languages and even though I couldn't understand what they said but it didn't matter. The rhythm and intent was clear and I was as swept away as everyone else. 

They burst into song as a half-forgotten nursery rhyme came to mind or joining in with a song from the radio was humming along in the background. That would be a signal before another would start talking of this and that in and the whole room would rock with gusts of laughter. 

Two hours later we welcomed our Manuhiri from Bougainville into a delicious meal. The salad took pride of place at the centre of the table it was an enormous gorgeously crafted work of culinary art. A divine mix of fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds dressed with shared laughter, tears and love. 

Everybody enjoyed eating it as much as the woman had delighted in preparing it.