On Potlucks, Being Brown, and Belonging in the Desert
About an hour after getting off the plane in Reno, my mother started handing me food to “try” on the 2.5-hour drive back to my hometown Winnemucca. Since I got off the plane, I’ve been eating Gilmore Girls-quantities of food in the sometimes-indecorous style of Nigella Lawson. For those of you who are not fluent in either of these languages I’m speaking: I’m eating a lot of food and I’m stuffing it into my face without giving any fucks about looking demure.
I haven’t made anything this week. But I have eaten incredible amounts of good food. My mother’s birthday was last Saturday, and her friends threw her an impromptu potluck lunch.
I often describe Winnemucca’s location as being “the literal middle of nowhere,” not out of derision, but because it’s a little bit true. I guess you could describe any town in Nevada, excluding Reno and Las Vegas, as being in the middle of nowhere.
(Fun fact: Nevada has more ghost towns than actual towns. That might explain why I love spooky stuff so much.)
When I was growing up here, as I’ve written about before, I hated it. There weren’t any coffee shops until I was a junior or so in high school. There weren’t any bookstores or music shops or anything. There were only casinos, restaurants in casinos, Walmart, the public library, the volunteer-operated thrift store Poke-N-Peek, and one or two small clothing stores.
What this town did have, though, was an unexpected and healthy (for the town’s size) Filipino population. My memories of Winnemucca are full of Filipino parties and potlucks. I met my childhood best friend, Chris, on Halloween night at a Filipino party when we were around 6 years old, and we’ve been BFFs ever since. (Our BFF status was cemented that very night in a very strange and inexplicable way, but that story is for another time when I can explain our weird behavior. Which will probably be never.)
Nevada seems like a great empty expanse in the western U.S. (and in a lot of ways, it is), but I grew up surrounded by people who (kind of) looked like me, and helped me know who I was and where I came from. At the time, I didn’t realize how lucky this was. To be familiar with the cadence and sounds of Tagalog and Ilocano, to know the smell of every good food and every stinky one, to know that every person has their own adobo or pancit recipes with their own trick or twist. To have a best friend who wouldn’t blink at the “weird” food you ate and wasn’t intimidated by large groups of Filipino women talking away in Tagalog.
What was on the menu for my mom’s potluck lunch this year: ceviche, a spicy Thai yellow curry, pancit, papaya salad (drooooool), fried chicken, mini quiches, squash pancakes with a vinegary garlicky sauce (more drool, especially with that sauce!), rice cooked with coconut oil and coconut milk (but not quite full-fledged coconut rice), cassava cake, meatballs, guacamole, baked beans with cocktail sausages (I’m dedicating an entire post to that dish, I promise you), marinated chicken breast strips, and fruit.
I haven’t even gotten to the cake yet. (More drool.)
And this potluck was smaller than last year’s. Can you even imagine? (No, no, you can’t.)
A year ago, my mother had been on her cancer treatment for about 5 months or so. At that point, the cancer was responding so well to treatment that her tumors were shrinking down to almost nothing. It was the best possible news we could receive, and we were all relieved. Things were slowly going back to normal, but I didn’t want to get too comfortable because I knew that things could go pear-shaped at any moment. Cancer can be a real shitshow in that way. So I flew home to spend a few days with my mom for her birthday. That’s when I learned that her friend was organizing a big birthday party for her.
My mother is notoriously late to everything. She was two hours late to her own birthday party that year. And why? She was busy cooking like 5 extra dishes because she was worried there wouldn’t be enough food. (I had also been roped into cooking two dishes, somehow. I honestly don’t remember what they were — a spicy chorizo and shiitake mushroom soup and maybe browned butter chocolate chip cookies?)
By the time we arrived at the party, people had started to lose hope that my mother would ever show up. There was already a ton of food brought by the guests, and my mother and I just added more to the spread. It was excess of the best kind.
Looking back, I didn’t really take any pictures. I was just happy and thankful for my mom’s health, and that so many people had come to celebrate her. The party was big and loud and joyful. People from every aspect of my mom’s life were there. Church friends, volunteer friends, Avon friends, Filipino friends, Thai friends — the gang was all there.
The complexion of the Filipino party in Winnemucca, Nevada, has changed since I left here nearly 14 years ago. (!!!) It doesn’t feel accurate for me to call them Filipino parties anymore. Though there has always been a large Latinx community and there is still a steady Filipino community, there are more kinds of brown people: Cambodian and Thai are the newest communities (to me) to grow roots of some kind in this area.
Often, when I come home, it feels like I can finally relax and take a big breath of fresh air. For me, that feeling has always been more about the landscape than anything else. In this town, I’ve always walked the tightrope between feeling at home and feeling like an outsider. These days, I still feel at home, but also know that people who are current residents have a hard time believing that I grew up here.
Now though, when I come here, I know that I will be around more brown people than I’ve ever been around in Indiana. I will feel more able to take up space as a woman of color here in rural Nevada than I do in Indiana. Even when I live in a college town that boasts an international appeal.
I haven’t even mentioned the birthday cake yet. It was perfect. The cake itself was spongy and light -- and the frosting! I’ve been telling everyone I know about it. It was a strawberry whipped frosting — so light, and fluffy, with just the right amount of sweetness. Most frostings I’ve tasted are heavy, both in texture and sweetness, but this one was divine. I honestly cannot stop thinking about it.
Where was it made? A local grocery store.
I don’t want to make rural Nevada seem like some kind of magical oasis. Don’t come to Winnemucca expecting to eat all this great food and attend great parties.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you are visitor to this town, you will not see the things that I see. You will not see all the people that I do, and you will not be able to eat the food that I get to eat when I am here. If you visit Winnemucca unaccompanied by a local, you will not remember anything about it except maybe the McDonalds, or the fact that the Burger King overlooks the cemetery, or that we have a giant (and I mean, truly giant) “Welcome to Winnemucca” marquee perched on the border of said cemetery if you come into town taking the West Winnemucca Boulevard exit off I-80.
The point of all this, I guess, is that no matter how small the town, how white it seems, how incredibly desolate it appears to be — we’re out here. We’re feeding and caring for each other. We’re creating and thriving our own communities when the larger world makes us feel like we’re walking a constant line between belonging and forever being seen as an outsider.
I don’t want to speak for anyone else. But this is what I’ve experienced and felt and remembered.
Sometimes, I worry that I’m remembering all this with a heavy filter. I worry that I’m forgetting all the bad shit. Not everything was or is amazing. I know that. I still get stares everywhere I go here. If you happen to accidentally interrupt a bingo game, you will get some intense glares. I can't find dried figs anywhere in town, which is maybe the most egregious insult of them all.
But memories are memories. Feelings are feelings. Delicious food is delicious food. The heart knows when things are good.
Also: happy birthday, Mom!