My Korean housemate recently commented that Canada has no food culture, and my mother piped up and agreed. I can understand why so many immigrants and those from “away” (yes, I’m a Maritimer) believe this, but I disagreed with them. “What food culture?” my housemate said “hamburgers and fries?” No, I said. Canada has it’s own food culture, and it even differs between regions. For instance, the Maritimes have a food culture that includes hodge-podge and seafood chowder, which is not particularly common in other parts. “But that’s from the British, I think” said my housemate. “Maybe,” I responded, “but we made it our own. It’s as much ours as tomato sauce is to Italians and potato bread is to the Irish.” After all, before exploration of the New World potatoes and edible tomatoes did not exist in Europe, Asia, and Africa, and so the Italians and Irish (and East Indians, for that matter!) must have been eating something other than tomatoes and potatoes before then.
So, I do think Canada has it’s own food culture. I met some students from France when I was in BC, and their impression of Canadian baking was that we “put cinnamon in everything.” Now they associate cinnamon-y desserts with Canada. Cheesecake is a dessert they strongly associate with their time here, as well as pancakes and real maple syrup.
I associate Canada’s East-Coast food culture with fresh, delicious, creamy seafood chowders. And a tremendous variety of fresh, crisp apples. And blueberries. Fiddleheads. Potatoes. Dulse.
People largely limit their definition of Quebec’s food culture to poutine, which I think is a real shame since I associate Quebec with excellent, high quality dairy and cheese products. All of the best yogourts on the grocery shelves are made in Quebec, as are some of my favourite cheeses (mmm, champfleury).
When I think of food and Canada, I think of farmer’s market stands in the rural countryside, offering fresh, locally produced fruits and vegetables. I think of urbanites flocking to ethnic restaurants (exactly what does “ethnic” mean in a country as multicultural as Canada?), and I’m jealous of how easily they can access these “foreign” tastes. I think of seal meat, polar bear meat, caribou, and moose meat. I think of ice wine and fruit wine. I think of Montreal bagels. And Tim bits. And Beaver-Tails (which, by the way, are absolutely, positively, disgusting, but I list them here because there are so many who love them and because they are so damn Canadian). I think of thick, hearty, acorn squash soup. And butternut squash soup. I think of pumpkin pie. Apple pie. Strawberry-rhubarb pie. I think of peaches n’ cream corn and hot boiled new potatoes. I think of zucchini cake, zucchini muffins, and zucchini chocolate bread. I think of home-canned peaches, pears, pickles, concord-grape juice, jams and jellies.
That’s what I think about when I think of Canada’s food culture. But that depends on our definition of food culture. Is it just ingredients and cooking methods? Or are we also referring to our attitudes to and about food? If the latter is the case then I would argue Canada has a very, very strong food culture, from what I’ve gathered during my limited travels within Canada, abroad, and from the media. It may not be the best our culture has to offer, but it is culture none the less.
In this case I think of children who have no idea where their tomatoes and hamburgers comes from. I think of mass-produced meat, where chickens and pigs are subject to astonishingly horrific living and slaughter conditions- and no one cares. I think of over-eating in front of the TV (which I am so guilty of), instead of eating with our families where we fill up on laughter and conversation (or arguments!) in addition to our dinners. I think of emotional eating- women eating entire tubs of ice cream because they’re depressed about their body image, or because they are having relationship problems. I think of eating standing-up and in a mad rush, instead of taking the time to sit down and enjoy a proper lunch. I think of wealthy, pompous, conscious eaters judging shopping carts loaded with cheap, mass-produced, nutritionally deficient hot dogs, Kraft dinner, and potato chips, and not realizing that the men or women pushing these carts are sadly underemployed, overworked, and barely have time to cook a proper meal for their children because they are trying to make ends meat- and lack the family and community to help them (yes, it really does take a village to raise a child, and to help promote sustainable, healthy food habits). I think of other mum’s and dad’s not having taking time to cook decent meals and eat with their children, because they are too busy making money to buy their children “stuff” when all their kid really needs is quality time with mom or dad (sorry, that’s a completely different rant for a completely different post on a completely different blog…but I will leave that last sentence here anyway). I think of farmers losing money. I think of Monsanto making money. I think of dairy quotas- and cringe at the thought of fresh, raw milk being poured down the drain simply because a farmer’s cows overproduced and he can’t legally sell the excess milk. I think of fat-free yogourt, and sugar-free birthday cakes. I think of corn-syrup laden fruit drinks. I think of beers with detergents added so they froth better. I think of students never having learned how to boil an egg, cook a tomato sauce, or make a salad dressing. I think of families eating out all the time, not realizing how much that adds up, and then wondering where that week’s pay check went. I think of friends feeling guilty about what they put in their mouths. I think of other friends feeling smugly self-righteous about what they put in their mouths. I think of people feeling that they are too poor to eat well, simply because they do not know how to do so. I think of hot-dog eating competitions. And pie eating competitions. We’ve made food into a game when starving kids still exist. I think of tomatoes being chucked into the garbage because they are too soggy. Grocery shoppers in auto-pilot, completely unaware of what is already have in their fridges and pantries that need to be used up before they spoil. I think of overstuffed fridges with rotting food pushed to the back, while duplicate jars and bottles are loaded into the front.
So, that’s the bad and the ugly about our food attitudes in Canada. But there is also lots of good. There are school gardens. Community gardens. Home gardens. Neighbours being generous with zucchini, tomatoes, corn, and apples. Thanksgiving dinner- and all the thanks that sincerely does come with it. There are Farmer’s Markets. Eat local challenges. Slow Food. People who eat locally, ethically, and sustainably but empathize with and gently educate those who think they can’t or don’t know how to do the same. Single mom’s who buy discount, un-organic, non-local produce and cook her children nutritious, sit-down meals (like my mom did- and she never once thought she should feel guilty about not feeding her kids local, organic food). Single dad’s who get their kids to help wash the lettuce and carrots for dinner. Vegans. Vegetarians. Those who make the effort to eat tuna that is dolphin-friendly. People who raise, kill, and clean their own bird (cruelty free!) for Thanksgiving dinner. People who freeze and can their own tomatoes for the winter months. Those who boycott seafood because so much of it is unsustainable, and others who make the effort to research and then eat sustainable seafood in the hopes it will encourage more sustainable fisheries practices. Family members and friends who help parents that need the support, so they can later have the time and energy to cook the meals their kids can grow healthy and strong on.
So yeah. Canada definitely has a food culture. And it’s more than just poutine and hamburgers.