Friday, November 6, 2009

Food as Identity: Are you what you eat?

I read a lot and lately I have been reading a lot about food. Here are a few of the most recent titles: Diamond Grill by Fred Wah, A Taste of Paprika by Laura Elise Taylor, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter, and Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. The first three texts are memoirs. I'm only about 50 pages into Near a Thousand Tables, but so far it is an interesting in-depth analysis of food consumption over the ages. What these texts all have in common though, is that they explore the concept of identity through food. In each story, food is the common bond that brings people together. As I was reading each text, I asked myself a lot of questions. How big of a role does food play in the creation of our identities? Are we really what we eat?
I work in a Thai restaurant and a lot of what we serve is from well outside of the 100 mile diet's boundaries. There is no such thing as a local papaya, mango or lemon? How can the 100 mile diet apply to those of ethnic origin when so much of who they are depends on what they eat? If you take away the food, do you take away the identity?
I noticed in my time at the Thai restaurant, that the family who owned it only ate Thai food. They claimed that they did not like Canadian food. It got me thinking, what exactly is Canadian food? When I asked what they considered Canadian food, they said hamburgers. I laughed. I could see why they would think that since the masses of fast food chains mostly serve hamburgers. That night at home, I really sat and thought about it. I found myself pondering out loud, "I wonder if they've ever had pancakes". "Probably not," Alex answered from the living room.
Lo and behold, I get to work on Monday morning, and the owner is standing in the kitchen waving a box of Aunt Jemima pancake batter at me and saying "I'm Canadian". I couldn't help but laugh. I told him to wait until the following day when I could bring some real maple syrup and we could have a pancake feast. I drew a picture of a maple tree and tried to explain that the syrup came from inside the tree. They just looked at me in wonder. Crazy talk! On the following morning, we all had our first Canadian breakfast together.
Later that week I was talking to a couple of our regulars, a cute retired couple. I was telling them about our Canadian culinary adventures in the kitchen. Peter Morris and his wife, Jean, posed the exact same question that I had: What exactly is Canadian food?

A week later, Peter and Jean returned. Jean had dug through her old cookbooks and found one that she thought might interest me. She presented me with her gift. The cookbook, Canada Cookbook: The Scenic Land, was published in North Vancouver, BC and had sections for French heritage, the heritage of Upper Canada, the First Nations, prairie harvest and Canada's international cities. There were recipes from cultures whose cuisine I had never tried. Quite a few recipes called for ingredients that were mostly unavailable to the average Canadian urban dweller, such as venison, rabbit, frogs legs, saskatoon berries and moose. Jean had written a small list of recipes from the book that she thought were particularly Canadian. The list included pea soup, apple pie and popcorn, all of which I had made and eaten many times. But there were many recipes included in the book that I had never heard of, let alone considered part of my regular diet. Could this cookbook, then, be considered a true reflection of Canadian culture? If we are what we eat, what the heck was I?
I went home, cookbook in hand, and vowed that I would make something new and 'Canadian' that very night. I chose Cream of Pumpkin Soup from the Upper Canada Heritage section. I just happened to have several pumpkins lying around that needed to be consumed. The recipe for the soup is below:
Cream of Pumpkin Soup
900 g pumpkin, peeled, seeded and cut into chunks
3 tbsp butter
1 small onion, chopped
2 tbsp flour
3 cups hot milk
1/2 cup hot chicken stock
salt and pepper
Place pumpkin into large saucepan and cover with salted water. Bring to boil and cook for 20 minutes. Drain and puree. Set aside. Melt butter in saucepan. Add onions; cook 2 minutes. Add flour; mix and cook 1 minute. Add milk; stir and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Season well and incorporate pumpkin puree and chicken stock; stir and cook 20 minutes over low heat.
Serve with croutons.

The soup was delicious, rich and creamy! Finally, something else I can do with all these pumpkins. Thank you to Jean Morris for your thoughtful gift. I have looked at that cookbook everyday. I would love to hear from others... what do you consider a truly Canadian meal? What recipe has been passed on from generation to generation in your family? If a Canadian restaurant was to open in another country, what would it serve? Please post your comments and/or recipes here.

Monday, November 2, 2009

My fellow foodie....

She was regular enough that we could continue conversations where we last left off, but not regular enough that I knew her name. When last she was in the Thai restaurant where I work, we were talking about food. Not the food that I was carefully packing into a bag for her lunch, but the kind you grow. We talked about eating locally and gardening. I told her about my blog. Then last week, she popped in, ordered the dish I had recommended to her on her last visit, and asked me if I had ever seen Canadian garlic. I told her I had. We talked about garlic politics and how much we prefer Canadian garlic. There had been a garlic seller earlier this summer at the farmer's market. I had thought that he would be there again and deemed it too early for a braid of garlic. He never returned. I told her how disappointed I was that I had missed out on the opportunity. She told me that she grew garlic herself that summer. She asked if I wanted some. Did I? Of course I did, I replied, perhaps a little too exuberantly. I was certain that this was a rhetorical question. Who didn't want fresh, locally grown bulbs of garlic? She left with her lunch, promising to return the following day with her gift of garlic.
The following morning, I watched eagerly as customers came and went. I told myself that people offer gifts all the time and never follow through. My mother always told me that it was the thought that counted. Hopefully, this thought would taste like garlic. And suddenly she came bouncing into the restaurant with an overstuffed brown paper bag, her face obscured by the feathery green tops of a bunch of carrots. Before I could say anything else, I blurted, "What's your name?" She laughed, "Trish". I smiled, took the bag from her and told her my name. She had literally just finished pulling this bounty out of her garden. The bag was filled with carrots, leeks, red onions and precious garlic. I inhaled deeply. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And as quickly as she came, she went. She left me dreaming about the endless possibilities...
The next morning I rose bright and early, scrubbed the dirt of the vegetables, trimmed them, and chopped them up into large chunks. I had decided the day before that I was going to try out this vegan soup recipe that I had found in a cookbook entitled Local Bounty: Seasonal Vegan Recipes by Devra Gartenstein.

Roasted Leek and Carrot Soup

1 pound carrots, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 pound leeks, washed and cut into 2-inch pieces
1 medium onion, quartered
1 whole head of garlic, broken into unpeeled cloves
3 T olive oil
2 Q vegetable stock or water
1 c white wine
1 c fresh parsley, chopped

¼ c nutritional yeast
1 t salt
2-3 T balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 450.
Toss carrots, leeks, and onion with the oil and spread on cookie sheet, leaving one corner free. Put the garlic cloves in the same bowl and mix around to get the last of the oil, then place in corner of the cookie sheet. Roast for 30-40 minutes, until golden.
Meanwhile, combine stock, wine, parsley, nutritional yeast, and salt and simmer over medium-low heat. When the veggies are roasted, add carrots, leeks, and onion to the stock, and squeeze the garlic out of the cloves, adding the garlic to the soup and discarding the skins. Once veggies have been added, simmer for another 30 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in balsamic. Let cool for about 15 minutes.

Blend soup in batches until smooth, taste, and adjust seasonings. Return to pot, reheat and serve.

My soup was made without the nutritional yeast because I didn't have any and I think it was just fine without it. I put only 2 1/2 Tbsp of balsamic vinegar but I think it could have used a little less. The soup was fantastic! All the flavours worked really well together. You could actually taste the freshness of the produce. The only problem with the soup was how it looked. It was the most disgusting soup I had ever seen. It smelled wonderful but it was an orangey-brown colour that just looked wrong. If you are a person who is affected by food aesthetics, this might not be the soup for you. Otherwise it was full of flavour and extremely healthy.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Trish! :)