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.

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