Canadian culture can often seem indistinguishable from American. They take our beef and handsome-yet-unthreatening Ryans in exchange for their lettuce and HBO.
But we do have our own food.
When tourists to Canada leave the country, taking home bags of ketchup potato chips, or bottles of maple syrup, we say, “Whoa, that’s not us.” But it is. It’s just that Canada is a big place. And, as Lenore Newman notes in her new book, Speaking in Cod Tongues, we are largely free of the burdensome homogeneity imposed by nationalism.
“National cuisines reflect the primacy of certain groups over others,” writes Newman. “The uneasy tension between French and English meant that Canada never established a monolithic identity.”
But just because no single influence dominates our food culture doesn’t mean there aren’t some groups that are shuffled to the bottom of the deck.
“It is hard not to notice that among all of the mixing of culinary cultures across Canada, to the point of creolization in places, one group is largely missing,” writes Newman. “The culinary voices of indigenous Canadians have been tragically silenced for most of Canada’s history … But as a rule oppressed groups do not get the chance to market their culinary traditions to others.”
While Newman, Canada Research Chair in Food Security & the Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley, is quick to acknowledge our cuisine as “nebulous,” she seeks to explore and explain Canadian cuisine, zeroing in on seasonality, wild ingredients and multiculturalism as the key identifiers.
Newman has a lot to say, and I’m an eager audience for all of it. Despite that, once I started, I found myself dreading reading this book.
A typical passage goes, “The interesting reality of life in a global era is that diversity emerges as both a reaction to and a marketing technique of globalizing forces.”
That mouthful sounds like a good topic. But before Newman can expand on it with examples, she’s off to discuss the nation-state as social construct.
Newman’s academic cadence put me to sleep – not with visions of Canadiana dancing in my head, but the tedium of being in a cold, quiet classroom of a professor who was counting on a broken slide projector to help history come alive.
After a brief introduction, describing the piles of lobster eaten by Canada’s founding fathers, Newman goes another 30 pages without engaging us with a story. The anecdote feels like it must have been an addition at the insistence of an editor, to sandwich the stream of trivia. Despite a promise that “I became a geographer who writes about food because I am curious about the untold stories of what we eat,” it’s all tell and no show.
What a shame that Newman should have spent years researching, criss-crossing the country, visiting markets, eating regional dishes and meeting the people who prepare them, only to distill all these experiences into talks of identity minus character, theory without opinion, observations without stories.
If you can get past the droning citation of other scholars, there is plenty here to explore. The meat of the book, a cataloging of regional foods, is full of fascinating tidbits. Did you know that Canada is one of the world’s largest producers of mustard? That you can still get fiskibollur (fish balls) and vinarterta (prune and cardamom cake) in Gimli, Man., once called New Iceland by immigrants who fled the 1875 eruption of Mount Askja? That a milk glut in the 1950s prompted dairies to produce and market curds in bags as snack food, leading to the creation of poutine? That in 1931, Chinese Canadians ran 20 per cent of the country’s restaurants, despite being only 1 per cent of the population?
Newman is occasionally cheeky, describing farmers’ markets as “a necessary piece of street furniture for the global city.” But outside of a discussion about climate change (it’ll be bad for food) Newman is sparse with editorializing, only hinting support for the idea that maple syrup should have designations of origin taken as seriously as those of wine.
“I can think of no other country so deeply associated with a single species of tree,” writes Newman. “Maple established itself early as a key element of settler culture, even though other such innovations taken from indigenous peoples did not last over time.”
Though maple syrup may be a cliché we’re often quick to reject, she finds that of all the food traditions that carry through amongst the provinces and territories, it is the most consistent.
“Analysis of menus collected over two years of research in both English and French, drawn from across the country, confirmed what was obvious in my fieldwork: maple syrup is used in all regions … Maple is made into pies, fried, made into toffee on snow and turned into whisky. It is a complex flavour both sweet and umami, and this complexity makes it difficult to craft a chemical alternative.”
Upon reading this, I immediately made pancakes with maple syrup.
Despite my frustration, I got a lot out of this book. My biggest takeaway will be the term ethnoburb, a handy (and, I pray, not offensive) shorthand for something that’s been a major force in shaping cuisine across North America.
“In the classical description of immigration, incoming groups settled in the inner city and moved out to the suburbs only once they had assimilated into the dominant culture. Ethnoburbs, on the other hand, form through chain immigration in a world where immigrants have the resources to move into suburban communities.”
She goes on to say that this has resulted in an “acceleration of accommodation of new foods,” which I will translate as “white people learned to love spicy food.”
“Unfortunately, for many of these groups, of which Chinese Canadians were one,” Newman writes in the book’s most telling sentence on Canada’s multiculturalism, “their food was accepted long before their people.”
Corey Mintz is a Toronto-based food writer and author of How to Host a Dinner Party.Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: