While travelling abroad, eating something that tastes – however vaguely – of home has a ballasting effect, like grabbing onto the sturdy bannister of a ship being pitched through a tempest. And seeing your national cuisine reflected, funhouse mirror-style, can prove instructive.
Sometimes, we don't know what we mean to the world until our identity is distilled, deep-fried or oven-baked, and sold back to us in grease-globbed napkins.
In Prague, I've slurped a deconstructed Bloody Mary – the closest thing you can get to the stereotypically Canadian Caesar in places that aren't hip to the briny kick of Clamato – served with a piece of bacon on the side.
In Paris, drawn by irony and aberrant curiosity, some friends and I darkened the doorstop of the Great Canadian Pub, on Boulevard Saint-Michel, overlooking the Seine. We sat at the bar amid an upholstery of Habs paraphernalia.
And then there's Germany. I have, in a diner in Berlin's Potsdamer Platz, dined on a club sandwich – a food I, rightly or wrongly, associate with Canada. For Germany's many miracles with fast food (Turkish doner sandwiches, currywurst), this club was doubtless the lousiest I've tasted. Like, utterly contemptuous – reviling its very form, and despising me for even ordering it. As I looked warily into the folds of warm mayo, grilled chicken, soggy bacon and Texas toast, I swear I could see it smirking back at me, as if to say, "Hey. Screw you, buddy."
Elsewhere in Berlin, in the southeastern Kreuzberg borough, there's a most curious place: Ron Telesky, a restaurant specializing in "Canadian Pizza."
It's a concept I'd never heard of, probably because it can't really be said to exist.
Inside and out, Ron Telesky is an almost parodic shrine to Canadiana. It takes its name from a Winnipeg taxidermist, who stuffed a moose head that hangs on the wall. (Speaking of Mooseheads, the restaurant also sells the crummy, Parmesan-tasting East Coast lagers, at €3 – about $4.40 – a pop.) There's a sawed-off canoe adorning the exterior, and a picture of former prime minister Stephen Harper bearing the inscription "HEIL HARPER" – a joke that manages to be sort-of-offensive to Canadians and Germans – tacked up near the mounted moose.
One of the main draws is pizza topped with spicy/sweet maple chili sauce. There's not much else that makes the offerings meaningfully, recognizably "Canadian."
Certainly, there's no stable category of specifically Canadian pizza preparation akin to other styles, such as New York (with its foldable thin crust), Chicago (deep dish, like a sweaty, cheesy pie), Neapolitan (puffy, oven-baked crust) or California (thin crust, needlessly fancy accoutrements).
This conspicuous lack of a distinctly Canuck pie just gave owner Sebastian Hunold room to cook up pizzas with uniquely – if admittedly somewhat arbitrarily – Canadian identities. There's the "Summer of 69" (coriander pesto, mango and sweet potato), the "Farley Mowat" (as close to a plain cheese slice as you'll find at Ron Telesky), and the "Cronenberg Crash" (a deconstructed vegan salad of coriander tofu, mango, pesto and peanuts slammed onto a pizza because, says Hunold, "It looks like a crash!").
Now 40, Hunold came to Canada in the early 1990s as an exchange student. He lived in Millbrook, Ont., and worked at the Night Kitchen "artisanal pizzeria" in Peterborough, where he learned to sweeten pizza by drizzling honey on top, a lifelong inspiration.
He also developed a taste for less adventurous, but no less satisfying, Canadian delivery options. "I had a phase when I went a lot to Domino's Pizza," he remembers. "It was good. They had a good deal: two slices, an Oh Henry! bar, and a pop for $4.99."
With a seemingly boundless mélange of toppings on top of a paper-thin crust (the best way to eat it is to roll it up like a doughy cigar), Hunold's Canadian pizza splits the difference between Californian and New York styles. And Ron Telesky's offerings aren't limited to Canadian names: Hunold's workshopped a Hungarian goulash pizza and a Christmas offering topped with goose and chestnuts and is currently engineering a chicken-and-waffles pie. He brags that he has "no boundaries."
There may seem to be a spirit of anarchic laziness underpinning the approach. Like: Just take some stuff and throw it on a pizza. Yet, it's this broad-minded inclusiveness, this embrace of everything-ness, that evokes something of the Canadian identity.
Attempts to distill "Canada" into junk foodstuffs have proved similarly diverse, such as Lay's annual "Taste of Canada" potato chip rollout (including Montreal Smoked Meat, PEI Scalloped Potatoes and Indian-style Butter Chicken) and Pizza Hut Canada's own short-lived deployment of nationalistic slabs (beef poutine, grilled chicken club).
Ours is a widely varied culture, accounting for European and East Asian cuisines, aboriginal wild game and hearty Québécois peasant foods, plus butter tarts, ketchup chips, bannock, bagels, peameal bacon and Nanaimo bars. Canadian food – like Canadian-ness itself – can mean anything, everything and nothing all at once.
At the risk of belabouring the metaphor, Canadian identity is a bit like pizza: a blank slate upon which anything can be written – or oven-baked. It may sound cheesy, or delusionally self-affirming. But as comfort food goes, it sure beats a soggy club sandwich and a rank Moosehead.