Savouring Canada’s delicious diversity at the dinner table

posted on July 1, 2015

By Denise Balkissoon, Globe and Mail | Link to Article

By Denise Balkissoon, Globe and Mail | Link to Article

My friend Arndis decided to reclaim her ancestry – through Jell-O. She comes from a small farming town in Saskatchewan called Foam Lake and until she moved to Ontario for university, she considered herself simply Canadian (she’s white, obviously). So it was embarrassing and infuriating to be immediately pigeonholed as “rural” and a “Westerner,” someone many urbanites automatically considered culturally unsophisticated.

She decided to shake it off by throwing a dinner party, inviting friends to partake in her traditional food. “I’m sick of you guys getting to show off your fancy ‘ethnic’ foods,” she said, by which I think she meant our friend Gina’s unbelievable Afghan feasts, and, perhaps, my Trinidadian pepper sauce, which requires seeking out an aromatic herb called bandania.

Just as thoughtfully, Arndis sourced the right boxes of Jell-O, and spent all day crafting various Foam Lakeian foods (that stuff takes all day to set). The pièce de résistance was a kaleidoscopic “salad” – a layer of green Jell-O on top of a layer of orange, the first cradling chopped cabbage and the second suspending shreds of carrot. “That was a staple of all holiday meals,” she said. The wobbly dinner was very, very, sweet, but so was the whole experience. It was a perfect example of food as a cultural bridge, made and eaten with mutual affection.

It’s Canada Day, when we attempt to articulate our country’s enigmatic identity, searching for a phrase more eloquent than “not American, and not British; often cold, and with a lot of immigrants.” Because this is such a sprawling, hard-to-define place, we often seize on the immigrant part, touting Canada as a teenage nation still finding its place in the world. But immigration is a thorny subject, and holiday barbecues aren’t usually where people like to debate Pierre Trudeau’s legacy and immigration detention centres.

Instead, we shift focus to a more delicious result – the globe-tripping potluck on the picnic table, and how eating together creates understanding and harmony. New York, London and Hong Kong might like to brag, we say, but Canada is truly where intercultural harmony is achieved through wide-ranging menus.

Which is sort of true. Food is absolutely one of the most enjoyable ways to experience other cultures, and Canadians get to do that a whole lot. It feels sophisticated to turn over the lid of an empty teapot to get a fresh pour while at dim sum, and cool when the Thai takeout place doesn’t question your requested spice level. It also feels Canadian – both of my brothers have moved to the United States, and every visit home is a whirlwind of eating a slate of international foods they can’t get, despite living in Chicago and San Francisco, which also tout themselves as multicultural eating hot spots.

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