28 July 2006

Eat this event: Canada on our plates

I've always wanted to be a spy. I'm sure this comes from far too many James Bond movies in my childhood and a more than healthy "curiosity" in the world around me. At one point I seriously thought of applying to CSIS...the way I figure it is: for some unknown reason, people tend to underestimate me and are therefore unguarded when they say things around me.


I could make some huge coin just to keep the secrets I've stumbled onto.

So imagine my little ears perking up when I received an email from Canada Eats with subheads that include "Why are we writing to you?" and "Your mission?" A mission? Theme music plays in my head:

Dum dum da dum dum dum da dum
Doodle-ooo doodle-ooo do-do

Okay, it's not a spying thing...but it is a mission....

"Tell us what's Canadian food to you—is it a regional specialty? A recipe your grandmother brought over from the Old Country and adapted to the harsh prairie winters? Something you concocted on the fly for friends and family? (...)"

Growing up, Canadian food was the food I didn't eat. Being the daughter of immigrants, I was very familiar with foods people are now just discovering while the stuff eaten by others was a mystery to me.

Yes, I was fed in nursery school--I have distinct memories of insipid peas and horrid mash--and a rotten, bullying, naughty little boy who dumped my glass of milk in my plate of veg and my teacher forcing me to eat cold, milky sludge that made me nauseous.

Surprisingly enough, that didn't put me off this mystery called "Canadian food."

I wanted what I saw other children on TV eat. You know, the stuff the Bradys, the Cunninghams, and the Kings (of Kensington) ate. I was too young to really know that America was really a different country...the fact is, all these people ate things that were different than what we ate.

Mummy has stories of me coming home from nursery and primary schools at Christmas and Thanksgiving asking about turkey, because we were taught that you ate turkey at Christmas and Thanksgiving. I think that's how she really started trying other foods. She read in the newspaper how to cook turkey and she cooked it...well...overcooked it...and continued to overcook it for years. She heard about stuffing and bought boxes of Paxo until she learned how to make it herself. The moisture-sucking quality of her turkey has diminished and is now, I think, the best roast turkey served from any professional or amateur kitchen. Don't ask me what she does, those secrets are more precious than the locations of Atlantis, the Holy Grail or Jimmy Hoffa.

From colleagues and the newspaper she learned about cakes and breads, soups, different salads, pork chops and other Canadian foods--always fixing the recipes to her tastes.

But for every success there were "interesting" outcomes.

Take spaghetti and meatballs. Now, you're probably thinking "What's so mysterious about that?" Just noodles, tomato sauce and meatballs, right? Well...The noodles were okay--overdone by my current standards, but still good enough. The tomato sauce was courtesy of Heinz ketchup (it's red, it's a sauce and it's made from tomatoes)...not great. Okay, it was terrible. The meatballs...umm...

My mother hates the taste of red meat. I understand totally...there are times when I've had beef that I can only describe as "cowy." There's no other word for it. It tastes like a cow...it doesn't taste like beef. Anyway, to make it palatable to her, Mummy uses spices...copious amounts of them: lots of clove, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, onions, garlic, black pepper. I've never been a big fan of any meat that's been doctored to the point of being unrecognizable. So I, not knowing any better, didn't like spaghetti...or meatloaf (she added green bell pepper to the mix)...or any non-curry beef dish.

My dislike of ham started early because the Easter hams my mother prepared were far too salty. And no wonder...she just put the salted ham in the oven and didn't try and remove the excess, processing plant salinity...nobody told her. She basically gave up on hams after a few years, I think because of our complaints.

That said, the only Canadian food that she didn't make (often) was fried chicken. My dad developed a taste for Mary Brown's Fried chicken and then Kentucky Fried Chicken, so once every few weeks we'd get some fried chicken. It was greasy and salty and ...I'd end up with a tummy ache from all that skin...To this day, Kentucky Fried Chicken (never called KFC) is a treat, reserved for when they return from India or their birthdays or if they've spent the day wandering and she refuses to step foot in the kitchen.

But here's the thing I couldn't figure out. If Canadian food was so terrible, so horrid, so nauseating...why did Marsha Brady love it so much? I think I dismissed her as deranged from being hit by that football.

My neighbours, also immigrants, also didn't eat what I saw on TV. They were Portuguese so they had really, really great food that didn't use ketchup (afaik). So it wasn't as if I could ask them.

As I got older and started making "Canadian friends" -- those of you whose parents weren't born in Canada know what I mean -- I started figuring things out. Meatloaf was just like a plain bit of ground beef with just some salt and black pepper. Lasagna had some of that meat and a tomato sauce that wasn't ketchup with flat, non-mushy noodles and lots of cheese...Okay....it was more than a bit boring...but it tasted a lot better than what my mum's versions were.

I told her of this stuff I ate at their houses and, looking back, I could tell that she knew that she was beginning to lose me. I found someone else's cooking better than hers.

Not better...just a nice break.

It was only a matter of time when my friends and I got our driving licenses and started working, dispensing our minimum-wage paycheques at takeaways and road houses. I soon started trying things my mum would never eat: crab, lobster, sushi, escargot. She never understood why I wanted to eat those things...and still doesn't. So as I discovered Italian, French, Creole, Japanese, Thai, Ethiopian and Korean foods, she just clucked away while mincing ginger or stirring sambhar.

Okay...she and my dad do like Korean food--kimchi and bulgogee especially, and they love the pickled ginger that comes with sushi, but they won't admit to that.

Mummy, in her own way, has adapted Canadian foods to her tastes--roasted meats, stirfries and pastas are served as often as rice, curries and pickles.

So, in hindsight, I suppose Canadian food represents many things to me: it was one of the things that kept me different from others, but it was also the thing that helped me become my own person, with my own tastes and opinions.

That said, I still think Marsha Brady would have benefitted from some of my mum's cooking.


PS -- It's not too late to join in this blogging event and you don't have to be Canadian to join in. All you have to do is write a post about what Canadian food means to you. Send a link to your post to canadaeats {at} gmail {dot} com by Midnight 11:59 pm (EST) 30 July. The very good people at Canada Eats will do the rest.



Deetsa said...

Very cool post! I enjoyed it very much.

Sara said...

Jasmine I love your writing. I really enjoyed reading this.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jasmine, apologies to your mother, but I laughed out loud at this one. Very entertaining, and your experience of Canadian food rings so very true for many families. My family came here when I was very young, and have never gone in much for Canadian food (never mind that I'm asking everyone else to give me the rundown on it), although I do have vague recollections of ocassional meatloaf dinners. Growing up, whatever landed up on the table has simply gone under the general category of "mom's food," a free-floating entity unfettered by questions of provenance. You've gotten me curious now about my parents' first interactions with Canadian food when we came here.

And thanks for participating in this month's Eat This Event. We're excited about hosting our first event. The round-up will be posted tomorrow morning (I got "stuck" at the Hillside Festival in Guelph this weekend, so everything's running a bit late).

Cheers, Lea

jasmine said...

Hi All

Nerissa and Sara -- Thanks!

Lea -- Thanks for inviting me. My mum is VERY cute--everyone who's met her says so. I have other stories about her which will come out in time...