When was the first time you tasted food from outside your own culture?
The answer depends not only on where you grew up, but also when. Our modern food obsession may be shallow, but it has opened up worlds to diners who would, in previous generations, have stuck to the meat and potatoes of their own neighbourhoods.
As a food writer, I’ve encountered all manner of eaters: picky eaters, adventurous eaters, voracious and insatiable eaters, eaters with expensive appetites, eaters with exotic taste, fussy eaters, sustenance eaters, dare eaters who will bite into a cobra’s heart just for bragging rights, eaters who don’t have enough to eat, monastic eaters, allergic eaters, snobby eaters — and their counterpart, anti-snob eaters (who, as Russell Lynes explains in his 1950 book Snobs, are the worst kind of snobs) — fast eaters and slow eaters, curious eaters, academic eaters, and disinterested eaters like my great-uncle Putty, who once said, “Food is food. What else is there to say?”
Like many people, I grew up so sheltered that I didn’t know how sheltered I was. So I was a sheltered eater, unaware that there was food beyond my father’s coagulated meatloaf, over-boiled broccoli, and sticky tuna casserole. I thought salami was a Jewish food, exclusively made of beef. Imagine my surprise, years later, when I discovered that I’d been eating a kosher version of something made all over Europe, mostly with pork.
Fortunately, I grew up in North York, which back in those days of Goonies, Gremlins, and Ghoulies was a suburb of Toronto. Because of where I lived, I ended up being exposed to foods unlike any prepared in my family’s kitchen.
This city likes to promote its motto, “Diversity our strength,” but such pride doesn’t always seem warranted, given how much economic and racial segregation exists here.
But when I was a kid, I had a group of friends who were an actual representation of the city we strive to be. I was the Jewish kid in a group that included Indian, Italian, Ethiopian, Jamaican, and German kids. And though at recess, my elementary-school friends spoke almost exclusively about X-Men, Jedi, and Transformers, they gave me my first tastes of a much larger world.
My introduction to real spice came during a playdate at Anooj’s house. I remember how my embrace of the curry’s heat impressed his mother. I recall staring at her, transfixed as she stretched out some kind of dough on the kitchen table, awestruck as much by the concept of Indian cuisine as by the effort involved. I remember the confusion and delight I felt as I bit into the hot, salty, crispy treat she handed me and how amused she was by this boy who’d never eaten papadum.
I lived with my brother and father on a street lined with three-storey structures, each one an identical rectangle housing six apartments. School was two blocks away. And if I timed my morning walk right, I could meet Greg, who would give me one of his two Jamaican beef patties.
My friend Benjo lived in a nearby neighbourhood referred to by everyone I knew as “the Jungle,” a term I didn’t realize was incredibly racist until years later. Benjo’s German mother offered me some kind of sausage, but I suspected it contained pork and I was just kosher enough to reluctantly pass.
One night when I slept over at Jamie’s, his East Coast dad came home at midnight with crabs and lured us away from the television’s glow with the promise of something special and scandalous. I kept kosher for another five years, secretly holding on to the memory of that one mouthful of buttery shellfish.
I never went to Danny’s house, so it would be many years before I’d learn anything about Italian food beyond the Nutella sandwiches he traded me for salami at lunchtime. I packed my own lunches, so it was no trouble to make an extra salami sandwich with mustard on rye.
Ambasanger, who joined us in Grade 5, never traded. He had come to Canada from Ethiopia during that country’s epidemic famine.
If Ambasanger brought berbere-spiced wat and tips with injera, he kept it to himself, and they never became currency in our lunchroom.
As a nine-year-old, I didn’t understand the ways we exclude people and their food, othering whatever doesn’t belong; I didn’t know how many children grow up ashamed of their culture’s food and its smells and beg their parents for Lunchables so they can fit in. (Much later, the secret shame of their youth is often trotted out as the latest hip food fad, as happened with teff.)
I was sent to a public junior high school in a Jewish neighbourhood so I could be around people who were more like me. And it sucked. The things that were supposed to make us similar were, to an agnostic pre-teen, irrelevant. I don’t remember a bite of food from those three years.
But in high school, I became friends with two Steves — one Portuguese and one Korean. The former showed me how beautiful a properly made meatloaf can be, and the latter introduced me to kimchi. “There are other pickles?” I exclaimed as I gobbled up the spicy fermented cabbage, then asked where I could get more. He told me he’d ask his grandmother.
I’d thought pickles were only for Jews and made only in the sour-dill style. When I was a kid, we’d sometimes go to Mike’s Munchies, a burger place near our home, and my father would tell me that its sweet pickles were not “real” pickles and that I wouldn’t like them.
I can't imagine how limited my palate would be today if I'd grown up only with people who were just like me. Because of my work, because of my interest in food, I’ve eaten ca kho to with a professor from Vietnam who told me about escaping the country during communism and working as a child labourer on a Michigan blueberry farm; kimchi stew with a guy who gives tours of North Korea; and matoke with people who fled Uganda, where it’s illegal to be gay. All these moments were made possible by my culinary curiosity.
In recent years, the public has become aware of more cuisines, and the supremacy of European cooking has been challenged. I explored the dark side of this in a column about the inherent racism of restaurant pricing — consumers will pay twice as much for handmade Italian noodles as they will for Chinese noodles. But the upside is that our diets are far more varied than they used to be.
That’s one of the things that the recently departed Anthony Bourdain tried to teach us. He used food as a vehicle to get us interested in other countries. And he followed it up with ever-expanding explorations of the people, history and struggles of these places.
Yes, there are problems with our modern food culture — but it has also fuelled human curiosity, empathy, and understanding.
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