23 June 2008

Mmm...Canada: Pizza, Feta, and the Original Kraft Dinner

The search for Canada's national food identity has been going on for as long as I can remember. No less a public figure than Pierre Burton looked into it for the CBC and decided, in the end, that our national food was pizza. Everyone eats it. Everyone loves it. Maybe not everyone, he admitted, but he presented as evidence the Saskatoon phone book which, at that time, was not a huge tome and which contained seventeen pages devoted to pizza. If a mid-sized city in the middle of the prairies could be so devoted to Italian food, what better proof could there be that Canada was all about pepperoni?

What Burton didn't know was that Saskatoon pizza is unlike pizza anywhere else, because Saskatoon's Italian restaurants are unlike Italian restaurants anywhere else. I grew up in Saskatoon and was nearly ten years old by the time I realized that Italian restaurants are not typically named "Athena" and "Delphi", and they do not typically offer baklava for dessert. Saskatoon's Italian restaurants, by and large, are owned by Greek restauranteurs and offer frajolaki as well as extra large loaded pizzas. With feta, if you'd like.

Pizzas in Saskatoon are substantial propositions. You don't face them casually, or alone. Rather than with sauce, cheese, and the toppings scattered on… well, the top… Saskatoon pizza involves a full layer of everything you've ordered. A layer of ham. A layer of pepperoni. A layer of sautéed mushrooms and a layer of green pepper and on it goes, until you get to the top where a thick layer of pizza cheese pins everything down. These are slices, or squares, you lift with both hands. I'm not saying this is an ideal way to make pizza. It's not delicate, and it's certainly an invitation to a heart attack. I'm just saying this is how it was, and that Burton didn't know what he was saying, really, when he held Saskatoon's pizza obsession up as a typical thing.

Burton, though a northerner and a westerner by birth, had been in Toronto many years by the time he filed that report. He was surrounded by Italians who ran proper Italian restaurants. How was he to know that Saskatoon was quirky, and Greek?

But this is the question, again and again, that we face when we try to determine Canada's national anything. What part of Canada do you mean? And what will you find when you get there?

This country is huge. Only Russia is larger. We know this, but there are so few of us and we're so accustomed to connecting across our distances that we don't always grasp it. Saskatoon is farther from Toronto than Madrid is from Copenhagen, yet no one is trying to find a food that ties Madrid and Copenhagen together. Clearly, that would be ridiculous.

What's more, we think we know each other's communities, and tastes, and specialties, because we do know a little about them. Alberta beef. PEI potatoes. BC apples. Yes, those things exist, and they are flavours of their regions, but you see them for the broad strokes they are when you're having excellent Ethiopian food in Calgary. It gets complicated on the ground.

So, do we abandon the search for a flavour of Canada? You might think, based on what I've said so far, that I would recommend it. We're too large and too diverse a nation to capture that way. Oddly, though, I do think there's a flavour of Canada, and I think Saskatoon's Greek pizza is a hint to what it is.

When I think about Canada and food, I don't think of maple or salmon or buffalo sausage. I think of feta on pizza. I think of every holiday celebration at school, when I would load my plate with Cantonese sticky buns and Italian scalidi and Ukrainian holobchi and whatever else my friends' parents had cooked for us. I think about the neighbourhood I live in now, where I'll visit a Caribbean grocery store and a Portuguese bakery on my home from the 7-Eleven. And I think about how a friend of mine is supposed to be sending me some kick-ass bannock, and how she tries to convince me that moose is the best steak around.

To me, the flavour of Canada, savoury or sweet, is everything, and lots of it, sometimes in strange combinations. You can dip holobchi or satay in pretty much anything and see how it goes. You can get comfortable with all kinds of food, not in a self-conscious "I am an urban sophisticate" way, but in the way that you're comfortable with anything else you grew up with, including Kraft Dinner. Which, by the way, Canadians in Europe have shipped to them, because they can't get it there —not the real thing—and they can't live without it.

That's my Canadian food. It's everything. It's baklava after pizza. It's Kraft Dinner. It's leftover satay thrown into Kraft Dinner. It's whatever I'm having for lunch today, which will be whatever I'm in the mood for. And it will be good.

Gayleen Froese,
Alberta, Canada