culinary identities

Over the years, my students and I have talked a lot about citizenship this term, both the formal kind that grants you things like passports and voting privileges, but also the informal kind, encapsulated in the idea of the imagined community, folks united by virtue of shared conceptualizations of belonging. Our journeys together have taken us from the battles for suffrage (and the complexities, inclusions and exclusions in relation to questions of  voter rights … not just women, but conscientious objectors, Indo-Canadians, Japanese-Canadians, aboriginal peoples, etc…) and deep into questions of belonging. On what basis have nation-states been founded? Who determines – and has determined – the parameters of belonging? And how might the exclusions bring into high relief the politics of inclusion?

A number of years ago, I was fortunate to be able to attend a talk (given by Dr. Tim Cresswell) that brought all of these ideas to bear in relation to the question of mobility and citizenship; that is, the extent to which mobility is a taken for granted aspect of “citizenship,” but at the same time, the acknowledgement that there are proper and improper mobilities, each of which inscribe bodies both within and outside of imagined communities of citizens.

Mobility is something that  I, once possessed of dual citizenship in the form of a bright and shiny EU passport as well as a more stolid – but well recognized – Canadian passport, have been fortunate enough to take for granted. For the most part I have travelled by choice. Crossing borders has rarely been fraught; indeed, I have enjoyed the privileges that this pair of passports has accorded me. Such mobility isn’t always that simple. In our classes, we have reflected on the troubled mobility of refugees and internally displaced persons. And in relation to refugee experience, we have considered, too, the idea of a “home camp,” an oxymoronic term that asks us to link the idea of home – that is, of a stable, fixed place – with the idea of camp – that is, of a temporary shelter.

More recently, however, I’ve begun thinking about how citizenship manifests itself on/in the body itself. And that reflection has led me to thinking about the palate. Over the years, I’ve heard many conversations about food. My students are an eclectic bunch: some have called Newfoundland and Labrador home since birth… and even, for centuries before this. Others have travelled to St. John’s from around the globe. In the classroom, food conversations are always interesting.

“How do you get a plantain banana to ripen here?” a Ghanaian student asked in despair. She’d bought a deep green plantain and it had been sitting in her cupboard for months already, still as green as the day she bought it. An Ecuadorian student chimed in, and then a Mexican one, and the conversation quickly turned to recipes, with each student savouring both flavours and memories.

Other encounters of the palate have taken on a more surreal bent: one student happily discussing the antics of her pet rats learned that another grew up in a country where rats, sold by roadside vendors, were a delicacy: cooked into a rich stew, rat meat is apparently tender and flavourful.

We’ve also had food discussions at home, particularly around the concept of what foods we, living in Canada, might call our own.

Saskatoon pie, a flavour from my prairie childhood, recreated in St. John’s with saskatoons picked along the city’s walking trails. Here in Newfoundland, they’re called chuckley pears, but they still have that same, delicious nutty taste. And it’s much easier to pick them because there are no mosquitoes!


In any case, all of this thinking sent my mind scuttling back to my Dutch heritage. Which of the foods that seem to define ‘Dutch’ identity could I identify with, and if I didn’t identify with them, what did this mean for Dutch identity?

Beer? Yuck.
Marzipan? Not a fan.
Black liquorice? Nope.
Coffee? I’ll pass.

I hate all of those things. I love the smell of coffee. I could sit in a coffee shop all day. But the flavour has always been a huge disappointment. Beer, marzipan, and drop … well, let’s just say that we’ve never had a particularly amicable relationship.

And yet those are all quintessentially Dutch foods. They are markers of national identity; consuming them confirms one’s belonging in the imagined community that is “Dutchness.” In relation to this, what does my Dutchness mean?

Ok. I do like some Dutch things. Oliebollen, for example, have become part of our New Year’s Eve celebrations. Actually, I like a lot of other Dutch things, too: vla, speculaas, ontbijtkoek, overjarige gouda, krentenbollen….

National identity – imagined community – is fundamentally shaped by the palate; that is, by the flavours, textures and smells of the food that we call ‘home.’ These flavours, textures and smells mark boundaries of belonging and exclusion. They make certain things acceptable through the active exclusion of other things. Certain smells – batter fried fish and chips, for example – might be perfectly acceptable while others – lamb curry… or garlicky hummous, for example – might not. Through this process of inclusions and exclusions we further refine our palates, shaping them – and ourselves – into ideal members of our chosen (or imposed) imagined communities.

Cookbooks can formalize so-called citizenships of the palate. Indeed, the sharing of recipes is, as my colleague, Diane Tye, has pointed out, central to building and sustaining community. Recipes mark social and cultural bonds, uniting people (often women) by virtue of gender, class, religion, geography… Cookbooks formalize the palate, inscribing and fixing ideologies of culinary belonging.

But what does this mean for the imagined community that is Canadian settler society? Of what does our palate consist? What is “Canadian” about the various flavours, textures and smells that we celebrate? Is there anything “Canadian” at all? And how, indeed, might thinking about our palates ask us to trouble the very notion of national identity itself (a topic I explored in an essay I wrote together with a former student)?

When asked about Canadian identity, the general tendency has been to draw on a mythical “shared” Indigenous heritage. Heck, it’s what Canadian beauty queens have done with fashion, and, after all, in the culinary realm what could be a more ‘Canadian’ recipe than pemmican? Ah, the sad irony of appropriating Native food while actively excluding Canada’s Indigenous peoples from both the formal and informal rights of citizenship.

As I think through all of this, I also reflect on the palate we’re developing in our home in St. John’s. Our approach to food is eclectic, international. We like spices. We like garlic. We like beans and chickpeas and lentils. We favour a diverse diet that draws inspiration from India, Japan, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, North Africa,  and Western Europe. Oftentimes we bring these traditions together in what are likely entirely inappropriate ways.

A fish stew, with coconut gently spiced with ginger and garlic, from a book called 5 Spices, 50 Dishes, by Ruth Kahate.

When I step back, I realise that we operate, food-wise, in a mode of travel. With family heritages that stretch from the Faroe Islands, Iceland, the Netherlands, and Germany, to India, Africa, South America, and North America, mobility is central to our palate, central to who we define ourselves to be. And we transmit this idea through every meal we create and share together. Perhaps this is unsurprising. Histories of travel have fundamentally shaped our identities. It seems logical that such histories would be reflected in the foods that I have chosen to call my own.

What stories does your palate tell?

My first attempt at a New Zealand staple: the pavlova, or “pav” for short  Here on an African print tablecloth stitched from fabric I purchased in Suriname.

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