Valerie Lugonja began the Canadian Food Experience Project on June 7, 2013. Each month, participants share their collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences. As I personally think Canadians do have a food identity, the hope of the project is that we will bring clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. I strongly encourage you to participate by visiting the many other great voices and websites out there and, if you’re a Canadian blogger yourself, please take up the challenge yourself. Also, a special thank you to Marie-Josée Martin for sharing the project with me.
This month, the challenge is to write about a Canadian Food Hero. I have been thinking about this since I received the news of the project and at first I thought I would travel out to Waratah Organic Farms and interview the owner as part of the project. Alas, my weekend landscaping got the better of me and time didn’t permit.
So I’ve continued to think, what makes someone a Canadian food hero? I suppose it would be someone that changed food in this country, changed the way we think about food, or did something inspiring about food. And of course, they should be Canadian. I’ll confess, though, that I’m not really much up on the history of food in this or any other country and to do research to discover the inventor of Canola oil (yes, it’s a Canadian creation = Canadian Oil = Canola) would seem too much like a book report. Reporting on chef Michael Smith and his successful part in removing junk food from Canada’s Summer Games would seem too much like journalism. None of this is really me. Hence, back to basics and, cliché as it may be, the words taught to any aspiring writer: write about what you know. So…
… that brings me to my Dad.
I know. Too easy and definitely a cliché. But it’s what I know.
My Dad isn’t a great chef. He’s not a professional in the food industry. And, to the best of my knowledge, he’s never worked in a culinary kitchen. He’s a retired plumber. Not your typical food hero, I suspect.
I’d like to think that someday perhaps I might be a food “hero” to someone. Perhaps one day a nephew or niece, my partner, a stranger, someone I haven’t met yet, or perhaps my stepson will look to me as their food hero, as someone who instilled in them a passion, a love, an appreciation, and/or an understanding of food. If that day ever happens, they should know that I exist as a foodie, as a person who loves food and has learned to cook the way I do today … because of my father.
We were never rich growing up and money was often a “topic” in our family. We didn’t eat out much; most food was home cooked, basic, and prepared by my mother. Great moments in my childhood were standing on a stool beside my father cooking Sunday-breakfast pancakes or an early morning breakfast for just the two of us before we went fishing. Or there was the time he taught me to make liver and onions, something only he and I would eat … and which is still comfort food to me to this day. But for all those sentimental memories, I can’t say that my father taught me how to cook. I don’t owe that to him.
What my father gave me is a love of food.
One of my strongest childhood memories is one evening that my father and mother took my sister and I out to dinner at the best restaurant in Kelowna, what was then still a tiny town where we lived. It was the restaurant of the Capri Hotel. I was perhaps 8 or 9 years old and my sister much younger.
We were all dressed up, at least as much as we dressed up in our family, and we were going out to celebrate. I assume my father had just received a large pay cheque, I don’t know. He instructed us to “Order anything you want.” And by that he didn’t mean anything off of the kid’s menu.
I remember having a Shirley Temple and starting with shrimp cocktail. It was the ’70s and the decor was low lighting and dark wood interior. It was the kind of place I’d only seen on TV and in the movies. I felt so adult sitting there with my drink watching all the dressed up adults. This was fun. I couldn’t wait to get old.
When it came time to order, I remember being overwhelmed by the menu. None of the dishes were like anything I’d ever seen or eaten. I remember my mother saying “You’d like this” but don’t remember what it was she had pointed to in the menu. But I remember my father saying to my mother, “Let him pick what he wants…. It’s ok, Son — order anything you want.”
I saw tiger prawns on the menu and said “I want that.” I honestly don’t know what was special about the dish but I suspect it was probably shrimp Neptune or some other tried-and-true classic done way too many times. I say that because I do remember that the dish was in a cream sauce and was very very rich — and, like I said, it was the ’70s.
My mother gave a scornful look but my father just said, “Sure, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it.” These were not words my father normally said. Food was not wasted at home. Leftovers got eaten; what wasn’t eaten got made into stew; and what stew didn’t get eaten, I swear, got made into the next batch of stew.
I was so excited when my plate arrived. There were probably 6 large tiger prawns; I don’t even know if I knew what a prawn was before that night. They were covered in a thick white sauce that may have been a rich cheese or it could have been crab … I don’t know. What I remember are those intensely “weird” and different flavours that rushed through my mouth with that first bite. I was again overwhelmed by it all but I plunged through and ate perhaps 3 or 4 prawns before saying I was done. My Dad smiled at me and said “You did good. That’s a very rich dish.”
What’s important about this meal is really not the food. I am certain that I’d sneer at it if it were served to me today. But that doesn’t change the way I feel about that meal. In that meal, I learned to take risks; I learned to try new things; I learned not to fear food; I learned that food could be exhilarating. That it could be liberating even. I learned that food was in fact power and, for an evening, I felt like an adult.
My Dad encouraged me. In part, I think he did so because he was feeling especially big that day, powerful himself, like he could give his children anything they wanted. That night he was a father and a father that I still love to this day. But the part to this that has made more sense to me as life has ticked along is that my father is himself a foodie. He probably doesn’t even know it, but he is. Most of the people on his side of the family are … they love food. They love good food. Every time my Dad comes for a visit, he asks me to cook for him now. He’ll say “I feel like lamb” or “Can you do duck breasts?” He gives me ideas and then he sits back and smiles like he did that night at the Capri Hotel — in that moment, I’m his son who loves to cook, who loves food, and whose father thinks he can do anything.
Please check-out more Canadian Food Heroes as submitted by others in the project.