Any discussion of a writer’s voice will surely evoke allusions to Virginia Woolf’s emancipating book, A Room of One’s Own. Writing with her own strong voice, she breaks barriers and all but seizes a voice that she proclaims her own … and in the process she creates an anthem for women writers the world over. She writes: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write….” As powerful as her words were in her own time, it strikes me that her words have relevance to anyone who is writing in the shadows of any hegemony, patriarchal or otherwise. While it has historically been easier for men to write, the metaphor still holds truth for any writer seeking to discover her or his own voice … and it holds great truth for me. All of us who write or follow our artistic muses, we all require time free from interruption (a locked door as she writes) but also the support, safety, and freedom to do so. And, in many ways, having the ability to write is the product of privilege.
Woolf was in many ways speaking as a personal trainer for writers, almost predicting Maslow and his hierarchy of needs, at least as they applied to writing. “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” She may have been speaking of food as holistic nourishment, but I think she was also writing ahead to those of us who might become passionate writers about food.
It strikes me that I’ve been seeking my own voice for decades, writing against an anxiety of influence on the one hand and set of external expectations that I’ve projected onto my writing on the other – and, for a very long time, I wrote what and how I thought I should instead of how I actually felt and thought. A few decades in the grip of formal education and the constancy of being corrected and told how to write didn’t help me in finding my voice, but it did provide me the strong mechanics for writing. And reading thousands of great works definitely made it even harder to connect to my own voice. No doubt those formal components to my writerly education still bubble through at inopportune moments. But somehow, through all of it, I did manage to find a room of my own; I managed to find a secure place to create and jettison so much baggage that was weighing me down; and I shut out the history and found the courage to just write from my heart … and not from my brain (as much). That room room of my own has, in many ways, been my kitchen.
Though I continue to cultivate and refine my voice, experiment with different subjects and forms, my real coming out and coming into my voice was articulated when I created this blog and was ready to take my new voice public. And then, several months later, along came Valerie Lugonja and her challenge to participate and contribute towards the discovery of a Canadian food identity: The Canadian Food Experience Project. So in addition to Woolf’s proclamation that we need to discover a room of our own to create, I now needed to discover the whole house, my region, my province, and my country … and I needed to articulate my relationship with food and discover quite fundamentally who I am and why I’m passionate about it.
Over the past twelve months, I have discovered my own Canadian food-voice. It would be easy to say that because the voice is my own, authentically my own, and the fact that I’m Canadian, and proudly so, that my voice is therefore Canadian. Yes, that would be the easy thing to say …. But in almost all aspects of life, actions speak louder than words and so Valerie cleverly set the stage for a series of challenges – actions – that would help each of us discover, exemplify, and articulate what our own Canadian food identities might be.
Not surprisingly in a country as vast and diverse as this, there has not been a single thing that has defined our Canadian voice … or our cuisine. Over a hundred writers have contributed to this national project and each of us has worked within our current environment and terroir to write about our local food experiences. It is not surprising, then, that the food we’ve created varies hugely, from food pulled from different oceans, rivers and lakes to that produced from different trees, different soils, different temperatures, humidity, and elevations. My own personal experience is hugely informed by the fact that I’ve lived in four of the 13 provinces and territories in this country. As I relearned through this project which also began with a return ‘home’ to BC last year, the Okanagan Valley will always be part of who I am. But so is the fact of where I live today: Ottawa. So are the experiences of having traveled this great world and having lived in two other continents and countries — and Asian and Mediterranean food both are big parts of my culinary identity as a result. As much as we live in a multicultural country, I myself am a multicultural product of the places and people I’ve visited and the places I’ve lived. I know full well how incredibly fortunate I’ve been, to have seen more of the countries I’ve lived than many of the people who are from these places. Much of this fortune is a result of my personality, my curiosity, my courage to explore … but I know that more than any of that, I’m fortunate to have been born Canadian and to have had the opportunities to live the life I have. I’m fortunate to know what a fresh apple smells like off a tree in BC and to know what freshly boiled maple syrup tastes like in Ontario. It is that fortune that allowed me to create all the dishes I created in response to the challenges of this project.
Some might read these posts and even go out and make all the recipes I’ve shared as part of this project … and in that process you would surely get more than an inkling of what it means to be Canadian and eat in this country. My posts are filled with the liquors of the region and with local cheeses, produce and proteins I have sourced. But more than ingredients, these posts and recipes are filled with me. You can see who I am, from my first authentic food experience, to my merging of ingredients to tell my story with my maple-apple jelly, to rediscovering preserving and becoming more and more committed to the story my food tells. In the end, it all tells a story about me.
The goal of this project was to discover our Canadian voice. It has been about identity … and place. There is a fine line between identifying one’s identity at a national level and becoming a jingoistic nationalist – and that line is the divide between pride and superiority. I am clearly Canadian, clearly white, clear a male in all that I write and create. I’m proud to be all those things – but I don’t think that any of that makes me better than anyone else in this country or in any other country. This is simply the room in which I write, a beautiful room, a well-stocked room full of abundance. I like my room a lot and it has given me an identity which I have shared with you.
There was a seminal moment in my formal education when I became initially self-aware — when I learned that objectivity was a concept, not a practice, and that the best I as a writer could attain would be the self-awareness to know my voice, my bias, my perspective … and from whence I came. It is a process that is really about discovering my “room” and all that it contains. As much as I describe a moment, self-awareness isn’t something you discover and say “I’ve done that … what’s next?” It’s ongoing; it’s being aware of our past in every present. Yet even having self awareness doesn’t make it easy to always be aware. The Canadian Food Experience Project has been integral in my growing in my self-awareness of not only who I am and even my country as a whole, but clearly about my relationship with food. I know more than ever that I am truly privileged and that I live a relatively rare existence where I can write, have the time to do so, have had the opportunity to experience different cultures and parts of this country, have a palette that allows me to enjoy food, the means to purchase it, the knowledge to prepare it, and the luxury to photograph and share it with others. I don’t think that defines me as Canadian, but if I weren’t Canadian, I don’t know if I had would have the fortune with which I’ve been blessed … and it is truly a place of privilege that we can do and write about the Canadian Food Experience as we have. I’m a very lucky man … and as I conclude this project, I’m very thankful for the voice I have discovered and having been able to let you into a room of my own.
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On the 7th of each month, participants in the year-long Canadian Food Project 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.