Identifying My Canadian Voice

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I began the journey of blogging in February 2013, with the intention of it being an outlet for writing whatever might be on my mind, and in particular to explore my love of poetry. I never intended to write about food, and I also never considered that writing about food could actually fit well with my objective of sharing, without boundaries, from my soul.

I was intrigued by the Canadian Food Experience Project because I do love food and cooking, but also because of its purpose: to identify a Canadian voice for culinary arts and facilitate a clearer perspective on our culture, via food. I’ve always been intrigued by our Canadian “culture” and am drawn to any initiative that unites people and builds relationships.

It seemed to me, at first, that these CFEP challenges and the resultant writing would be misfit with the rest of my blog. It could even alienate readers that follow my blog mainly for the poetry. What I’ve found instead is that it has been simply a different way of exploring who I am at my core. Some of my monthly posts really got at the foundations of who I am as an extension of my family and my heritage, as well as the food I grew up on. This helped me to recognize the crucial influences in my life. Others were focused on my own creativity as I set about inventing recipes from scratch; something I’ve not done much of. I have realized through a year of focus just how much I relish the process of creating interesting food, and it emphasized how much I really love baking.

My Canadian voice, vis-à-vis food, is no different than my voice as it relates to my other writing and take on life in general. So in this last post of the project, I have defined this voice by means of a few self-identified characteristics that this blog and the CFEP have allowed me to reveal.

My Canadian voice is broadminded and exploratory, multi-dimensional and exciting.

My family is from Hungary and I very much identify with this heritage. I like to experiment with new flavours, spices, ingredients and even lifestyles (i.e.: vegan, raw, etc.). I believe the multi-dimensional nature of our country makes it a fascinating place to live. I have always had friends who themselves, or their families, hailed from distant lands – India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Israel, and so on and have eaten traditional foods from many parts of the world, right here at home. These opportunities to ‘taste the world’ represent the wonderful compendium of flavours that come together to create a diverse and special ‘food nation’ here in Canada. Together with our country’s First Nations, Canadians are fortunate to have a world of culinary possibilities at our fingertips.

My Canadian voice is colourful, loyal and holistic.

I enjoy delicious food but I also enjoy healthy food. I want to make and eat meals that are not only tempting to the eye and satisfying to the palate, but also make the body healthy and strong. Some of my posts have evidenced my love of fresh and wholesome ingredients, which stimulate the senses and nourish body, mind and soul. If these fresh ingredients can be obtained locally and their purchase supports nearby producers in the process, then the benefits are double. When I support dedicated growers nearby, I can even visit their farms and feel confident about the products I’m eating . In season, I can literally create a rainbow on my dinner plate and connect with a greater good in the process.

My Canadian voice is creative and courageous.

I am not afraid to try new things, inside and outside the kitchen. Without the courage to allow ourselves new experiences, even if failure or pain is an option, we do not grow and learn in the same way. We would be denying ourselves rich opportunities to be better, stronger, fuller people. Cooking is both an art and a science. With copious websites and cookbooks out there, the number of available recipes is boundless. To go beyond and create something unique requires creativity. I’ve pushed myself out of my box in order to start from scratch with spontaneous inspiration and a few key ingredients, to create recipes that put smiles on people’s faces. The writing that goes along with my recipes shows a glimpse of who I am, and I’ve tried to be courageous in sharing transparently, as I do with my poetry.

My Canadian voice is open, honest, caring and relational.

In large part, I cook and bake for others. Sharing my baking with family and friends makes me happy; knowing I have brought them joy. It is key element of relationship-building for me, being a natural nurturer and someone who strives to influence others’ lives positively. In all kinds of relationships, my goal is to always be transparent about my values, feelings and priorities, honest in my communication, compassionate and loving in my actions and present and active in helping the relationship flourish. It is also crucial to admit mistakes in order to open yourself up to learning, and this is the same for cooking as for almost anything in life.

I believe that my commitment to this project and all that I have written about has exemplified these characteristics of my voice – things I strive for, even if not always successful. It has taught me that no matter what I am writing about, I must relentlessly pursue the identification and communication of who I am at my core and a life that allows me to live it authentically.

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A final note to cap off this year-long project, I’d like to say ‘thank you’ to Valerie for challenging Canadian foodies and chefs to contemplate their food identity. She lives her passion so evidently and has created and collected so much enthusiasm, ingenuity and fellowship amongst us in the process.

The Canadian Food Experience Project is Valerie Lugonja’s call to Canadian Foodies and Bloggers alike to unite on the 7th day of each month and creatively discover and share Canada’s unique culinary voice. You can read more about this exciting project here.

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A Canadian Love Affair

Well, this month’s CFEP theme is a loaded one, Valerie!

Of course, I spent many moments considering what I might write about with this theme: ‘A Canadian Love Affair’. I found no shortage of inspiration. I thought about foods inspired by love: the love of my mother, the love of my grandmothers, the love I have for my son, the romantic loves I have had in my life. But, I found myself erring on the side of caution, and favouring harmony.

Without cause for stirring any pots, I can safely talk about my Canadian love affair with a place; a place I have written about before. This is a place I’ll always be in love with and will always miss with my heart and soul, so long as I live at a distance (for good or for a time). That place, perhaps predictably now, is Vancouver Island and the Comox Valley in particular. Never have I visited or lived in a place that so touched me to the core and changed who I was in such multidimensional ways.

Indeed, I experienced heartbreak and love there, but it’s not the love of a man and a woman I’m speaking of in this post. I’m communicating the love of nature’s miracles; of glacial peaks, ocean straights, the expanse of pacific coast beaches and year-round temperate weather. I’m speaking of the love of a brief commute along a dyke road with outstanding views few have been fortunate to experience. I’m sharing my fondness of the sincere smiles of friendly people welcoming conversation with a stranger. I’m imparting my love affair with a turn-of-the-century house in what used to be a bustling mining town; a home that exuded the love and relationships of almost a dozen decades of life, boasting hand-made kitchen cabinets made from local lumber, and a back porch with views of the nearby mountains. I’m conveying the beauty of spotting deer resting in residential flower gardens, and getting so close you can almost touch them. And, I’m connecting you to my fondness of living a 4 hour drive from Tofino, one of the most majestic places in Canada that arguably competes on a world stage for beauty.
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Having grown up in the Toronto area, I wasn’t much exposed to Native Canadian culture. British Columbia is rich with native culture and on Vancouver Island, this is intensified by a large population of Native Canadians. The Island abounds with Native arts and culture and even food. This culture became even more significant when I married a man who was part Native Canadian and had a son. Although my son is only about 1/16 Native, it’s still a part of who he is (and boy was that wonderfully evident in his appearance when he was born with a head full of thick black hair and gorgeous olive-toned skin).

So, as a tribute to the place that holds my heart in its warm, salty hands, and to the originating cultures of this country, this month I’m making Bannock. And, since fresh bread is one of my absolute favourite foods, this month’s challenge was again both meaningful and pleasing to my taste buds and belly and hopefully yours, too.

Bannock is a simple flatbread, which I’ve discovered is actually found in varieties across the world. The type of bannock I was interested in learning more about was Native Canadian bannock. It was customarily cooked over an open fire, and still is in some cases today. Although some recipes do call for oven baking, most modern ones I came across ask for deep frying. Some of my readings indicated that cornmeal was one of the main flours originally used, but today’s recipes typically employ all-purpose flour. There are many variations and recipes out there, savory and sweet. I turned to my sister-in-law Jocelyn, and asked for her recipe, tried and true. My technique was a little different than hers, but it turned out simply delicious. And, although I opted to stray from my often influential Hungarian roots for this month’s post, there exists a very similar Hungarian food called Lángos, so making this bread had me reminiscing about my childhood foods once more.

Native Canadian Bannock (Fried)

Ingredients

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1.5-2 cups cold water
Raisins or currants, if desired. (I opted to keep mine savory – if you’d like a sweeter bread, add 1-2 tsp sugar with the dry ingredients as well)
Vegetable oil appropriate for deep frying

Directions

Combine dry ingredients well in a large bowl. Whisk in water slowly, to make a pasty batter. You can add enough water to be reminiscent of thick pancake batter if you’re looking for larger, flatbread-like results. Or, add less water for more of a fritter-type preparation.

Heat about an inch of oil in a frying pan until a small amount of batter dropped into pan begins to bubble vigorously. Drop batter by tablespoonful (or larger if desired) into the hot oil, and fry until golden on both sides, about 4-5 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately.

Can be eaten as an accompaniment to soup or stew, as a snack with jam and crème fraiche, or on its own!

Note: Like most deep-fried breads, these really do not keep fresh long, so they should be eaten right away and preferably warm.

Many different recipes can be found online, with origination in different Native communities.

Enjoy!

Two preparations:

You could make these flatter and larger
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fritter-style
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The Canadian Food Experience Project is Valerie Lugonja’s call to Canadian Foodies and Bloggers alike to unite on the 7th day of each month and creatively discover and share Canada’s unique culinary voice. You can read more about this exciting project here.

Canadian Food Experiences, Poignant Memories

A late start in the Canadian Food Experience Project meant I didn’t intend to go backwards and complete previous months’ challenges. This was due to two factors: first, a lack of spare time at present and second, a difficulty in thinking of authentic “Canadian” food memories. Then, I read the blog entry of a friend of mine who gave me an entirely different perspective on this challenge. The creative juices started flowing and lo and behold, so did the memories.

I’ve mentioned a few times that I did not grow up in a traditionally Canadian family. Though my paternal grandmother was actually born in Czechoslovakia and my maternal grandfather in Transylvania (Romania), they eventually ended up in Hungary. I consider my whole family Hungarian since Hungary is where they spent most of their lives preceding World War II, Hungarian is the only language aside from English spoken in the family, and Hungarian food formed the foundation of my childhood nourishment. In our own home, my mother was (and still is) a very skilled cook, and experimented with delicious foods from around the globe. Thus, when I read that the June challenge for the CFEP was to write about an authentic Canadian food memory, I turned up nothing at first. Then, as I said, I found new perspective in the idea that as Canadians, we are very much a collection of interesting, multicultural and multiethnic people who found themselves in this wonderful country of Canada. Our identity is largely founded in our weaving together so many heritages and experiences into a beautiful tapestry. My Hungarian heritage and my family traditions have helped to form who I am, so this is undeniably part of my Canadian identity. Moreover, the childhood memories I have of food are inspired by a vast array of culinary treats, techniques and attitudes that were themselves founded in European ideals. These shaped me while I matured, surrounded by the landscape, people and collective culture of Canada.

My early food memoirs are poignant, and it is difficult to chronicle one particular event or circumstance. Accordingly, I will share two collections of experiences that induce a great, emotional response in me.

My paternal grandmother was not the warmest woman; she did not show much physical affection and she could be critical and even harsh at times. This was unquestionably as a result of the thorny life she had experienced before coming to Canada. Where she was extremely gifted was in the art of cooking, and she showed her love for her family through her food. In return, she expected her family to eat multiple helpings of her heavy, rich Hungarian meals, in fine stereotypical form. Every Saturday afternoon, the family would gather around her dining table to enjoy a mid-afternoon three-course meal. There were ten of us in total before my grandfather died, and then more once my cousins starting bringing their girlfriends home to Grandma’s house for approval. If they did not eat enough, they were not fit for the family.

This table was the heart of enthusiastic dining, conversation and debate. I loved being surrounded by my family, though oblivious at that time to the conflictual undercurrents I was yet too young to recognize. My grandmother’s meals were simply mouthwatering, always authentic, and eternally consistent. As well, her dishes were ultimately inimitable because she never used a single recipe. Though I have a few Hungarian dishes in my own repertoire that are pretty delicious, they will never compare to hers, nor will any dish eaten in a restaurant. I even have a few scribbled recipes in my collection that I attempted to record while watching her create in the kitchen. These include ridiculous directions like: “pile a bunch of flour on the countertop and crack three eggs into the center…..” with no measurements to speak of. Somehow, that “recipe” for Beigli (a walnut or poppy seed filled, rolled cake) has turned out, thanks only to my years of observation and tasting.

My grandmother’s appreciation for fresh, local ingredients was also immense, as I reflect back now. Though she did not have space for her own garden, my mother would take her every Friday to the enormous local farmer’s market, where she would purchase all her produce for the weekend gathering. She made friends with many of the farmers, who knew her by name. When she got older and weaker, some of them would pull up a chair and she would sit down and chat for a few minutes while my mom ran some of her own errands. Contrary to the unaffectionate demeanor she usually bore, she was actually very sociable with strangers and developed some very strong and lasting friendships.

My sister and I took turns having separate sleepovers at our grandparents’ houses every Saturday night until we were in our mid-teens and started wanting to see our friends instead. I loved that time with all of my grandparents, and during those evenings spent alone with them I was spoiled with attention and food. On no other occasions in my childhood was I so free to eat so many sweets, to snack as often as I liked, to be waited on hand and foot, and even to eat butter with a spoon (no, not peanut butter, creamery butter).

If I really concentrate, I can still taste some of my Grandma’s food, years after her death. She was the true matriarch of the family, and after she moved into a long term care home, the family Saturday dinners ceased. The foundation of my grandmother’s love and the legacy she left behind was almost exclusively centered on food. And even though I initially developed some less healthy eating habits via poor examples of nutrition and self-control, I also recognize some of her positive traits in myself. Though my fundamental personality and desire to openly express love make me very dissimilar to her, I did acquire her passion for making others happy through food. I do in many respects equate happiness and loving relationships with gathering together to enjoy a meal.

This second collection of memories explains my love of fresh, natural ingredients and in particular, local or home-grown vegetables and fruit. My maternal grandfather’s ancestry was founded on food; his parents owned and ran a food production and canning business out of an outbuilding on their property in Hungary. They made dill pickles, vegetable marrow and other prized delicacies in large quantities, selling to local families and commercial businesses alike. He was actually a baker by trade, and so was put to work in this capacity while serving in the Navy. He hated the war so much that he never baked again, so sadly we never saw his skill in action. My Granny was the primary cook in the household despite her detestation of cooking. I’m convinced that the powerful love she had for those she was cooking for pushed her to persevere and learn to prepare tasty meals for us all.

My Grandpa had a passion for gardening. His colourful, fragrant rose bushes were the most beautiful I’ve seen to this day. They lined their driveway and passersby would often stop to admire them. He had a massive back garden, mostly devoted to an impressive collection of food plants. He grew raspberries, red currants and green wine grapes; cherries, pears, apples and plums; carrots, parsnips, potatoes and horseradish; lettuce, scallions and tomatoes; on the list goes. He was so incredibly proud of his annual harvest, and rightly so. His beautiful, colourful garden was organic before organic ever became a buzz-word. Grandpa’s passion was contagious, and at the age of 3 or 4, I was already fascinated. Every Sunday, we would spend the day with my Granny and Grandpa and eat our Sunday dinner there. Grandpa would take my hand and walk me through his vegetable plot, teaching me all about each plant. And every week, I would excitedly ask if the vegetables were ready to pick and eat. For weeks, he would explain to me that they were not yet ready, and that perhaps the following week I could eat some. The next week would come, and I’d be disappointed to hear that the veggies were still not ready to pick. My mother figures this was his way of ensuring I would want to come back, not that there should ever have been any doubt as I was extremely close to my maternal grandparents. Occasionally, I would mischievously grab a tomato and injure a branch, or go for a bunch of carrots. He would scold me and instruct me again on garden etiquette and how to gently remove fruit from the vine. Finally, after much patience, I would get to munch on the fresh fruit and vegetables at each plant’s harvest time. Back then, a whole, fresh scallion dipped in salt was a perfect snack to me, and I can still remember sitting with my little dipping bowl and resulting onion breath. I therefore grew up knowing the amazing taste of produce straight from the source, and the value of such magnificent products of hard work and care. Those gorgeous vegetables would then get incorporated into our many Hungarian family meals, and the flavour of those dishes was heightened by such incomparable freshness.

We have the immense benefit in Canada of being able to safely and freely grow so many varieties of food plants in our backyards, and my hands-on exposure to this at a young age, while bonding with my Grandpa, was an authentic and infinitely memorable Canadian experience.

So many memories come flooding back as I write and most do not belong here. Nevertheless, my life has been touched in many ways by the love of my grandparents, in many cases shown to me through food. I am eternally grateful for all that they taught me, including the way that meals inspired by great love touch the heart and soul, as well as nourish the body. Indeed, through their many examples, I learned the invaluable ethic of hard work, and the way in which our effort is evident in the products of our endeavors, be they edible or not.

The following photos are of my Grandpa, Granny, Mom and Uncle Gabe. I could not get my hands on an old photo of my paternal grandmother in time.

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The Canadian Food Experience Project is Valerie Lugonja’s call to Canadian Foodies and Bloggers alike to unite on the 7th day of each month and creatively discover and share Canada’s unique culinary voice. You can read more about this exciting project here.

Taken to Great Heights

I’m powerlessly in awe of you.
I shudder at the thought of you.
My hair stands on end in your presence.
You reach for the sky mightily,
Rebelling against your very roots
Fixed in earth and water alike.
Your stalwartness inspires me.
You sustain life with your excellence,
Or shun it with your severity.

You elevate me to great heights
With incredible supremacy and influence.
My heart pounds, breath hastens,
You have inexplicable impact on my whole.
My body, mind and spirit are stimulated in essence.
You are nature at its most ostentatious, striking.
Great summits, you astonish me.

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