palate

currydish

Green Bean, Squash and Coconut Curry (from 5 Spices, 50 Dishes by Ruta Kahate… but made at our house!)

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?

This morning I attended 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 pace – 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. Perhaps it’s Christmas, with all its treats and culinary delights, that has awakened this. Perhaps it was the discussion, with one of our international students about ‘Canadian Christmas food traditions’ that made me pause. Or perhaps it was a conversation with one of my children about food and the foods that we, in Canada, can call our own.

In any case, all of this thinking sent my mind scuttling back to a conversation I had with my cousins many years ago. “You cannot possibly be Dutch,” they told me (I’m paraphrasing and translating at the same time…), “because you don’t like coffee, beer or drop.”

They’re right. 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 and drop (Dutch black licorice), well, we’ve never had a particularly amicable relationship.

And yet those are all quintessentially Dutch things. They are marker of national identity; consuming them marks one’s belonging in the imagined community that is “Dutchness.” Indeed, these three things – coffee, beer and drop – are staples at Dutch stores around Canada. These stores are sites of Dutch expat imagined community, spaces to pick up delicacies that you might not have eaten often in the mother country, but which become central to your identity through the experience of absence. Coffee, beer, drop, yes…but also speculas, vla, hagelslag, stroopwafels and even delft blauw ware and tea towels.

So why does my Dutchness (expressed to me by cousins who are half-Surinamese and who lived a large part of their childhood in Indonesia) located in coffee, beer and drop?

It seems to me that 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?

When asked this question, the general tendency has been to draw on a mythical shared ‘aboriginal’ heritage. Heck, it’s what Canadian beauty queens have done with fashion, and, after all, in the culinary realm what could be more ‘Canadian’ than pemmican? Ah, the irony of appropriating native food while actively excluding Canada’s aboriginal 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 homes. 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.

When I step back, I realise that we operate, food-wise, in a mode of travel. 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 my identity. 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?

currygingerchickpea

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2 comments
  1. Jan said:

    The palate can also drive you away from certain imagined communities (some people hate boerenkool stamppot)

    • Sonja Boon said:

      Which is precisely the point I was making about coffee, beer and drop. Ick!

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