Some of my fondest memories take place during family dinners at the cottages in Wasaga Beach back when my sister and I would stay with my nonna and nonno (grandmother and grandfather) for the summers. Family members and family friends, or as we call them “cumpari,” owned and rented cottages in the area. We would often gather for dinners, where the kids were warned by Zia Elsa to “Mange, mange!” (Eat! Eat!), while adults drank wine and began to share stories of our community. I am a second-generation Italian through my mother’s lineage, but these stories made me feel so much closer to the country my family left long ago.
I learned of my nonno’s grandmother who was known for farting with each step as she strolled through the neighbourhood; of my nonna’s mother, Nonna Cicella, who would sneak out late at night to go dancing; of my nonno and his nightly walk into town to fetch goat’s milk for his youngest brother.
Jacqueline Ouellette (left) and her sister Madeleine on the loving laps of their nonna and nonno
And I learned of my nonna becoming traumatized by a combination of seasickness and the smell of aging bananas in their small, third class cabin during her family’s move to Canada. I learned of the strong women who endured as their men left for various reasons, and then used their wit and creativity to survive and support their families.
We kids would sit out on the porches with aunts and uncles, or zias and zios as we call them, passionately clarifying the family stories – often through argument – to create a more accurate version of the tale. My cousins, my sister and I would listen intently, learning more about who we are with every familial characteristic they discussed: humble, strong, artistic, and sometimes gassy.
Despite our birthplace, we are Italian in every characteristic we’ve inherited. While we munched away on our focaccia on a porch in Wasaga Beach, our hearts were filled with the warm idea that we were the manifestation of our ancestors’ dream for a better life in a new country, and so we too are a part of the stories.
In my Italian-Canadian experience, eating together is how I built a lasting relationship with my elders and my culture. Communal dining might be on the wane in North America, but it remains one of the most important opportunities for familial and community connectivity in many other places on the planet. In this article, members of Alternatives Journal, both past and present, share stories about the importance of communal dining they’ve experienced in their travels. So, take a seat and join us while we share what we’ve learned through our journeys about food
– Jacqueline Ouellette
If you head to almost any beach in the Seychelles on a Saturday or Sunday, you’ll find yourself surrounded by the smells of grilled fish and the sounds of reggae music filling the air: it’s family picnic time. Weekend beach picnics are an important tradition in Seychelles, and families get together for a big picnic lunch a few weekends per month. One thing that particularly struck me about this tradition was the fact that these family get-togethers most often take place at the beach, not at anybody’s house, so no one is the designated “host”, it’s simply a family get-together. Everyone contributes something, usually curries, chutneys and salads, but the main feature is grilled fish, typically grilled right there at the beach. It’s a wonderful atmosphere of food and fun!
Fish in Seychelles comes mainly from local small scale fishing operations: it’s fresh, sustainable and delicious. However, with an increase in coral bleaching events due to ocean acidification, and rise of sea temperature, fish communities are going through changes that could affect local fishermen. This could in turn affect the staples of the Seychellois beach picnic menu, as different kinds of fish become more or less common. Coastal erosion and rising sea levels will also affect the beach picnic culture, as some beaches will become less ideal locations.
– Mimi Shaftoe
I resisted the word “braai” during our first year in South Africa. It seemed unnecessary, even a little pretentious, to use an Afrikaans term when our North American one – barbecue – meant the same thing. Over the following three years of our stay, however, I gained an appreciation for the difference.
Braai is the verb “to grill.” But to braai or to have a braai means much more than igniting the Broil King on your patio. First, the requisite technique, some would say art: a braai is never done over gas, always over the simmering coals of a wood or charcoal fire. A braai fire can be built in a kettle barbecue, a split-open steel drum, an outdoor oven or, in some homes, a dedicated indoor/outdoor braai room. Regardless, the fire takes time to lay and burn down – which leaves plenty of time for socializing, the second key element of a true braai.
Although norms are shifting, the braai is still a gendered occasion. The men gather around the fire and tend to the meat. The women gather in the kitchen and tend to, well, everything else: drinks, salads, bread and pap (a cornmeal porridge typically served). While this sounds like a North American event requiring much planning, work and expense, a braai is meant to be informal and communal, with guests bringing food to cook and share. A braai takes a long time to enjoy but a short time to organize, which means it can happen any time and often.
Although braai is an Afrikaans word, it is used across South Africa’s many cultures, along with the Zulu term “shisa nyama,” literally “to burn meat.” South Africans take pride in the practice—not just the preparation of fire-grilled meat but its ability to bring people together. So I slowly adopted the term. We’d still barbecue a quick burger, we might add barbecue sauce, but when we gathered with friends, we would always braai.
– Katherine Barrett
"The long road to sustainability requires rebuilding our communities, and a good portion of that will take place over food."
Some of the most communal meals I’ve ever eaten were at the staff bunk houses while I was a forest firefighter in Geraldton, Ontario. Living north of Thunder Bay can be isolating. The highways are just thin grey lines wavering through a dark green sea of boreal forest, eventually connecting one little blob of town to another.
Some of us firefighters lived at the staff bunk houses. “The bunks” were located 10 kilometres out of town, and because of our work scheduling, getting to the grocery store before it closed could be difficult, especially without a car. Those with cars made sure everyone got to the grocery store when we could, and we also often shared meals.
It was a lovely thing to bring our random foods together and make something better than if we had each cooked alone. And the potlucks were some of the best I’ve ever had, definitely not just an assortment of chips. Spending the whole summer away from family and friends down south was hard, but up at the bunks we became a sort of pseudo-family, and sharing meals was a big part of that.
When I think about climate change and the future we’ll live in, I wonder how the fire program will be affected. There will be more fires, and bigger fires, and more climate refugees coming to Canada needing jobs. Perhaps the quiet isolation of Ontario’s North will be shattered, and people will be fleeing to and from the north and south, away from fire, or towards opportunity. In twenty years, what kind of people will find themselves at the bunks, ten kilometres away from the nearest grocery store without transportation? Which languages will they speak? Who will be there to help them pick up some groceries, and what kind of groceries will be available? What sorts of dishes will turn up at future bunk potlucks? The world is going to change; this is inevitable. But I hope and pray our ability to create community wherever we find ourselves does not.
– Leah Gerber
I firmly believe that I am genetically predisposed to disliking communal eating. While my parents were staunch believers in family supper every night, they showed the most complete lack of interest in having others join us or, gasp!, going somewhere else to eat. For me, the problem is primarily losing control of time. If I dine at a restaurant or a friend’s house, I am inevitably stuck there for well over an hour, which is simply too long for me.
In 2011, I traveled to Senegal for six months, and everything changed. Suddenly, I was not stuck in a mere 60-minute intellectual torture session, but rather a full-blown, multi-hour affair replete with lounging on mattresses, drinking tea, gazing around, making small talk, eventually eating, drinking more tea, re-lounging and ultimately politely leaving. To make matters worse, as a man, I was not welcome to take part in the food preparation process; as such, there were also feelings of uselessness and guilt mixed into the equation. All told, it was a recipe for disaster.
Nevertheless, I persisted, and learned how to appreciate the time spent with others. While I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat communally, I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to focus on the present and stop incessantly thinking about the future.
Now that I am married with a toddler at home, and several years removed from Senegal, I have solidly re-nuclearized. In contrast with my parents, my family is far more likely to invite others over for supper. However, we generally invite friends whom I am comfortable evicting when the time is right.
I recognize the long road to sustainability requires rebuilding our communities, and a good portion of that will take place over food. While I will never win an award for host of the year, I will gladly break bread with whomever it takes to build a better world. I hope it will be a quick meal.
– Kyrke Gaudreau
Many of Japan’s local food specialties come from the forests, mountains and valleys that dominate two-thirds of the country’s land mass; this is part of a forest and mountain heritage the country nourishes and subsidizes along with its industrial superpower status.
In Mukawa, a small town on the northern Island of Hokkaido, our host mom Masayo greets us wearing a handmade dress. She ushers us into her living room, where we’re seated on the floor around a table.
She brings us bowls of matcha tea (green tea made from ground-up tips of unprocessed tea) grown in mountain ranges close by, and we exchange names during a 10-minute version of the traditional lengthy, hours-long, Japanese tea ceremony.
The dinner meal features tempura-style veggies. We each use our chopsticks to dip a morsel in a batter of egg, flour and water, and then fry it in a common cooking pot filled with Canadian-made canola oil.
The one-pot meal is standard in folk cultures that predate modern stoves and indoor plumbing. To avoid going crazy with the overwork and stress of coordinating cooking times for various dishes over the flames of a fire and then cleaning fire-scorched cookware, cooks (almost always women) developed meals that could be cooked in one container.
The subsequent invention of stoves “freed” women to make meals of several courses; each with its own recipe and complications. Reinstituting the tradition of family meals might benefit from a return to this folk strategy.
After a few minutes in the pot, our morsels are lifted out and sprinkled with “snow salt”. Then comes the oohing and ahhing, which I translated into Japanese as ooh and ahh, apparently to good effect.
Japanese people seem comfortable expressing their pleasure boisterously when they eat; an apparent requirement of slow food regimes. There, dining isn’t treated as a refined, controlled exercise that establishes civilized behaviour.
– Wayne Roberts
In a long dining hall of a Sikh temple, there were no tables or chairs, unlike most dining areas we were accustomed to. Instead, three horizontal strips along the floor marked out where we were to sit. As we attempted to gracefully sit down in the the cross-legged position, we were immediately surrounded by a group of children. They giggled at our voices, and we were accepted.
The dining hour rang, and a few children took my hand and pulled me over to sit with them. Now hundreds of people sat in neatly arranged rows, with each row being separated some distance from the other. The reason for this space appeared quickly when individuals with massive metal pots burst through the door, and rapidly but efficiently put food on everyone’s plate as they walked between the rows. As a diner, you had to be vigilant and ready to raise your plate when the time came to avoid splashes and losses of the beautiful malai kofta, mutter aloo, kheer, roti and gulab jamun that came. As I tried each dish and delighted with every taste, I felt a sense of belonging as we talked and watched one another. With full bellies and empty plates, we rose together to wash, rinse and dry our dishes, in true family style.
– Julia Galbenu
Many of our oldest religious and spiritual traditions have deep connections with food and dinner tables. Feasting and fasting are consistent elements within the Abrahamic tradition, for example. Many of these mealtime traditions involve full tables and overflowing with foods to symbolize and enhance the spiritual connections between people and the food, and people and each other.
My personal favourite, Rosh Hashanah, is more basic. Sometimes the message of spirituality can get lost in the cacophony of clinking glasses and slurped soups. Not so, for me, when it comes to the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah or New Year (“rosh” – head, and “Hashanah” – of the year).
Unlike like the Scottish New Year’s celebrations of my youth, Rosh Hashanah is a feast day that marks the start of a new Jewish calendar, and it’s the beginning of the Ten Days of Awe (aka Ten Days of Repentance), which culminate in Yom Kippur, the fasting Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur is a time of contemplation, self-review and planning for the future.
The family surrounds the dinner table, with holiday candles lit and the table set with a platter containing apples and a special cup of honey. Brief prayers – blessings of thanks for the bread, wine, apples and honey – are intoned.
Each participant is encouraged to consider his and her own individual actions and inactions of the past year, and our collective sins of commission and of omission. We then each ask for forgiveness from those we have wronged, while pledging to be better people in the coming year. Each family member dips a slice of apple in the honey and sends forth a prayer: “May the next year be as sweet as this honey.”
I think about this differently now in our age of climate change. We might not have pollinators, with their wheat, their wine, their honey and their apples, if we don’t make amends for past “sins against nature” and take active steps to be better stewards of nature’s bounty going forward, starting right now. But if we can summon the collective faith in our ability to find solutions, our future can be as sweet as the honey – and I’m sure we can all say amen to that.
– David McConnachie
Do you have a food story to share? Add it to the comments section in the online version of this article.
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