A Matter of Taste Chapter III.

This chapter of A Matter of Taste features essays, films, poems and sound work about memory and its consumption. The memory of two gardens, separated by oceans, develops into a conversation about access, while the memory of a trip to Toronto’s Chinatown leads to a discussion about scarcity, and the memory and making of a mother’s dumplings responds directly to a culture of culinary exoticism. Some artists in this chapter speak candidly about eating disorders, fatphobia and the surveillance of women’s bodies.
 
In Chapter III.
This chapter of A Matter of Taste features essays, films, poems and sound work about memory and its consumption. The memory of two gardens, separated by oceans, develops into a conversation about access, while the memory of a trip to Toronto’s Chinatown leads to a discussion about scarcity, and the memory and making of a mother’s dumplings responds directly to a culture of culinary exoticism. Some artists in this chapter speak candidly about eating disorders, fatphobia and the surveillance of women’s bodies.
In Chapter III.

CURRENTLY VIEWING: 我妈妈的饺子 (My Mother’s Dumplings) (2020) Angela Sun
CURRENTLY VIEWING: 我妈妈的饺子 (My Mother’s Dumplings) (2020)
Angela Sun
我妈妈的饺子 (My Mother’s Dumplings)
Angela Sun
Toronto, ON



This is not a cooking tutorial. No instructions or recipes will be provided. This is an intergenerational response to the grotesque speculation and fascination with our cuisine. The insidious trauma of ignorance and racial generalization is in the erasure of distinct lives and experiences. We are not perfect but our pain is real, our food is delicious, and our culture is living, breathing and deeply meaningful.

 



While the film itself is captioned, a descriptive transcript is available for access. Click here to download the transcript for 我妈妈的饺子 (My Mother’s Dumplings).
 
Angela Sun Angela Sun is a mad, fat, first generation/ settler theatre performer, creator, producer, arts administrator, and writer of East Asian descent. She has previously performed in or co- created works for The Bentway, the Gardiner Museum, and the Art Gallery of Ontario; as well as the Toronto Fringe Festival, the Hamilton Fringe Festival, the Paprika Festival, the SummerWorks Performance Festival, and the InspiraTO Festival. She has worked with a variety of emerging and established artistic companies including Factory Theatre, Reel Asian Film Festival, Theatre Passe Muraille, Fixt Point, Political Movement, Theatre ARTaud, The ARTillery Collective, Silk Bath Collective, xLq, Broadleaf Theatre, Little Black Afro Theatre, Filament Incubator, Fancy Bits Theatre, Re:Play, Hart House Theatre, Canadian Rep Theatre, Mixed Company Theatre, Toronto Laboratory Theatre, and Toronto Playback Theatre.

 
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CURRENTLY VIEWING: Eating Like an American (2020) Olivia Klevorn
CURRENTLY VIEWING: Eating Like an American (2020)
Olivia Klevorn
Eating Like An American
Olivia Klevorn
Toronto, ON

Eating Like an American is a fraught attempt at describing the paradox of holding a hegemonic, unmarked identity that is, by definition, not really an individual identity at all. As food becomes an increasingly important form of cultural expression in our globalized world, it seems particularly necessary to interrogate the positions of greed, ignorance and entitlement with which Americans regard food. At the same time, it is incumbent to disrupt the generic terms of any hegemonic identity by making them concrete and giving light to their impoverishment. To describe ignorance as an experience, rather than a static state, is, I think, one way of moving towards wisdom.

 

Get the sensation!  1



In New York, a British co-worker and I go to a diner for lunch. The fifteen-page menu agitates her, and she flips through it several times in rapid succession before the server returns. My co-worker flushes with relief when I order chicken noodle soup and asks for the same. She is unhappy. I feel responsible so I ask, Is anything wrong? Is something confusing? Disturbed and glaring at the table’s extravagant dessert cocktail menu, she meets my eyes, and says, I don’t want to eat like an American.

 

There is no personal resonance to being an individual member of a generic identity specified only by broad terms of oppression and exclusion. It is like being a fish asked to describe water you hate.

 

Let the taste take you away.  2



At 10, eating candy is a pleasure so extreme it can plug my every sense, make me a dam of good feeling to spite reality. I am unmoved by anything less. I go to the movies to eat. I gnaw on 6-inch strawberry ribbons, swill Junior Mint syrup, and swoon for Chipwiches with vanilla ice cream so crisp it could replace water. My glucose spikes dement every film from beginning to end, hooking me on Tom Cruise individualism and adrenaline-fuelled progress narratives. It’s all so Red 40, White sugar, and Blue 2 Rockwellian until it ends.2  Outside is weird and wobbly, like I’ve been in a hot shower too long. I am grateful for the solidness of my father’s backseat, where I lay, Paris Hilton high glam strung out, and crash.

 

My girlfriend and I watch a documentary on the History channel called the Food That Built America. We learn that Coca-Cola was invented by a morphine addict, trying to find a way to earn cash for his habit. The drink, infused with cocaine, worked as a curative for his binges. In the documentary’s re-enactment, he breaks a beaker while nodding off and wakes up with a mouthful of Coca-Cola. His once bleary eyes are now bright and wide, like a squirrel’s, and he is rigid with focus. Picking through broken glass and chemicals he seems a perfect testament to the future tagline of America’s favorite drink: Coca-Cola Revives and Sustains.

 

     


My glucose spikes dement every film from beginning to end, hooking me on Tom Cruise individualism and adrenaline-fuelled progress narratives. It’s all so Red 40, White sugar, and Blue 2 Rockwellian until it ends.

     

 

The first time we go to the movies I buy a paper bag full of candy. When she sees it, she widens her eyes and says, You’re so American.

 

Perfect!  3



My mother tells me to learn to cook by watching Ina Garten, because her recipes are classic, meaning beyond reproach, and comforting, meaning they make us feel beyond reproach.

Ina herself is a collection of unrevised paradoxes. She is rich but humble, apolitical but intellectual (with a prior post in the Nuclear Energy Department of the Carter Administration,) and White but benign. She is unfussy because she irons her own linen napkins while telling tales of Paris. She is liberal because she lets us in on chats with her gay friend down the road. Her wealth is moral because she earned it. Her politics are liberal because she treats all people equally. She is one of few it feels wrong to criticize.

 

How many licks does it take to get to the center?  4



I do not know how to feel food through time, place, or genealogy. I hear it is about having a heritage, so I research and learn the following facts:

The Subway smell is sugar caramelizing on the top of bread.
Cheez-Its are chemically formulated to induce cravings within thirty seconds.
Milk is on the USDA food pyramid because the dairy lobby threatened Ronald Reagan’s re-election.
Same goes for cheese.
Same goes for fake cheese.
Soda consumers are called ‘heavy users.’

 

My mother’s food tastes like an ideal -- not made for or by her. My father eats yard sticks of gumballs to make it through a five-day work week. I would describe this eating as involuntary, but how does one describe that?


     

 

Double your pleasure. Double your fun.  5



I am taught to eat emotionally. I am that taught that to eat is either to diet or binge, and each is only the inverse of the other. I am taught that eating is a sin, but I was born in original sin, and sin is pleasure, so eating must always be bad and full of pleasure. My mother’s food tastes like an ideal -- not made for or by her. My father eats yard sticks of gumballs to make it through a five-day work week. I would describe this eating as involuntary, but how does one describe that?

 
A film contact sheet from a commercial: 5 rows of 3 columns display frames of the writer as a young girl eating a Yogos Roller.

I was once the star of a Yogos Rollers commercial.
It can be found here.

Two girls I live with, randomly assigned college roommates develop identical food cravings. First is peanut butter. The dorm suite smells like a baseball stadium floor, and brownish jars stand like spectators across the backs of our desks and sofas. Some of the jars are repurposed to hold toothbrushes, hair supplies, and writing utensils. We admit that the familiar Jif labels can be comforting.

 

As the weather turns cold, the girls begin drinking jugs of orange juice. The orange juice jugs can’t be repurposed as easily, so they are hidden behind the emergency exit door in the stairwell. Clusters of flies feast on the remnants of orange pulp. The air in the dorm suite turns overripe. Eventually, both roommates develop acid reflux and quit the orange juice.

 

During exams one of them gets a jar of honey from her parents, study with tea not coffee, and they finish it in a single day, dipping their fingers in alternating intervals. I find one roommate asleep beside a half-eaten jar of honey with a soup spoon sticking out of it; a thin white crust of sugar covering her lips. Now they are both doctors.

 

Two for me, none for you.  6

At 13 I am spoiled by my parents who, courting the precociousness of rich kids and golden boy sociopaths, assign me the responsibility of choosing the restaurant. My mother leaves copies of Zagat’s on my bed with a post-it note about watching the $ signs. I’m told to stay away from: chic, minimal, club, spot, cutting edge, African, all of Asian except Chinese or Japanese and if it’s going to be Japanese then it has to be sushi, South American, on a case-by-case basis Southern, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, and Russian.

 

Weekend dinner with my family is at least six courses and takes upwards of 2 hours with a wine pairing. The food is irreproachable -- wine-soaked rabbit wrapped in bacon and tumbled with vegetable jewels awash in butter, salmon cut so thin it is mere atmosphere -- the imprint of an ocean wave on your tongue, baked gold satchels of braided dough that break open in swells of melted cheese, and a stench as poignant and familiar as the sweat on your lover’s scalp, but the evening funnels into torment after 30 minutes.

 

The first criticism of a dish, if it is stingy or lukewarm, is usually enough to invigorate all discontent, which, writhing against the claustrophobic world of our foursome, becomes brutal and manic. My father boils. You can watch the temper rise in his cheeks until a fist slams and a sentence so mean it’ll take your breath away bursts in your face. My mother, viperlike and untouchable, sears with sparing words. At every meal she ends Eden, but never stops smiling at the server. My sister, always without comment and exhausted by disassociation’s demands on her attention, is steadily blanched.

 

I am an uncontained blaze, ingesting and combusting every bit of rhetorical tinder I can find in the dimly lit room. Alight with hysteria, I’m putting a table linen to my mouth like a lump of charcoal, then walking to the bathroom and huffing my oxidized tears.

 

Don’t let hunger happen to you.  7

For six years of school, I struggle with an eating disorder. When recovering, I try to listen to the people in my life who love food talk about it. Most speak in extreme specifics, using social taxonomies and ancestral histories to describe every preparation of every ingredient of every dish. The best thing I can come up with to discuss is good white bread. One friend writes me a letter that says, Why are you making yourself small? I answer, there wasn’t much here to begin with.

 

What does it mean to eat like an American?

A couple of years ago I needed an emergency root canal. The dentist asked me why my teeth looked as bad as a smoker’s, though he could see I didn’t smoke and complimented my dental hygiene. It took me several minutes to suggest that it might be my gummy candy. He looked at me like I’d told him I was drinking gasoline and then said I was basically drinking gasoline. It took him twenty minutes to pry the molar out of my mouth with a pair of pliers. The crunch it made on the way out sounded like when you bite down on two Pringles.

 

What does it mean to eat like an American?

After my sister and I left for school my mother stopped cooking or going to the grocery store. Our fridge is empty except for slim fast shakes, green grapes, and some wine. Once in a while my dad eats nothing but Special K for a month and loses fifteen pounds. They go to dinner, but nowhere’s ever worth the money.

 

     

The dentist asked me why my teeth looked as bad as a smoker’s, though he could see I didn’t smoke and complimented my dental hygiene. It took me several minutes to suggest that it might be my gummy candy.
 

What does it mean to eat like an American?

In my house, we watch the Barefoot Contessa when we are sad or stoned. We giggle at our guilty pleasure: a term for eating and TV, one Ina uses often with a smile. The pleasure explains itself, but the guilt does not. We say it is just a snack, a junky way to tide ourselves over while we wait for the real thing. Or a weird inherited taste, a predilection encoded in a blame-free, hand-me-down identity. Perhaps it is just the end, and the inevitable desire that comes with it, the craving for Ina’s expert ingredients: the liberty to use as much chocolate as necessary, the freedom to whip too much cream, and the justice of butter, butter, butter -- no substitute. A classic, a comfort, a dessert so rich it tastes just like a dream.

 


  1. York Peppermint Patty slogan, present.

  2. Cadbury Chocolate slogan, present.

  3. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups slogan,2006.

  4. Tootsie Pop slogan, present.

  5. Doublemint Gum slogan, 1980s.

  6. Twix slogan, late 1990s.

  7. Snickers slogan, 2008.
 
Olivia Klevorn Olivia Klevorn is queer, Black writer born in Chicago, IL and living in Toronto, ON. With a master’s degree in visual anthropology from Oxford University, Olivia’s approach to writing is multi-disciplinary and incorporates various forms of poetry, narrative, and academic inquiry.

 
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CURRENTLY VIEWING: Memories of the Tongue (2020) Susie Mensah
CURRENTLY VIEWING: Memories of the Tongue (2020)
Susie Mensah
Memories of the Tongue
Susie Mensah
Toronto, ON

Memories of the Tongue is a reflection on personal history and food in a fatphobic, colonial context. Inspired by the work of scholars and writers Sonya Renee Taylor and Sabrina Strings, the following four pieces investigate institutional worldviews of food in relation to health, poverty and social location, especially for fat bodies. Each piece explores my interactions with food from multiple life stages and offers the perspective that food is a source of resistance. Fat bodies are violently deemed as opposite of Eurocentric exceptionalism, however, my ancestral tradition teaches that we embody the sole function of food and eating, which is to survive and connect.

 
 

An Undesired Dialogue

she
curses
my
name
as

i

move

down

her

throat.

every swallow
a disgusted
gulppp.
blistering her inner thoughts
intruder!

i know my function
disperse to the stomach
and mobilize the others towards her hips
we know each other well
this is why she despises me

my twin flame
i am what keeps her alive
sometimes she wishes I wouldn’t

On Eating

i am told that what i do is called an “eating disorder”
that blazing through
a large pizza, 20 boneless wings and 7 churros by myself
is binge eating
my lips attempt to say something
to explain that they’re wrong

i say nothing.

people who eat like me aren’t allowed to be right
i don’t eat because i hate my life, my family or even my body

i eat because i am the only one who can keep me alive
every heavy bite
grounding
a choice to stay around a little longer

 
 

Like Mother

my mother loved me
so much

that she would cook my favourite meals
a tasty apology for a life unlived
her love for me gingered my entire childhood

so i ate up
everything she made

came home to find me puking over the bathroom sink
sobbing

because self-control is foreign to the human tongue

like my mother,
we were never taught how to identify when we’ve had enough

 
 

PLENTY

Her mouth was dry.
Stale even.
As if she’d been chewing on that piece of gum before her own independence. In her tribe, women have to chew through every moment twice.

 

Landing softly on her wooden stool, fingers finally able to unclench…she was bone tired. In fact, born tired. Mortality in this body meant being at the mercy of that hateful summer sun. Osu was buzzing with busses and young boys running about the compound. The kind of wild freedom only littles and ghosts seem to know.

 

Tomorrow is Homowo. Tomorrow, she will debut her ceremonial kpepele.

In her tribe, to be a bad cook is to be invisible. You see, she wants more for herself. So she cooks and cooks all day long, until the savory feast is golden yellow. Knowing well, the corn meal will be investigated by aunties, as if the name of her future husband could be found somewhere in its ferment. She could hear Mama’s warning:

 

Make enough for the ancestors. 
Make enough for the ancestors.

Ah! How is it that time passes so quickly when cooking? Sun and moon dancing around us. The only measurement of passing time is the throb in the middle of her body.

Death! Is your imminence warned through the sharpness of hunger pains?

 

In her tribe, they shame hunger. Bring bitter spoonfuls. Boat loads, to its doorstep in remembrance of the famine her people survived. 

They shame hunger for making us believe that plenty is an inhabitable concept. As long as the earth is lifted we will always have plenty. Because our very creation is potted in abundance.

 

What feast will you offer the ancestors today?

Susie Mensah Susie Mensah is a very dramatic, double Aquarius & Cancer woman based in Tkaronto. Through curious writing & performing, her personal manifesto is rooted in vulnerability and the power of our sacred voice. She is currently involved in community work, specifically working with folks experiencing homelessness. Her writings are a reflection of body justice, romantic disappointments, the erotic, and exploring the violent nature of fear. It is very important to note that she still watches old episodes of “I Love New York”. Her works occupy space in a fat phobic and anti-black society, while navigating the woes of love and pleasure as a tool in our collective liberation. With the intention to heal herself, her practice is meant to help folks identify their own private alchemy.

 
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CURRENTLY VIEWING: Shelters (2020) Su-Ying Lee
CURRENTLY VIEWING: Shelters (2020)
Su-Ying Lee
Shelters
Su-Ying Lee
Toronto, ON

Thoughts about my earliest experience with food and the white-gaze, through to observations and experiences up until this present moment, are interwoven with the events of the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

When I was around 6 or 7 years old a white man thought to take my photo. As he raised his camera my mother moved in front of me to block his view. He, like many white hobby photographers, along with fledgling art students in the city, equated Chinatowns with lens titillation.

 

Whenever we went to Chinatown, my mother bought my favourite treat: duck feet from King’s Noodle, a Cantonese style BBQ restaurant. A salty rich marinade permeated the skin and webbing of the duck foot, a cut of meat I appreciate to this day for its textured complexity. Knowing the enjoyment that this food brought me, my mother had unwrapped the paper take-out bundle outside the restaurant and handed me a piece. It was at this very moment that I noticed the would-be photographer, my attention drawn away from the snack in my hand by the feeling that his intentions were wrong.

 

My father (Bàba/Bà) was from Northern China where foods made of wheat flour are commonly eaten. Throughout my childhood, I spent many weekends making batches of plain, stuffed and green onion spiraled steamed buns or dumplings filled with pork and vegetables. We snacked on green onion pancakes as we waited for dough to rise or parcels to steam and boil. Every step was done by hand—mixing and kneading dough, rolling out each skin, finely chopping vegetables, seasoning ground meat, forming buns and pinching dumplings closed. My dad’s eyes were joyful as he taught me and my brother the techniques of pleating, and the chemistry of yeast, water and flour, good-naturedly teasing us as our clumsy hands attempted the crimps for enfolding meat within dough. Although the types of dough used to wrap bao zi (stuffed buns) and dumplings differ, both are prepared for filling with the same method.

 

Bà would form the dough into a long roll that was then cut into smaller sections, and, finally, alternating between using his fingers and his red handled rolling pin, he worked the pieces into rounds. The rolling pin had seemed intimidating for its heft and for the finesse that was required to produce well-made rounds. Several years ago, in a thrift store, I found the exact same rolling pin and saw that it was a solid, simple tool, but not unwieldy as I had perceived it to be in childhood. As a young adult, I considered dough fussy so I had never anticipated needing such an object, but being drawn to its familiarity, I bought it. Finally, after finding the texture and flavour of store-bought and restaurant steamed buns unsatisfactory, I surrendered to making them myself. Now regularly used, I value the rolling pin for more than just its utility.

 
A woman (right) and a man (center) sit at a table at home with a baby (left). The man smokes a cigarette, the woman holds a white mug, and the baby holds open a children's book.

Image courtesy of the writer.

 

Come Monday, the weekend’s cache of food would be packed up for our school lunches, much to the dismay of my primary school classmates. “Ewwww! What is that? It smells! Look at what she has!” are the childish screeches in my recollection that turned the lovingly made foods leaden and burdensome. This was my experience growing up in the 70s, when the complexly textured cuts of meat I adored, including duck and chicken feet, cow’s tripe and pig’s ears, were still cheap and the suburb my parents moved us to was white as Wonder Bread. To memory, I only ever had one friend over for a meal. I remember the confusion I felt seeing Darrin halt at the bowl of congee my mother set before him--unable to eat this mildest of foods, nor the accompanying pickled vegetables. I certainly wouldn’t have invited other children over after seeing what I considered to be unappreciative wastefulness.

 

Prioritize fresh produce, buy what is on special that week, stock up on non-perishables when they are on sale, my mother advised. At that time, bones were treated as a near valueless by-product of butchery, making this foundational ingredient for comforting soups inexpensive and plentiful. Until I reached the age when I would grocery shop for myself, I had only known rice to be sold in the economical eighteen-pound bags that were ubiquitous in our home. My mother preserved foods herself. Pàocài (spice infused lacto fermented pickles) and garlic chili oil standout in my memory, and remain foundational flavours for me and a constant in my own home. Besides her lessons on economical shopping, the most notable imperative was to never, EVER, waste food. Not even one grain of rice. We rarely ate out. With admonishment, my mother told me that Canadians were wasteful with food and money.

 

     


Besides her lessons on economical shopping, the most notable imperative was to never, EVER, waste food. Not even one grain of rice.
 

She had known true hunger and deprivation growing up with many siblings in Taiwan post WWII, through the Taiwan Strait Crises and martial law. Childhood hunger had made her resort to foraging for plants to eat, on occasion with terrible outcomes. When people asked her how she stayed thin, flippantly or perhaps out of remembrance of trauma, she answered, many generations of starvation.

 

Preserving food, foraging and remarkable thinness would never be romantic activities and ideals to her, although they have become so in a segment of North American culture. My father once told me that there was a type of minerally dirt that is edible. He never told me how he knew this. For both of my parents, resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and conservation were ways of living informed by personal survival.

 
A man (left) and a woman (center) stand next to their brown Pontiac car. With them, their baby (the writer) is perched on the trunk of the car.

Image courtesy of the writer.

 

Once I reached adulthood, I still ate out infrequently due to a combination of ingrained family values, my low art-worker salary and my budget limitations as a single parent. On one exceptional night I went to the new most buzzed about “meat-forward” restaurant. They served offal with bravado, which was then the trend. Around this time Western chefs also began to tout the use of bones. Bone-broth was revealed as a new health-food discovery, and marrow bones were being carefully plated at trendy restaurants. At this particular restaurant, I was eager to try the pig ears. It was surprising to see this childhood favourite, a food previously invisible or shunned in North America, on their menu. I imagined a savvy chef’s tasty new preparation for the old favourite, but instead a scant plate of woody, difficult to chew, deep-fried strips arrived at our table. The cut of meat’s ability to retain deep flavours and the pleasure of its layered textures, at once tender and crisp, were entirely lost. This is too steep a price to pay for our cultural foods to enter the mainstream. Since then, I have come to appreciate the importance of having a sustained relationship with a food, and the cultures that form it, to achieve the best preparation.

 
This is too steep a price to pay for our cultural foods to enter the mainstream. Since then, I have come to appreciate the importance of having a sustained relationship with a food, and the cultures that form it, to achieve the best preparation.

     

 

As a mother, nourishing my child was a fundamental comfort. If he experienced joy from the meals I made him, then my single-handed parenting had achieved a critical foundation of care. Both the economy and the pleasure of my parents’ kitchen have been imprinted upon me and are now my son’s inheritances. During the social distancing of the COVID-19 pandemic, my son mentioned that he was helping his roommate cook. As many of us experienced over this unusual episode in our lives, his roommate was lacking energy or motivation and as a result, found himself with groceries on the edge of spoiling. I was immensely proud of knowing that my son has the life-skills to care for himself and for others. He went through the familiar phase of requesting the foods he saw in his schoolmates’ lunches, but, ultimately, in adulthood his preferences are for the foods and flavours of our home cooked meals. Like me, one of his favorite foods is pig ears.

 

My son regularly grocery shops with me in Chinatown. Chinese grocers attract those among us who know how to coax the most flavour out of foods—from a variety of cultures. In an aisle of dried and fermented items a middle-aged woman with a West Indian accent turned to my son, picked up a package of goji berries and sighed “I hate when white people start buying something and they make it expensive.” A moment of commiseration between them.

 

It was interesting to see how some who had likely neither experienced extreme scarcity first-hand, nor lived with the legacy of it, responded to emerging news of the novel coronavirus. I remember seeing the self-satisfied faces of people coming out of the supermarket with stacks of toilet paper. Even though I followed the developments since they began, it never occurred to me to hoard anything as useful as food, much less toilet paper. As I watched the price of toilet paper triple in price, I realized that in the space between living a life of casual wastefulness and fear of a societal shut-down, the first instinct of some was to prepare for dealing with their own literal waste.

 

In truth, society has functioned poorly for many long before the novel coronavirus—the disabled, chronically ill, racialized, unhoused, elderly and under-waged for whom the pandemic has compounded inequity to a sometimes fatal degree. How could toilet paper be mistaken as the priority?

 

     


In an aisle of dried and fermented items a middle-aged woman with a West Indian accent turned to my son, picked up a package of goji berries and sighed “I hate when white people start buying something and they make it expensive.” A moment of commiseration between them.

     

 

COVID-19, and the social isolation that it has created, has accelerated and intensified the rate at which we cycle through food trends. Under these extraordinary circumstances, even low-carb and gluten-free diets have fallen out of fashion. Along with baking bread, I’ve noticed popular food media outlets and individuals displaying their versions of congee, green onion pancakes, hand sliced noodles and more. They suggest these as recipes for passing time, nourishing bodies and providing pleasure. It is not unusual for cultural recipes to be presented by white folks, frequently without attribution to how they learned of the foods and ingredients. I don’t admonish them for wanting to make our foods--they are delicious--but the reality of racism and privilege is that people selectively decide to enjoy parts of a community’s culture without standing against that community’s dehumanization and may even actively participate in it.

 
A woman (left) stands next to a brown Pontiac car. She looks down at her baby (the writer), who is perched on the trunk of the car.

Image courtesy of the writer.

I have also posted photos of my meals during this time, and how they were made, on social media. Sharing cultural recipes is not my intent. These posts are a nod to my kin. I am communicating that, for us, these are foods that have always been here. I believe that unflinching images of foods that are less understood under conditions of white normativity confront and challenge racist beliefs that define what is edible. In this current moment, the fascination with what racialized people eat seems to loom with one of two determinations: appropriation or demonization. For this reason, I see us as standing together in defiance as we share images of our meals online: Xuan and her braised pig’s feet, Amy and her hot and sour soup, Alvis and their Hong Kong cafe macaroni, Jane and her Hainanese chicken rice, Alvin and his jian bing and Shellie and her chong you bing.

 

Seeking to exert control and judgement over what racialized people eat and where they get their food is white supremacy. Taking credit for recipes from other cultures is cultural appropriation. A white man photographing a Chinese child eating a duck’s foot in Chinatown is exotification and racialization. When my mother put her body between the photographer and I, a simple shift, I gained an early insight into image making, refusal and agency. It is with this comprehension that I have navigated through the crush of images and information released throughout the pandemic.

 
Su-Ying Lee Su-Ying Lee is an independent curator and has also worked in institutions. Her projects have taken place across Canada, in Hong Kong, Mexico City and Quezon City (Metro Manila, Philippines).

 
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CURRENTLY VIEWING: Edible Gardens Lost and Gained (2020) Bhaswati Ghosh
CURRENTLY VIEWING: Edible Gardens Lost and Gained (2020)
Bhaswati Ghosh
Edible Gardens Lost and Gained
Bhaswati Ghosh
Ontario



Edible Gardens Lost and Gained explores themes of growing one’s own food, sustainable urban living and how the politics of migration affects such practices. The essay focuses on two edible gardens – the one my grandmother lost to the violent partition of India in 1947 and the one my husband has grown for the two of us in Canada. My grandmother’s migration was forced upon her. With the division of India, she lost her garden, home, playground and the entire habitat that was her universe. My migration to the West happened out of choice and resulted in me gaining a garden, a home and a whole new universe. In this essay I also explore the idea of privilege in the form of environmental, economic and social capital and the way such privileges facilitate the practice of urban cultivation.

 

It's 8:30 in the evening on a late May day, and my husband isn't home for supper yet. He isn't anywhere too distant, though, only out in the backyard, pursuing his favourite spring-summer interest – gardening. This will be the seventh summer of him growing our own food, and like every autodidact farmer, seasoned more by failures than by studying scientific texts, he is ready for his annual gardening adventure.

 

Seven years ago when B, my husband, began planting the first vegetables in the backyard of our newly-bought house in suburban Ontario, he had little knowledge of gardening in Canada, a country to which we had moved in 2011. He didn’t know what hardiness zone we were in or that our cauliflower plants would fussily respond to the slightest temperature deviation. What made up for his lack of expertise was his curious enthusiasm, the blank canvas of a backyard the previous owners had left behind, and an immigrant’s secret fertilizer – nostalgia.

 

As he went about digging the soil and planting the very first seedlings, he would reminisce about helping his grandfather, a surgeon by profession, with his urban vegetable garden in Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab and where he grew up. Known as the granary of India, Punjab produces nearly a fifth of the country’s wheat, in addition to many other crops, thanks to the exceptional fertility of its soil. Could it be that even though no one in his immediate family ever tilled the land as a farmer, B’s green thumb came from his memory of the land?

 

In the past seven years, his efforts have yielded vegetables that last us through the year, thanks to modern refrigeration and Canada’s cold climate. Before we knew it, we had launched ourselves into an urban sustainable lifestyle. As we become increasingly self-reliant in terms of food production, I have begun to grapple with this privilege by retracing the arc of gardening in my own life.

 

At seven years old I grew my first plant. In a clay pot that stood in the slice of balcony allotted to our one-bedroom accommodation in Sriniwas Puri, a partially government run and funded residential area in South Delhi. I don’t remember where the inspiration came from, but one morning I simply placed a dry chickpea into a pot of soil. Seeing a green sapling emerge from a single, ordinary seed ranked amongst the greatest wonders in my seven-year-old life.

 

I watered the plant daily and delighted in its growth, but I don’t recall harvesting potential food from it. After returning from school in the afternoon, I would dash to the balcony to see how many more green hands – shoots – the plant had grown. Witnessing this day-by-day organic development was no less than magic for me.

 
At seven years old I grew my first plant. In a clay pot that stood in the slice of balcony allotted to our one-bedroom accommodation in Sriniwas Puri, a partially government run and funded residential area in South Delhi.

     



At that government residence, my brother and I grew up listening to our grandmother’s tales of the gardens in her desher baari, a phrase that literally means ‘the home in one’s country.’ In colloquial Bengali, desh is also the word for one’s native village. For us steeped-in-concrete, square-foot bound city children, Titti’s (as we called our grandmother) village garden was truly the stuff of dreams. Never tiring of regaling us with her memories of fruits and trees, she created an alternate world for me — one abundant with delicious fruits like the ever-mysterious gaab (velvet apple), juicy palms, and blackberries with their obnoxious stain but luscious flesh.

 

More than three decades later, my awe of the exotic gaab, as I imagined it from Titti’s descriptions, hasn’t diminished. Thanks to YouTube, the visual part of the mystery has now been unpeeled. A fruit as red as an apple with a velvety skin and soft yet firm flesh within, a glazed film coating its seeds. My grandmother also told us about the heady scent that permeated it, claiming she’d never tasted anything quite like it. I have to take her words on that because I’m yet to taste the fruit.

 

It would be another three years until our family gained access to a plot of soil to grow an edible garden, which we called, in typical Indian utilitarian parlance, a ‘kitchen garden.’ The kitchen garden, and the accompanying home, belonged to Titti and was an unfinished construction. Titti, who recently retired from government service, and the rest of my family moved into this bare bones structure of a house with three rooms, a modest L-shaped backyard and a small area for planting in the front.

 

Titti’s garden of childhood was worth pining for, yet pining was all we could do.. She lost that garden along with the rest of her birthplace in 1947, when India’s independence from the British came at the cost of the country’s division into two nations, parted along religious lines. Mercifully enough, property loss would be the extent of damage Titti’s family would have to suffer. Even as countless others lost their lives and those of their loved ones in the carnage that followed India’s Partition, Titti’s family was among the fortunate ones that remained unharmed.

 

In undivided India, merely by being upper caste Hindus, they had enjoyed privileges such as owning vast acres of land and an elevated socio-economic status. Those acres now lay in the hands of the citizens of what then came to be known as Pakistan. Post-Partition, my grandparents’ fortunes would go into a tailspin. With all the property gone and my grandfather’s job transfer to New Delhi from Calcutta (now Kolkata), the family had to start from scratch.

 

The stories of abundance in Titti’s village seemed fantastical to me and my brother because they seemed so far removed from the reality we found ourselves in, even after moving to Titti’s own house in Chittaranjan Park, a residential area in Delhi created especially for folks like my grandparents – Bengalis who’d lost property to Partition.

 

     


Ironically enough, I got a real, tangible sense of Titti’s desh garden only when I migrated to the West, away from my desh, New Delhi. Here, in the backyard garden my husband nurtured, I learned firsthand what abundant produce looked like, bagging as we did tomatoes for coworkers and the fruits of our overzealous zucchini plant for neighbours.

     

 

To cover the shortfall in our family income, we had to rent out one of our two bedrooms to single young men who were working in Delhi and had no use for a separate kitchen. Every month, my mother borrowed money from her colleagues to make sure our school fees were paid. When guests visited us on hot summer days, we knocked on our neighbour’s doors to ask for ice cubes because we didn’t have a refrigerator, much less a freezer.

 

Yet, despite the constant financial strain, or perhaps to cope with it, Titti filled the sparse backyard of her, now our, house with fruit and vegetable plants. A lush banana patch in a corner, a guava tree in another, a lime and a papaya tree each in the middle with a hodge-podge of greens – malabar spinach dominating them – completed the garden. At harvest time, after collecting her modest crop, Titti would visit the neighbours to share her produce. Urban gardening, as I saw her practicing it, gave me my first glimpse of the kinship that holds a village together.

 

Ironically enough, I got a real, tangible sense of Titti’s desh garden only when I migrated to the West, away from my desh, New Delhi. Here, in the backyard garden my husband nurtured, I learned firsthand what abundant produce looked like, bagging as we did tomatoes for coworkers and the fruits of our overzealous zucchini plant for neighbours. Here, in a suburban Ontario town, we experimented with and grew more than 40 different vegetables and fruits over six years. As we met with our gardening failures – diminished crop, saplings succumbing to excessive heat, an army of Japanese beetle wiping out almost an entire season’s worth of produce – we began to truly appreciate an Indian farmer’s ceaseless toil and desperate tenacity in the face of unpredictable weather, crop failures and systemic apathy, factors that lead many debt-burdened farmers to take the extreme step of taking their lives every year.

 

Since settling down in Canada, my husband and I have made a trip to India every year. Over the course of our annual visits, B developed a special friendship with my young niece, A.

 

For our last visit, my husband joined us at my mother’s house (the one she inherited from Titti), a couple of weeks after me. He carried a special set of gifts for A, who, incidentally was seven at the time – the same age when I had my first brush with gardening. There was a catch – A had to work to receive her gifts. B had mapped out a treasure hunt for the little girl. As he hid the items, B’s choice of gifts surprised me, although they shouldn’t have. “I’m going to get her started on gardening,” he told me with a wink as he concealed plastic spades and pots, watering cans and packets of seed in the crannies of my mother’s balcony garden.

 

Faced with a mission, A stretched her motor skills and her vision – bending, kneeling, prostrating, jumping, and squinting – to the fullest to complete the mission. Once she’d collected all the assorted gardening items, B taught her to plant her first bean seeds. A few days later, she presented the tiny pots to B, proudly displaying the seedlings that craned above the soil. Seven – that formative year when I, my niece and our Ontario house experienced our gardening epiphanies.

 

     


A few days later, she presented the tiny pots to B, proudly displaying the seedlings that craned above the soil. Seven – that formative year when I, my niece and our Ontario house experienced our gardening epiphanies.
 

In the last week of March this year (2020), when social distancing became a buzzword and we retreated indoors to shelter in place, the weather was still cold in Ontario. B had started a mini greenhouse with seeds from last year. A couple of months later, as working from home became the norm and the weather warmed up, I began lending my husband a hand in the backyard. There I listened to the birds.

 

One morning, as I pollinated strawberry blossoms with a soft brush, the song of a bird startled me. By now I had learned this was the song sparrow, a bird whose song had, on more than one occasion, magnetically lifted me off my work (from home) chair or made me stop in the middle of washing dishes. Enthralled anew by its brilliant song that morning, I paused pollinating the flowers.

 

Before this, I used to think that their beauty – the blushing red of the northern cardinal, the bright rust of the American robin, the orange-red bristling through the black of the red-winged blackbird – endeared birds to me. Their lovely tweets were merely a bonus. This spring, the self-assured, stunning song has shattered that idea. The song sparrow has taught me, in the mysterious way our avian friends do, that beauty has its place, but music trumps everything. “Bird poetry doesn’t come to me; bird poets do. Some even bring songs,” I wrote on my Facebook page one day, the song sparrow clearly influencing my thoughts.

 

Besides this heightened intimacy with nature, life under lockdown has brought me a deeper appreciation for an edible garden like Titti’s. Year after year, having been left with more produce than we could use in the season (even after sharing with neighbours, friends and coworkers), we’ve made use of traditional and modern methods of food preservation. Making jams, pickles and hot sauces, drying herbs and fruits, flash freezing – we’ve done it all.

 

In the fall of 2019, B went a step further – he dried the leaves of cruciferous vegetables like cauliflowers, cabbages and turnips in a dehydrator, then stored them in a coarsely crushed form. At the time, I laughed at his hoarding-farmer mindset. Barely six months later, with the outbreak of COVID-19, as our province went into a state of emergency and things became scarce at the grocery store, I couldn’t appreciate his foresight more. We began adding these greens into flatbread doughs, savoury pancake batters and smoothies. These organic dried greens reinforced, for me, the crucial benefit of growing one’s own food – finding sources of nourishment even during dismal times.

 

Decades after listening to Titti reliving her verdant desh surroundings, as I reflect on both our migrations, the irony of our journeys doesn’t escape me. My grandmother’s migration was forced upon her. With the division of India, she lost her garden, home and the entire habitat that was once her universe. My migration to the West happened largely out of choice and resulted in me gaining a garden, a home and a whole new universe.

 

Even as I look at these migrations in a personal and familial context, I can't help but think of the original inhabitants, the Indigenous people on whose lands we now live. Migration of a more sinister kind has seen colonizers brutalizing the Indigenous population, with centuries of nexus between political establishments and big business systematically displacing North America's Indigenous communities from the very soil they have nurtured and protected. We try to remember this as B learns the nuances of a Three Sisters Garden and applies this wisdom in our own backyard, often to a haphazard, but always successful, end.

 

An astonishingly indiscriminate virus is pushing the world to reconsider the validity of insular politics and steroidal market-oriented profiteering. Perhaps, when the disease is defeated, we will be closer to a world where people like Titti wouldn’t have to lose their gardens to the geopolitics of division and those like me wouldn’t need to be attracted to greener pastures (pun and all) to accrue gardens and the socio-economic rewards of immigration.

 

Above all, we will perhaps look at ways of living with and for, not necessarily off the land.

 
Bhaswati Ghosh Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction and non-fiction. Her first book of fiction, 'Victory Colony, 1950' is now out from Yoda Press. Bhaswati’s first work of translation from Bengali into English, 'My Days with Ramkinkar Baij' won her the Charles Wallace (India) Trust Fellowship for translation. Bhaswati’s writing has appeared in several literary journals, including Scroll, The Wire, Cargo Literary, Cafe Dissensus Everyday, Pithead Chapel, Warscapes, Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts, Stealing Time, Global Graffiti, Parabaas, Coldnoon, Stonecoast Review, and The Maynard. Bhaswati lives in Ontario, Canada.

 
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Overview
A Matter of Taste Chapter Two: Pinki Li, Lauren Marsden, Anya Shen, Weppler & Mahovsky


Chapter IV.


Overview
A Matter of Taste Chapter Two: Pinki Li, Lauren Marsden, Anya Shen, Weppler & Mahovsky


Chapter IV.
Title
Su-Ying Lee


Everything I needed to know to “shelter in place” came from my working-class immigrant parents and my life as a single parent. When I was around 6 or 7 years old a white man thought to take my photo. As he raised his camera my mother moved in front of me to block his view. He, like many white hobby photographers, along with fledgling art students in the city, equated Chinatowns with lens titillation.

Whenever we went to Chinatown, my mother bought my favourite treat: duck feet from King’s Noodle, a Cantonese style BBQ restaurant. A salty rich marinade permeated the skin and webbing of the duck foot, a cut of meat I appreciate to this day for its textured complexity. Knowing the enjoyment that this food brought me, my mother had unwrapped the paper take-out bundle outside the restaurant and handed me a piece. It was at this very moment that I noticed the would-be photographer, my attention drawn away from the snack in my hands and a realization that his intentions were wrong.

My father was from Northern China where foods made of wheat flour are commonly eaten. Throughout my childhood, I spent many weekends making batches of plain, stuffed and green onion spiraled steamed buns or dumplings filled with pork and vegetables. We snacked on green onion pancakes as we waited for dough to rise or parcels to steam and boil. Every step was done by hand—mixing and kneading dough, rolling out each dumpling skin, finely chopping vegetables, seasoning ground meat, forming buns, and pleating and pinching tidy dumplings. My dad’s eyes were joyful as he taught me and my brother the techniques of pleating and the chemistry of yeast, water and flour, good-naturedly teasing us as our clumsy hands attempted the crimps for enfolding meat within dough. The dough for bao zi (stuffed buns) was yeasted and risen, dumpling dough was not. Once the dough was ready for either dish, it was readied for filling in the same way--formed into a long roll, cut into smaller sections and finally, my dad would use a red handled rolling pin to work the pieces into rounds. I recall feeling as if that rolling pin was exceptionally heavy. Several years ago, in a thrift store, I found the exact same red handled rolling pin that my father had. It was solid for certain but not inordinately heavy as I perceived it to be in childhood. Now a regularly used kitchen tool of mine, I value it for more than just its utility. Some days we would have a “simpler” meal of toothsome hand sliced noodles, often accompanied by hong shao beef paired together for the way that the noodles took up the flavours of the braise.

Come Monday, the weekend’s cache of food would be packed up for our school lunches to the dismay of my primary school class-mates. “Ewwww! What is that? It smells! Look at what she has!” are the childish screeches in my recollection that turned the lovingly made foods leaden and burdensome. This was my experience growing up in the 70s, when the complexly textured cuts of meat I adored, including duck and chicken feet, cow’s tripe and pig’s ears, were still cheap and the suburb my parents moved us to was white as Wonder Bread. To memory, I only ever had one friend over for a meal. I remember the confusion I felt seeing Darren halt at the bowl of congee my mother set before him--unable to eat this mildest of foods, nor the pickled vegetables. I certainly wouldn’t have invited other children over after seeing my Canadian peer’s unappreciative wastefulness.

My dad’s eyes were joyful as he taught me and my brother the techniques of pleating and the chemistry of yeast, water and flour, good-naturedly teasing us as our clumsy hands attempted the crimps for enfolding meat within dough.

Prioritize fresh produce, buy what is on special that week, stock up on non-perishables when they are on sale, my mother advised. Bones were almost considered garbage by grocers and white Canadian consumers, making this foundational ingredient for comforting soups inexpensive and plentiful. Until I reached the age when I would grocery shop for myself, as far as I knew, rice was only sold in the economical 10 lb bags that were ubiquitous in our home. My mother preserved foods herself. Pàocài (spice spiked lacto fermented pickles) and garlic chili oil standout in my memory, and remain foundational flavours for me and a constant in my own home. Besides her lessons of economical shopping, the most notable imperative was to never, EVER waste food. Not even one grain of rice. We rarely ate out. With admonishment, my mother told me that Canadians were wasteful with food and money. She had known true hunger and deprivation growing up with many siblings in Taiwan post WWII, through the Taiwan Strait Crises and martial law. Hunger had made her resort to foraging for plants to eat, on occasion with terrible outcomes. When people asked her how she stayed thin, flippantly or perhaps out of remembrance of trauma, she answered “many generations of starvation.” Preserving food, foraging and remarkable thinness food would never be romantic activities and ideals to her, although they have become so in North American Culture. My father once told me that there was a type of dirt that people ate to satiate their hunger in times of scarcity. Henever told me how he knew this. For both of my parents, resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and conservation were ways of living informed by personal survival.

Once I reached adulthood, I still ate out infrequently due to a combination of ingrained family values, my low art-worker salary and my budget limitations as a single parent. On one exceptional night I went to the new most buzzed about “meat-forward” restaurant. They served offal with bravado, which was the trend at the time. Around this time Western chefs also began to tout the use of bones. Bone-broth was revealed as a new health-food discovery, and marrow bones were being carefully plated at trendy restaurants. At this particular restaurant, I was eager to try the pig ears. I was surprised to see this childhood favourite, a food previously invisible and shunned in North America, on their menu. I imagined a savvy chef’s tasty new preparation for the old favourite, but instead I received a plate of scant, woody, difficult to chew, deep-fried strips. None of that cut of meat’s best qualities were employed. Its ability to retain deep flavours and the pleasure of its layered textures, at once tender and crisp, were entirely lost. This is too steep a price to pay for our cultural foods to enter the mainstream.

As a mother, nourishing my child was a fundamental comfort. If he experienced joy from the meals I made him, then my single-handed parenting had achieved a critical foundation of care. Both the economy, and the pleasure of my parents’ kitchen have been imprinted upon me and are now my son’s inheritances. During the COVID-19 pandemic, my son mentioned that he was helping his roommate cook. As many of us experienced during this unusual episode in our lives, his roommate was lacking energy or motivation. As a result, he found himself with groceries on the edge of spoiling. I was immensely proud of knowing that my son has the life skills to care for himself and for others. He went through the familiar phase of requesting the foods he saw in his school-mates’ lunches, but ultimately in adulthood his preferences are for the foods and flavours of our home cooked meals. Like me, one of his favorite foods is pig ears, but by now the price of offal has climbed to approach the price of “primer” cuts of meat.

This is too steep a price to pay for our cultural foods to enter the mainstream.



Food gentrification is a shared experience among racialized people. My son regularly grocery shops with me in Chinatown. Chinese grocers attract those among us who know how to coax the most flavour out of foods—from a variety of cultures. In an aisle of dried and fermented items a middle-aged woman with a West Indian accent turned to my son. She picked up a package of goji berries and sighed “I hate when white people start buying something and they make it expensive.” A knowing moment of commiseration between them.

It was interesting to see how some who had likely neither experienced extreme scarcity first-hand, nor lived with the legacy of it, responded to emerging news of the novel coronavirus. I remember seeing the self-satisfied faces of people coming out of the grocery store with stacks of toilet paper. Even though I followed the developments since they began, it never occurred to me to hoard anything as useful as food, much less toilet paper. As I watched the price of toilet paper triple in price, I realized that in the space between living a life of casual wastefulness and fear of a societal shut down, the first instinct of some was to prepare for dealing with their own literal waste. It is of course presumptuous to think that the average white North American lives wastefully, but this is from the mind of someone who was raised to literally, never waste a single grain of rice.

COVID-19, and the social isolation that it has created, has accelerated and intensified the rate at which we cycle through food trends. Under these extraordinary circumstances, even low-carb and gluten-free diets have fallen out of fashion. Along with baking bread, I’ve noticed popular food media outlets and individuals displaying their versions of congee, green onion pancakes, hand sliced noodles and more. They suggest these as recipes for passing time, nourishing bodies and providing pleasure. I don’t admonish white folks for wanting to make our foods – they are delicious – but the reality of racism and privilege is that people will selectively decide to enjoy parts of a community’s culture but won’t stand against that community’s dehumanization.

I also post photos of my meals, and how they are made, on social media. Sharing cultural recipes is not my intent. When I post, I am nodding at my kin. I am communicating that, for us, these are foods that have always been here. These food images can expand the conception of food for unseasoned minds and palates. Unflinching images of lesser understood foods confront and challenge racist conceptions of what constitutes food in North America. At a time when racists are emboldened by pandemic, I see us as standing together: Xuan and her braised pig’s feet, Amy and her hot and sour soup, Alvis and their Hong Kong diner macaroni, Jane and her Hainanese chicken rice, Alvin and his jar of doufu rou and Shellie and her chong yu bing.

Su-Ying Lee

Su-Ying Lee is an independent curator who has also worked in institutions as Assistant Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA), Curator in Residence at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, and Assistant Curator at the Art Gallery of Mississauga. Lee received a Masters Degree in Curatorial Studies at the University of Toronto and is an alumnus of the Toronto Arts Council/Banff Centre’s Cultural Leaders’ Lab. Her projects have taken place across Canada, in Hong Kong, Mexico City and Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines where she co-curated the third Kamias Triennial Manila (February 2020).



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