What Eating My Way Across America Taught Me About Being Canadian

"I used to care a lot about Canadian food identity and Canadians being recognized by America for something besides poutine and politeness."
July 1, 2017, 6:00pm

This is the fourth installment of In the Belly of America , a new series in which Canadian Ivy Knight explores the United States through profiles of average (and not-so-average) Americans through their connections with food.

For the last six months, I've been eating my way across America in an attempt to find common ground with my southern neighbor through food. An unexpected side effect is that it's also helped me understand what it means to be Canadian.

Some Americans might think we are just carbon copies of them—their little siblings to the north not worthy of much attention. But a keen observer, or any regular Canadian, can note the important differences between us. We are not American. No matter our proximity, we are very different people, and even though we've been saturated with their culture pretty much since we became a country 150 years ago, we are still Canadian.

I'm a French Canadian who grew up eating sugar pie, but if you take that recipe and add nuts you get the famed pecan pie of the American South. Add raisins (at the risk of being murdered in some circles) and you've got the beloved butter tarts of Ontario. Aside from poutine, the things we do in the kitchen are pretty much the same. The moonshine they make with corn in Tennessee, we make with molasses in Prince Edward Island—but both versions will put hair on your eyeballs.

Through my travels for my MUNCHIES column, In the Belly of America, I've had incredible conversations with regular people in an attempt to explore not only the American cultural and culinary fabric, but how it relates to my own Canadian identity.

Everybody eats and everyone has stories about food—whether they take place in fine dining meccas or around the Slurpee fountain at the 7-11.

READ MORE: How Chop Suey and Ginger Beef Helped Canada Discover Itself

In Fallbrook, California, the Avocado Capital of the World, I hung out with an ex-cop-turned-avocado-farmer named JC and talked about gun violence in America over a rib sampler with a side of L'il Oinker biscuits. Despite his problems with gun violence, he found it unfathomable that I don't own a firearm. I ate a lumberjack breakfast in Queens with a drag queen named Gilda who became suicidal in college when his church tried to convince him he wasn't gay. Then I talked about the history of shoo fly pie with Sara from West Virginia, a woman who had gotten cancer at 20 and has suffered from crippling medical bills, while trying to stave off a remission, ever since.

These difficult conversations—made easier over meals of comfort food—illuminated the complexity of what it means to be American, but also what it is to be human. I was always aware of our differences, but I've become more attuned to our similarities. We are all just people, concerned with our health and our basic rights. Even if we struggle with attaining them, we get a small respite from life with delicious food, whether L'il Oinker biscuits, shoo fly pie, or a lumberjack breakfast.

We all need to eat to live, but we are also hardwired to seek out the best tasting meals in the process, because it's not enough to just stay alive. We want our lives to be happy (and Instagrammable) too.

As JC and I learned over a hot meal, not everybody with a gun is a murderer, and not everyone without one is an idiot. Free health care, like we have in Canada, won't save us from cancer, but neither will a system which leaves millions without access to doctors.

We also talked about Canadians, particularly that old trope about how little Americans know about us.

To Americans, we Canadians were seen as little more than the bland people who perpetually apologize. That's changed, because our neighbors have been forced to look at us in recent years, and they like what they see.

Our hunky leader is more aligned with those great American heroes—JFK and Bill Murray—than the current nightmare they have sitting in the White House. Our health care doesn't look so circumspect now that the promise of Trumpcare seems doomed. The way we've embraced refugees fleeing war and devastation coupled with the dearth of mass shootings over here make us seem almost utopian.

And we've changed too.

The fact that America didn't care about us used to drive us crazy. I used to care a lot about Canadian food identity and Canadians being recognized by America for something besides poutine and politeness.

READ MORE: Did Canada Really Steal Poutine from Quebec?

A combination of Trudeau, great health care, our love of immigrants, and our lack of gun violence have combined to help me, and all of my countrymen and women finally become fully realized as the Celine Dion superstars we were always meant to be.

We, with our maple syrup-spiked blood and beavertail hearts, are like the mighty moose moseying through the arboreal forest, the feisty salmon fighting its way up the mountain streams, Samantha Bee.

One day we decided to do our thing and not worry about the American gaze, and we've become more truly ourselves as a result. It doesn't hurt that we came out from under our own terrifying version of Trump—a full eight years of it—to breathe in the fresh rhetoric and new car smell of our progressive PM.

The Handmaid's Tale on Bravo portrays the ultimate dystopian future for our two countries with Canada as the safe haven when religious zealots turn America into the ultimate patriarchy. In the show, Ontario license plates are a symbol of freedom.

In real life, Canada has always been a safe haven—for African-Americans fleeing slavery, young men fleeing the Vietnam war draft, soldiers fleeing stop-loss orders forcing them back to war zones, same-sex marriages between 2005 (when Canada legalized) and 2015 (when the U.S. legalized), and now for anyone of Middle Eastern descent disenchanted over the Muslim travel ban.

I'm not saying the USA is going full dystopian. Not yet. But in the event it ever does, we are here and we're queer ( -friendly).

From the land of strong gun control, plentiful abortions and free cancer treatment, where our leader is a self-proclaimed feminist who jogs shirtless: Take heart America, it will get better.

Happy Canada Day and Fourth of July!