The phone call from Toronto Public Health came right after lunch service. The city employee was inquiring about a food item on our menu that they had received a complaint about. I quickly began to panic, thinking we had given someone something contaminated and they had become ill. The city worker assured me that was not the case. Apparently a customer had complained to them because we offer lamb testicles on our menu. We were advised to stop selling the item until they could come and inspect the product.
Three days later a city employee showed up at the restaurant—an Iranian joint on a fashionable strip—in a white smock demanding to know the name of the farm where we source the testicles. They also asked us to prepare a sample for them so they could see how we serve the item and they also took a sample with them.
A week later we received a phone call informing us that the product was safe to serve and that the farm we sourced it from did meet regulations. The city employee ended the conversation with a chuckle saying, "You gotta understand we just don't eat that kind of stuff here."
I didn't really pay much attention to the 'we' and 'here' of his comment. I didn't dwell on how those words set our restaurant outside of acceptable dining. I was more concerned with getting the item back on the menu because the Globe and Mail had featured it and people wanted to come in and try it.
I was reminded of this incident when I recently came across a petition asking that an Indigenous-owned restaurant in Toronto stop selling seal meat on its menu. The petition had 5441 signatures as of October 16 and has received a lot of media attention.
Although we never had any petitions launched against us, that feeling of alienation and isolation remained. Once in awhile we still get an off the cuff comment about how gross or inappropriate it is to serve such offal things. Of course keeping in mind the hypocrisy of an industry that has only in the last decade understood that nose to tail eating is not just a culinary trend for most cultures and that our designation as an "ethnic" restaurant makes us more susceptible to such comments. It's all good and well if a French restaurant serves brains or heart but when we serve off cuts of meat we are looked at suspiciously at best and have the authorities called on us at worst.
The Indigenous restaurant that became the focus of the petition, Kukum Kitchen, offers such items as elk, bison, pheasant and other wild game and fish. It couples them with sweetgrass oil, juniper berries, wild rice, cedar nectar, and spruce tips. All sourced from Canada and prepared by owner and chef Joseph Shawana who was raised on the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Reserve located on Manitoulin Island on Lake Huron.
I reached out to the author of the petition, Jennifer Matos. I was interested in finding out why she launched the petition and if she had protested Italian restaurants that serve veal (baby cow) or French restaurants that serve horse meat. She sent me a statement via email which reads in part:
I started a petition for the restaurant to remove seal meat from the menu because it is sourced by the COMMERCIAL hunt and NOT the indigenous hunt. It has been said that eating seal is an indigenous tradition, however, if you are selling it publicly to non-indigenous people then is it still a tradition? And if you are buying seal meat from the commercial seal hunt and not the Indigenous hunt you are not only supporting a cruel and barbaric mass slaughter, but you are not supporting your own Indigenous people.
Matos took it upon herself to educate Indigenous chef Joseph Shawana on how he could really support Indigenous people; how he should source his meat; questioned what Indigenous eating traditions even are, and said he should not benefit monetarily from them. Jennifer Matos never got back to me about whether she has ever targeted French and/or Italian restaurants for the meats they serve.
A counter petition was launched shortly after by Aylan Couchie, an Indigenous artist and writer from Nipissing First Nation in Northern Ontario. Speaking to me on the phone from Northern Ontario, Couchie said she was exhausted by these types of actions because they never acknowledge the harm or history of how food and Canadian colonialism intersect.
"Traditional indigenous foods have been used against Indigenous people for a very long time in the history of Canada," Couchie said. The counter petition also mentions the Canadian government's move to wipe out the buffalo in hopes of starving First Nations across the prairies.
How food has historically been used as a tool to perish and punish Indigenous peoples is no longer a secret in Canada. Numerous books and articles point out how Indigenous peoples were starved off their land and onto reserves and later used as guinea pigs for malnourishment experiments by the government of Canada.
It was one of the 'founders' of Canada, John A. Macdonald, who said in the House of Commons in 1878, "We cannot allow them to die for want of food … [We] are doing all that we can by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense."
Canadian colonial food historian, Ian Mosby, recently co-published a report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal outlining how the systemic starvation policies of the government impact Indigenous communities today. The report also acknowledges the damage done by the malnourishment experiment programs and concludes with, "most importantly, we need to demand that the next generation of Indigenous children have access to the kinds of plentiful, healthy, seasonal and traditional foods that were denied to their parents and grandparents, as a matter of government policy."
When speaking to the media, the owner of Kukum Kitchen, said he opened the restaurant to honour his grandmother ( Kukum means grandmother in Cree) and all the meals she would prepare for the family and the memories he had as a child foraging for food on Manitoulin Island.
How ironic that the people who can actually lay claim to the title of Canadian cuisine, are being told to keep it to themselves and to not profit off of it. The erasure of Indigenous cuisine in this country is very much an extension of the attempt to erase Indigenous peoples. Its reclaiming and introduction to the restaurant industry in this city is something that I think is long overdue and should be supported.
There are sixteen thousand nine hundred and thirty nine eating establishments in Toronto. Four of them are Indigenous and they have only opened in the last five years. If animal rights activists want to start petitions and protests against restaurants that serve meat, I suggest they start somewhere within the other sixteen thousand nine hundred and thirty four.
I called to get a reservation at Kukum this weekend but they were all booked. It was the first time I was happy a restaurant had no room for me.
Samira Mohyeddin is a writer and co-owner of Banu Restaurant Iranian. She still sells lamb testicles.