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As an environmentally conscious couple combining a vegetarian (me) and an omnivorous “foodie” with allergies (my husband), we already went through a reflexive phase about the importance of food as we started our journey into parenting. But moving to Canada two years ago has given my reflection on food and family a new turn. In French Kids Eat Everything[1], Karen Le Billon, a Canadian living in Vancouver with her French husband, shares her experience about “How [her] family moved to France, cured picky eating, banned snacking, and discovered 10 simple rules for raising happy, healthy eaters” (the explicit subtitle of her memoir of their year in Brittany, France). Our situation is similar to the one Le Billon recounts, but in reverse: we moved from the francophone part of Switzerland to anglophone Ontario. Through our experience adjusting to a new culture, some of our parenting principles and our foodways are being challenged and sometimes transformed, for better or for worse.

Which are some of these blatant or subtle differences that have made us, as newcomers to Canada, so conscious about our previous and current food choices? Almost two years into our settling and adjusting process, how good have we become at navigating our way into the rich Canadian food landscape?

After our first visit, we both reached the conclusion that, despite the name, what is served at the Swiss Chalet® does not even come close to resembling any of what we consider typical Swiss food. Dust of parmesan sold in plastic boxes and containing cellulose and other additives joins our “never-buy-this-again-list” that already includes all sorts of processed foods and everything that we suspect of containing high amounts of GMOs. Despairing of the price difference between conventional and organic products, within a month, however, I abandoned the idea of completely avoiding GMOs since they are so pervasive. My husband delights in locally brewed beers and we both enjoy red wine from the Niagara wineries. However, we are continually surprised by the diverse restrictions concerning the sale and consumption of alcohol in public spaces, including for families who picnic in the parks. In our Toronto neighbourhood, "the Junction," the historical ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages has been completely lifted only in 2000.

Adaptation to the specific food cultures in Canada includes using a new vocabulary in English and in the many other languages that provide precise names for both familiar and new foods (fiddleheads, bibimbap, roti) that we encourage our daughter to taste. Without noticing it, I even use new words in French. My mother-in-law remarked that I now call blueberries bleuets (as in Québec, whereas they are called myrtilles in Europe). Compulsory bilingual labels in Canada sometimes seem absurdly laughable. Rose water bought from a South Asian supermarket becomes, in French, “eau augmentée” (which could be translated back as “enhanced water,” since “rose” is not only a flower, but also the simple past of the verb “to rise”). Nonsensical labels, are not, however, my primary source of concern.

Much more worrisome to me is the cultural translation of my family’s food habits. As a researcher in the study of religions, I never expected to write about my experience with food in Canada, but I have been compelled to reflect more deeply on such questions for myself, as my current study on “natural parenting” includes discussing with my informants about issues such as global food security, growing and buying food, cooking, feeding children, diet and nutrition. However mild my cultural shock may be compared to that of other newcomers, I still have a lot to write about my experience of food difference.

Since we arrived in Ontario, I have been fascinated by the variety of the multicultural culinary heritage, and I am still very much enjoying it. It seems to me that in Toronto, any food item, as “exotic” as it may seem to me, can be purchased somewhere. In one day, it is possible to eat dishes from the entire planet. Not only is food indeed imported from all over the world, but also it is prepared in many distinct culinary traditions. One can have Polish pierogi for lunch, then snack on an Indian samosa, sip a bubble tea in Korea town and share an injera dinner in an Ethiopian restaurant. At the foot of the CN Tower, Toronto is a twenty-first century Babylonia, a vast urban magma teeming with languages, ethnicities, religions and the food cultures associated with them. This cornucopia of well-maintained traditions is enriched with the hybrid creations produced by so much diversity mingling together in inventive ways. A currito,™ for instance, is a curry served in a wrap like a burrito. Is this really fusion food or just a lucky but tasty assemblage?

My new favourites include Vietnamese ph soup and kimchi. To get some inspiration, we borrow cookbooks from the Toronto Public Library. I learn how to make coleslaw and I revisit North American classics such as “Mac and Cheese” by trying to make a slightly healthier version: whole-wheat pasta and butternut squash (another new favourite veggie!) sauce to replace part of the original milk and cheese.

In our experience, Canadians seem greatly accommodating, including in restaurants: customers with food allergies are taken seriously, and vegetarian (or even vegan) options are available on almost every menu. This really impresses me, and I also appreciate that when we eat out with our daughter, waiters often bring a booster seat and a set of paper and crayons for her.

My personal (and still ongoing) reflection about food has come to include not only the issues of buying and cooking food, but also the ways it is conveyed, wrapped, kept, and how food containers are disposed of (or, unusually, reused). I am slowly getting used to packages, shopping carts, baskets, and fridges being bigger than in Europe. At first, this giant packaging worried me. As a family of two adults and one child, how could we possibly consume one kilogram of shredded mozzarella before it goes bad? As a consumer, I may not do so much about the food wasted in the supermarkets, during the distribution food chain and even in storage. And how could I directly influence food speculation that may lead to some of the crops being left to rot in the fields, without being harvested? I acknowledge that I come from a position of privilege and have never known hunger. Reading about agriculture and sustainability, as well as travelling to other continents (another privilege), or just to other parts of the city, has made me aware of these issues and has left me feeling somehow painfully powerless.

Despite my reluctance to waste food, I could not help but calculate that it was still cheaper to take this risk to throw away some of the food than to purchase smaller quantities. At least, there is less packaging than with smaller individually wrapped portions. The same holds true for buying in bulk: something new to me since bulk food stores are uncommon in Switzerland. When eating out, taking home what is left of the oversized portion is a current practice in North America, but would be greatly frowned upon in most restaurants in Europe. In spite of their higher price, I still insist on buying organic varieties of certain items. Some aspects of “frugal living” thus have come to play an integral part in my postdoctoral experience[2] and this has triggered my savvy culinary creativity: hard broccoli stems are saved for a soup, stale bread goes into the blender to add some texture to a mushroom velouté, and bananas are frozen before they turn brownish to be used later in a smoothie. I also keep wondering why a few cents off the groceries bill for bringing one’s own reusable bags at some supermarkets–a rewarding refund rather than a punitive tax–apparently is not a sufficient incentive for a majority of shoppers.

Figure 1

City of Toronto poster for a recycling program

Image used with permission by the City of Toronto

-> See the list of figures

“More plastic! We want it!” say two recycling professionals swimming in a sea of transparent containers on a City of Toronto poster encouraging the collection of new types of plastics. Overall, the food and eating habits of my family have not changed so much at home. However, take-out food is a new convenience. Considered at a larger scale, such habit results in an ocean of plastic (not to mention the great plastic garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean). Because to me “meal time” culturally means enjoying my food served in a real plate while sitting at a table, I find it difficult to really appreciate what I am eating from a throw-away plastic, polystyrene, or paper plate while walking in the street. Likewise, drinking an Ontarian Chardonnay served out of a plastic pouch in a plastic glass spoils half of my fun. Similarly, a cup of coffee means I am taking a break, sitting in the coffee shop, not constantly refuelling on caffeine so that I can work for many more hours. Drinking an espresso from an oversized paper cup that I will use for only five minutes is something I can cope with, but, despite the warning that “this beverage can be extremely hot,” I remain indignant when I receive two stacked cups instead of just one, or a cardboard holder. Why must coffee be that hot in the first place? I conclude that throwaway cups cost less money (and human energy or good will) than paying someone a fair wage to do dishes. When I forget to bring mine and awkwardly ask for my coffee in a “real cup,” I frequently get the answer that “the dishwasher is out of order.” Worse than paper cups that are biodegradable are their plastic lids that do not easily biodegrade, as we observed while walking the lakeshore from Toronto to Mississauga.

Figure 2

Paper degrades, plastic does not

Photo by the author, Toronto, March 10, 2013

-> See the list of figures

Take-away food may be a necessity when one does not have the time, the energy, or the skills to cook after a long day of work and an exhausting commute. Recycling programs notwithstanding, is this excessive amount of littering an unavoidable side effect of the take-away food culture, or, for the sake of Canada’s environment, is there anything that we can do about it? In Europe, where throwaway plates or take out cups and containers are used foremost in special occasions, and not on a daily basis, it is becoming increasingly common to use washable glasses and plates (with a deposit system) at large gatherings such as music festivals. In several cities, restaurants that offer take-away food are required to place large bins outside and do their own garbage collection, in addition to the regular city services. Fast food outlets, in particular, are considered as partially accountable for the littering of their customers.

Will I ever get used to this particular food culture? For the moment, I know how to be grateful for accessing nutritious food every day, and I will gladly carry on my exploration of the bountiful multicultural cuisine of my new country. Wherever we come from and live, as interconnected participants to a globalized world, we will have to change the ways we grow, transport, prepare and consume food. Exposure to diversity as reflected through food and eating habits may help us see which issues are the most damaging to both humans and the planet, which innovations are possible, and how we can adapt to new circumstances individually and collectively. We must be capable of adopting new habits, and we must be flexible, integrating difference without losing the strength of already established healthy structures. This requires plasticity, not plastic.