Food as Identity


Yesterday we went to the Community Cup in Ottawa.  It is a community soccer tournament  designed to bring together new immigrants to Ottawa and people who have been living here more than three years through sport.  There was music and dancing, kids’ entertainers and booths from community organizations with information about resources for new immigrants.  The main focus though was on the tournament.  We had a great time, partly enjoying the entertainment and partly because it was at one of our favourite parks in the city (Brewer Park).  The girls weren’t as interested in watching the soccer matches because they were thinking about the bouncy castle, the water park, the monkey bars, etc.

Given this food kick I am on, it did make me think about the connections between food and identity.  It could be national identity, ethnic identity, cultural identity or class identity.  We have Canadian foods like poutine, tourtière, beavertails, beer, etc.  Canada has a pretty diverse population of people from all over the world so we have the opportunity to eat ethnic or at least a reasonable North American facsimile of ethnic food.  When I was a kid, the ethnic food we ate the most was Chinese food, which I have since realized is a watered-down version of actual food eaten by Chinese people in China.  It like any other country has regional variations in cuisine and the stuff we eat is fairly weak in comparison. Now I can get food from pretty well any country in the world.  Granted, it too is often the North American version, but it is also possible to find reasonably authentic foods from other countries. This is all thanks to the people who have chosen to come to Canada from around the world and share their food with us.  By sharing their food, they also share some of their culture and customs.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that Culture is “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.”  I would suggest that the “collective” can be further defined by country, ethnicity, class, city, neighbourhood, age, etc.

So today got me thinking about the food experience of new immigrants and the culture shock that comes with relocating one’s life to a new place.  Food is such a fundamental thing in our lives.  It is something that we interact with every day – at least most people do; for some access to food in their home country and here can be a challenge.  Food helps to shape our perception of ourselves. In our family it is important to sit down and have dinner together.  It is the time of day when we learn from one another about what happened during the day when we were apart.  It is the space where Laura and I try to teach the girls about manners.  We try to encourage the willingness to experiment and try new things, really crazy things like asparagus and eggs in non-hard-boiled formats.  The dinner table is a sharing space.

When you have people over for a gathering that includes a meal, where do people stand around and chat before the meal?  In my family, it is the kitchen.  The lack of space is not a big deal, the kitchen is the centre.  The food and its creation is the foundation for the gathering and creates a space for the conversations and relationships.  Often when we meet with friends we meet for lunch or a coffee, etc.  Many business meetings and organizational meetings take place over a meal or with food supplied.

At the most basic level food is one of those physiological needs identified by Maslow.  Without it, our lives are difficult.  Without it we get hungry and with hunger comes a whole host of effects that make it hard to function.  Being hungry, really hungry and not just the I need a bag of chips because I had lunch two whole hours ago hungry, is tough.  Especially if it is as a result of not being able to afford enough food to not be hungry.  If you have kids and you can’t afford to feed them, it impacts your perception of yourself as a parent, as a caregiver, as a provider.  If you can’t provide for the most basic needs for your child, you would certainly feel like you weren’t doing your job as a parent.

So what is the connection with new immigrants?  Imagine coming to a country where you couldn’t access the kinds of foods in the kinds of ways that you were used to. Imagine having to learn how to cook foods you hadn’t had before.  Imagine nothing tastes the same or right.  Imagine you couldn’t find a job because no one was willing to recognize your out-of-country experience or training and as a result you couldn’t afford to put enough food on the table.  What does that do to your identity?  What does it do to your thoughts about your decision to relocate to another country?

Fortunately, and sadly, we have food banks to help people to access food when they are in these challenging circumstances.  Sad that we need to have them and fortunate for those who need to access them.  I have never had to access a food bank, although I have been close.  In university I remember a period of a month or two when I was between jobs that I had the same pasta, margarine and garlic salt dinner every day because money was low.  I could have called my mother for support and I could have sought out other supports like a food bank, but I was too proud to do that, plus I think it was part of my identity to be short on food.  I was a university student and I was supposed to be a starving student.  That is part of the university student identity and culture.

As it turns out, today is Canada Day and living in Ottawa means we have all kinds of great opportunities to participate in displays of cultural identity.   One of those events is the Great Canadian Chicken BBQ at Major’s Hill Park and as in years previous they will be donating $0.50 from the sale of each chicken sandwich sold at the BBQ to the Ottawa Food Bank.  The recipe for this year’s sandwich has been provided by Commander Chris Hadfield – formerly of the International Space Station.

So today when you are thinking about your cultural identity as a Canadian, or as an American in a couple of days on July 4th, take a moment to think about those who lack access to one of those fundamental aspects of life and identity and make a donation to the food bank.  In Ottawa the food bank supports an average of 45,000 people a month and 37% of those are kids under 18.


About DadGoesRound
I am a Canadian father of three girls and blog about Fatherhood, Kids and Current Affairs at

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