It hit me this evening, in the “crackers & soup” aisle at the supermarket, of all places.
I’ve been living in Canada for twenty years and I still don’t know what a typical Canadian dinner is.
I’m surprisingly clueless about Canadian food culture. For instance, I only learned a few years ago that crackers and soup are often located in the same aisle because Canadians crumble saltine crackers over soup. I had no idea! I thought crackers were just a healthier “chips” option for kids’ lunchboxes or for a savoury snack. Turned out they can be part of a meal in Canada—this wasn’t mentioned anywhere in my citizenship study guide.
Instead of planning what I was going to cook later that night, I walked home wondering what Canadian families—whose ancestry is mostly English-Canadian—were putting on the table for dinner.
Dinner, not lunch. Lunch doesn’t count, because time is money. Hourly employees typically get a 30-minute unpaid break, which isn’t a lot of time when you typically have to go pee, wash hands, check phone messages, make your way to the break room and wolf down a lunch that probably can’t be warmed up—been there, down that. As for salaried employees, eating in front of the computer is common because taking a real lunch break isn’t exactly encouraged in many workplaces.
Based on ten years of experience in various workplaces, I can tell you that my Canadian co-workers were usually bringing easy, homemade sandwiches (ham or tuna on sliced white bread) and that “free” food—pizza, donuts, timbits, etc.—was always a popular perk, no mystery here.
But why haven’t I learned more about dinnertime in Canadian households? Well, I do have many friends who don’t identify to a culture other than “Canadian,” but the topic of food comes up more often with immigrants—classic meals we miss, ingredients we can’t find, substitutions that may or may not work, imported treats worth the splurge. Honestly, sometimes we sound like high-level drug dealers—”there’s this tiny Serbian shop behind an auto repair shop where you can find… guess what… Chocolat Poulain! Okay, packaging is in Polish and the best-before date was last year but CHOCOLAT POULAIN!”
On the other hand, Canadians who don’t have ties to a foreign country often laugh nervously when I start talking about food. “Ah ah, obviously you’re French, you guys love good food! I remember, one time, in Paris, I had a croissant… and isn’t it amazing that French kids eat everything, oh, and by the way, I have to ask you, where do you buy wine here?”
Wrong person. First, I don’t drink—I never developed a taste for alcohol and since it’s an expensive pastime, I decided to just accept it’s not for me. And I’m unlikely to make a “coq au vin” for dinner because I can only guess it’s rooster with a wine-based sauce. Honestly, most French don’t whip up fancy meals and elegant desserts on a daily basis… or ever. However, it’s true that many cultures value fresh ingredients, and food in general, more than North Americans, including French people.
I may not be the cordon bleu you expect, but I love food and over the years, I’ve still been able to gather a few clues about what happens at dinnertime in Canada.
First, I do know what Canadians are expected to eat for special occasions because supermarkets stock up on turkey, sweet potatoes and gravy before Thanksgiving or on ribs for Canada Day backyard BBQ parties.
Second, I can tell you that English Canadians eat dinner early, very early, so early that it would be considered a late lunch in Argentina and a “goûter” in France, the afternoon snack offered to kids. I got the info from the playground. How many times did I excuse Mark around 8 p.m. explaining he had to go home and eat dinner, only to be met with puzzled looks because his friends had eaten dinner at 5:30 p.m., before going to the park!
Third, I’m also pretty sure that Canadian families order takeout for convenience—I see plenty of containers and boxes on garbage day, mostly pizza, Thai food and burgers in our neighbourhood, your mileage may vary.
I went through an “I’ll try anything Canadian” phase when I first came here—I discovered Montreal-style bagels and smoked meat, beavertails and butter tarts, maple toffee and pouding chômeur, root beer and ice wine. We each had two jobs and we ate out a lot because we were never home. I think I tried all the main Canadian franchised restaurants—A&W, Pizza Pizza, Swiss Chalet, Montana’s, East Side Mario’s and countless American-style diners. Trust me, it’s healthier and cheaper to cook.
Nowadays, Feng typically makes Northeastern Chinese stews, dumplings, stir-fried rice or pasta—he worked at The Old Spaghetti Factory and in a couple of Italian restaurants years ago. I make one-pot rice meals, like Hainan rice with Chinese eggplants and fish or chili rice with eggs. To me, savoury oatmeal is the best comfort food—stovetop Irish oatmeal with cauliflower, pumpkin, arugula and Parmesan cheese or oatmeal with spinach, zucchinis, smoked salmon and poached eggs. We use a lot of garlic, ginger, soy sauce and Chinese vegetable and half of our meals are eaten with chopsticks.
How about you, what do you typically eat for dinner?