The next day I was recounting the experience to a pastry chef friend—a Bostonian—and she told me she’d heard other Canadians express similar sentiments about Canada. She went on to say that she believed Americans had mastered the big patriotic talk but Canadians walked a much quieter patriotic walk.
To say I love Canada sounds thin and brash. Love of a place isn’t that simple. It’s hard to explain the deep feeling that runs through me, as mysterious and vital as the need to breathe. It’s an emotion that bubbles up unexpectedly and is difficult to conjure at will.
Perhaps it is my pedigree: I’m a 12th-generation Canadian. The Merciers, my paternal grandmother’s family, arrived in Quebec in 1647 having journeyed by sea from their home in Tourouvre, Normandy. They established themselves near Quebec City at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, and the foundations of Julien and Marie Mercier’s home are still there. I count among distant ancestors a former mayor of Quebec City, a premier of Quebec—Honoré Mercier—and a member of parliament for the Parti Québécois. I’ve yet to attend the annual Mercier reunion at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré but family members who have gone are overwhelmed by the size of the gathering. The Merciers—good Catholics—were prolific.
I’m not certain if all this time on the ground can account for my heightened national attachment, but there are other indications my passion is an honest inheritance.
I recall family dinners when I was a very young girl where seriously animated, raucous conversations (arguments, really) raged concerning Canada’s governance, despite most at the table being united in their liberal leanings. Often these were conducted in a tangle of French and English that only enhanced the rowdiness.
When my family wasn’t erupting over current affairs, they wrestled with the other topic that bound us all together: food. And those conversations were no less lively. My friends who found themselves at our table were astonished. I recall a university roommate who told me she’d never heard so much talk of food while people were eating. She said it with a hint of disdain, as if it were a failing, a perverse branch of gluttony practiced only by my family.
I needed to acquire the same skills to be among them and to be loved. My family still passes time at the table telling tales of their favourite meals and wrestling with matters of national concern. My father, born the hungriest (he’s the fat kid), has some particularly evocative food memories.
My grandmother, the family matriarch, was smart, well-read, emotionally locked up and seriously deficient in tender, maternal leanings. Theo (short for Theophilta) found disinterest in or indifference to food and country intolerable. Being hungry and staying abreast of current affairs were less painful than suffering her disapproval (as if the reverse was ever on offer).
My grandmother loved food and had tremendous skill in the kitchen—a hard-won talent since her own mother was a terrible cook. Theo had no childhood memories of the luscious sweet amber liquid from baked beans bubbling over from clay pots on a cast iron stove. No pork roasts basted to crisp golden perfection, or sugar pies with lard crusts that flaked at the slightest nudge of a fork. I’m convinced those visions of the Québécois culinary past are largely force-fed. An unnaturally fattened, modern fantasy dressed up in a coureur des bois costume and designed to sell. It certainly wasn’t the experience of a young girl on a small rural homestead in the Eastern Townships in the early 1900s. I think my grandmother developed her culinary muscle as a way to distance herself from the harsher, less delicious aspects of her childhood. It was one of the ways she could assert her independence.
How she came by those skills is a bit of a mystery, one I’m trying to unlock a little late. Toward the end of her very long life—she died in 2004 aged 91—Theo was desperate to tell her story but I wasn’t interested. In reality I was returning the indifference she’d had for me over the years, and I regret that now. I was also blind (perhaps wilfully) to the way our grandmother did show us love. It was the force that animated her small kitchen: cooking was a stand-in for hugs and kisses. It worked. I often dragged my feet on the journey to her table but admit it was a delicious destination.
Maybe she began to take an interest in food as a young girl at the tables of friends who did enjoy delicious fare, a reminder of the bleak state of her own family’s meals. It’s more likely that, during a very difficult period in her early adult life when she found herself employed as a chambermaid by a wealthy family in Toronto (a suitable distance from her chaste Catholic home), she began to learn from the cook in residence.
For a time, she cooked on ships on the Great Lakes where she met my grandfather, the chief engineer on one of the vessels. They married and moved to what was known as the French, or immigrant, ghetto in Welland. This densely populated area housed international labourers who worked in the shipyards in Port Colbourne and the local steel mills that supplied them. My father and his siblings remember the neighbourhood surrounding their home on Asher Street as a little United Nations.
It was not beyond Theo to knock on the door of a house emitting a particularly delicious aroma and inquire after its origins. (Many times I’ve found myself in that same situation but lacking her chutzpah.) What better way for women of diverse cultures to forge a bond? My grandmother had an abundance of curiosity and it was that, not books, which built her skill. I know this having inherited the two small cookbooks, one of her own making, that were her only companions in the kitchen.
From Theo I inherited a love of boudin noir long before I knew what it was. Nothing made breakfast better than its soft dark richness nudged up against eggs sunny side up. No-one in my family can imagine (or endure) Christmas Eve without tourtière, and we all agree on the perfection of her soups.
I don’t want her back but I love her enough to want to stick to the truth (including the messy stuff). Love between people is way more complex than a love of a place, but my most tangible inheritance from Theo has been the tangled web of love I have for country and food. And as my experience in that Boston movie theatre shows, separation lets me hear my own heart’s longings loud and clear.