“Do you have goat? Can I have a taste?”
This is a request Mary Nkrumah has received from her Halifax customers for years. The first-generation Ghanian-Canadian has been in Nova Scotia’s culinary industry for over a decade, a time that’s seen her open restaurants and run a catering company. (She’s particularly proud of the mouth-watering egusi soup she cooks up.)
Although she’s happy to give samples to patrons of Mary’s African Cuisine and has nothing but love for locals who have embraced her cooking since day one, the request has always made her wonder: do other restaurants get asked for free samples?
It’s fair for Nkrumah to be curious about this situation. Goat is an expensive ingredient, after all. Would someone ask for a forkful of truffle pasta at an Italian restaurant?
For Nkrumah and other immigrant restaurant owners whose food is considered “ethnic,” concessions like these signal whose food is revered by Canadian standards. In particular, cultural cuisines commonly consumed by Black Canadians — such as Caribbean, African, and soul foods — can be devalued through disparaging attitudes, customer expectations, and a lack of exposure.
And despite gruelling hours, quality ingredients, and years of expertise put in, the cultural dishes served up aren’t seen as high-end or as nutritious as their non-ethnic counterparts.
Misconceptions can also be internalized by communities. Eden Hagos founded Black Foodie, a platform to celebrate food culture through a Black lens. The Ethiopian-Canadian behind the popular blog and event company says that before she started Black Foodie, she didn’t venture into Caribbean or African restaurants.
“I viewed it as takeout food, not something you take your friends to,” she told HuffPost Canada. That perception quickly changed as she began profiling the flavours cooked up by local businesses and noticed a diversity in Black food she hadn’t seen before.
What does it take to challenge misconceptions about Black cuisines and value the full worth of cultural dishes? The answer isn’t as simple as marking up the price. Factors like historical beliefs, generational attitudes, and exploring all the different ways Black Canadians can bring to the table all contribute.
A cultural hierarchy
Why is French cuisine a fine dining experience, but oxtail stew can cost less than $10? Some of this can be attributed to the cultural hierarchy in food.
Research by NYU professor Krishnendu Ray indicates that dishes from cultures considered “prestigious” by Westerners will cost more than dishes from less regarded cultures. French cuisine is considered fine dining. Food from African, Hispanic, and Latinx cultures were seen as the cheapest eats with the lowest social capital in his research.
Ray believes how much prestige cuisines have is tied to recent waves of migration.
“If you have a group of poor immigrants coming to the country, their food can become popular, but it’s very hard to get prestige. Because prestige is related to class hierarchy. We generally don’t give prestige to poor people’s culture,” he told WNYC.
The less prestigious a food is, the more it can be seen as “foreign:” Toronto’s Jamaican patties faced government scrutiny in the 1970s for falling outside the official definition of a patty. Caribbean storefronts in cities like Vancouver and towns like Morris, Man. have been targeted by racist graffiti.
Watch: Meet the Jamaican-Canadian family behind Toronto’s Patty Palace. Story continues below.
Devalued food can have a direct tie to perpetuating anti-Blackness, such as caricatures involving watermelon; the fruit symbolized post-enslavement resilience which angered white American southerners. They smeared Black Americans by attributing Black people who ate watermelon with slovenly attributes, the Smithsonian reports.
Another effect of underappreciation is erasure, which plays into how Black influences on culture have been swept up. Because of this, Black culinary influences in Canada are hard to pinpoint and must sometimes be inferred.
Canadian recipe books from as far back as the 1870s list coconut as ingredients, but don’t indicate its cultural origin. In one online historian group, a member working with a provincial Black history group notes that coconut shells were unearthed in Toronto’s St. John’s Ward neighbourhood, home to many who escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad.
How family restaurants can adapt (if they want to)
Hagos notes that aside from an expected low price, Black food can get sidelined in popularity. She’s seen Black cuisines fail to get highlighted in major food festivals and not get the same media coverage other cuisines get.
While this highlights the cultural hierarchy, some of this is a generational gap. In her experience of the Toronto and Montreal food scenes, Hagos notes that a lot of African and Caribbean places serving food are mom-and-pop restaurants with loyal regulars, but are resistant to modern food trends like restaurant atmosphere, delivery apps, and social media presentation. As a result, many places may fail to grow their followings.
“People want to share. Their experience around food is just as important to millennials,” she said, but added that keeping it traditional isn’t necessarily a bad thing. These restaurants have their own charm and unique place in the food industry’s ecosystem.
“I’ve been to so many amazing restaurants where the food is perfected beautifully, but then there are the mom-and-pop shops I go to for a different reason. Like they make the best pumpkin soup or the owners know me by name.”
Hagos says that it’s important to see a diversity of Black involvement in Canada’s food industry. Chefs like Jamaican-Canadians Suzanne Barr and Adrian Forte excel in showing how traditional food backgrounds can inform new cultural recipes that easily translate to upscale experiences worth sitting down for.
And restaurateurs like Jamaican-Canadian Angela Lawrence are presenting different social spaces for Black cuisines to be enjoyed.
Myth: Black food is unhealthy
A major misconception about Black food is its lack of nutrition. From the racism inherent in the “starving children in Africa” trope to the demonizing of soul food, the nutritional value of these cuisines get ignored in favour of these narratives.
Hagos points out that African food especially runs the risk of getting ignored because of stereotypes. While food accessibility is still a serious issue, the continent’s rich food cultures takes a backseat because of Western fixation on hunger.
“There’s this narrative of famine, ‘people are starving.’ That’s still around, it’s very much a part of how people think,” she said. “I hate when I hear these jokes, it shapes the way people see our cuisine.”
Nkrumah says that African recipes call for plenty of vegetables, but are rarely raw.
“You won’t see us eat a lot of salads, our vegetables are cooked or infused in soups,” she explains.
In spite of the high vegetable content, plates that look like hers aren’t seen in Canada’s Food Guide.
Hagos noticed that on a trip to Ethiopia, many diets included ingredients that are dubbed “superfoods” in the West: moringa has been lauded for its vitamin and mineral properties.
Recognizing the market, Black-owned Canadian brands like Farafena are turning the tides on the food myths about Africa. They sell jars of tigernut butter and flours made from fonio, a grain often compared to quinoa, with a specific focus on the health benefits of the ingredients.
Ultimately, Hagos says the underappreciation of Black food, which goes hand-in-hand with undervaluing most Black cultural contributions, needs to be addressed by both communities and their allies: from not making “I can get this cheaper back home” comments at the corner store to supporting Black-owned food businesses in the kitchen and in agriculture.
″[Our food] is valuable and it’s worth paying for it,” she said.
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