A feast from the roots

Multiculturalism is beautiful

SONDRA GOTLIEB December 1 1973

A feast from the roots

Multiculturalism is beautiful

SONDRA GOTLIEB December 1 1973

A feast from the roots

Multiculturalism is beautiful

SONDRA GOTLIEB

Forty years ago in Canada, a public celebration of cultural differences was unthinkable. Winnipeg, my birthplace, was a prime example of multiculturalism, culinary and otherwise, generations before Toronto became one half United Nations. But in those days, Ukrainians, Jews and Poles who had settled on the prairies ate their holubtsi (stuffed cabbage rolls) and their helzel (stuffed goose neck) in the privacy of their homes. People were discreet. Only the occasional pile of sunflower-seed shells, spat out by second-generation ethnics in front of northend movie houses (their bravado inspired no doubt by Edward G. and Humphrey B.) revealed unusual gastronomic passions.

The more genteel offspring of Eastern European elements never took salami sandwiches to school picnics. Certain remarks dropped by the teachers were enough to make upwardly mobile students realize that salami was socially unacceptable. Many families hung their sausage in the broom closet to hide it from that envoy from Anglo-Saxon Canada who entered everybody’s kitchen — the Eaton’s driver.

But all that’s changed now. The former reticence of the non-Anglo-Saxons is vanishing. Garlic sausage is on shameless display. We see the flaunting and vaunting of the wurst everywhere, as easily procurable in the supermarkets as those enormous rubber objects you see in the windows of love craft shops, and Heather Wylie, the girl who lived across the street from me in Winnipeg, could no longer make me feel uncomfortable with the question, “How come you people always seem to have so much sour cream in the refrigerator?”

In fact, these /

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days sunflower seeds, holubtsi and the peculiar way some people speak, dance and enjoy themselves are looked on by the governments of Canada — federal, provincial and municipal — as an essential national resource. All across the country it’s dawning on people that ethnic, like black, is beautiful. In certain circles multiculturalism almost rivals biculturalism as a word with cachet, especially since the voting power of those Canadians who are not members of the two founding races has swelled to such an extent that its recognition is a political necessity.

The federal government now deems cultural differences so worthwhile, a new multicultural section has been set up in the Secretary of State’s department with a special minister, Dr. Stanley Haidasz, directly responsible for its general policy. It finances cultural activities from the Okanagan Valley to Cape Breton Island; funds films, newspapers and books that keep alive traditions other than Anglo-Saxon and French; and encourages a phenomenon that’s been spreading through the land for the past decade — the folk festival.

Starting in the Maritimes, the Gaelic Society puts on a Folk Arts and Crafts Festival. In Quebec, there is the Romanian Musical Spectacle. Continuing west, there is Dauphin’s National Ukrainian Festival in Manitoba, Edmonton’s Hungarian Dance Bouquet in Alberta, the Latvian Song Festival in British Columbia, and others too numerous to mention.

But the biggest and brassiest of all the folk festivals is Toronto’s annual Metro International Caravan. This may seem only fitting since that city is Mecca for about 30% of all our immigrants and, in any case, whether it’s mafia bombings or outdoor beerfests, Toronto events are always the most frenetic and flamboyant.

I went to this year’s Caravan ostensibly for gastronomic reasons. (It features the food of more than 30 nations.) But I also wanted to observe the interaction between the city’s old Wasps and new ethnics; to look at the balance between prejudice and tolerance that might reveal something of our future social behavior.

What I found was a gaiety, an unslick -ness, a simplicity that gives every one of us, ethnic or not, a reason for public celebration. If Caravan is any indicator, multiculturalism could turn out to be one of the best things that’s ever happened to Canada.

Caravan has been in operation for five years, with help from provincial and municipal funding. Any nonprofit or charitable group with energy and a certain amount of organization can take part in it since the Caravan organizers consider everyone an ethnic. Your ancestors might have come here 350 or

1.000 years ago, like the French Canadians or the Indians (both have pavilions in Caravan). No matter.

In fact, nothing would delight Caravan organizers more than to have a large pavilion organized by Old Torontonians from a United Church or Anglican background. Enthusiasm turns out to be low for such a display but the unexpected popularity of Caravan —

1.300.000 visits to pavilions were clocked this year — is due in part to the positive response of just those Torontonians whose eight great-grandparents never spoke anything but English, who

usually eat roast beef and butter tarts, and whose folk-dance activities are limited to watching the cheerleaders cavorting before a football game. If Toronto Wasps didn’t supply an appreciative audience, lining up by the hundreds at non-air conditioned halls in 90-degree weather with paper plates in their hands, waiting in happy docility for a ladle of Transylvanian sauerkraut or Warsavian tripe, there would be little purpose in continuing the festival year after year.

Torontonians treat Caravan as part of the rites of summer, searching out the

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outdoor beer gardens which like desert flowers unexpectedly bloom on the barren soil of downtown pavement for 10 days in late June. They rush to these oases in community halls, such as Budapest on College Street, La Vallée de la Neige on Front Street and Yerevan, in a tent, on Dupont. (The other Yerevan is in Armenia.)

The pavilions have city rather than national names — a compromise that takes into.account the forces of ethnic rivalries and regionalism. Family quarreling is as imbedded an ancestral custom as spring seeding dances, flamenco and the Easter babka. So although there were more than 50 pavilions in the festival, this doesn’t mean 50 nations were represented. More like 35. Odessa, Kiev, Poltava and Kolomaya were Ukrainian. Gdynia and Torun were Polish, and the Yugoslavs had at least four pavilions. Even the Spaniards, not a large group in Canada, offered Seville and Madrid.

At first I thought the pavilions were like night clubs, only cheaper. One three-dollar entrance fee or “passport” lets you see the show in every pavilion, every night of Caravan; and the cost of food and drink is minimal. But after three nights of gawking, walking, snacking and sweating, it became clear that Caravan was not a series of cabarets in church halls — but a country fair in the middle of one of Canada’s largest cities. The majority of people w-ho staffed the pavilions and entertained were Volunteers. Whoever I spoke to. from a Hungarian goddess like Mrs. Leslie Endes, wife of the “mayor” of the Budapest Pavilion, to Father Gregory Botte who organized Rome, their enthusiasm, if not ethnic origins, was identical. The pride they felt in showing their culture to the rest of Toronto was worth the time and work that went into the pavilions. Only next year it would be even better.

I met a man at Seville who told me he was born in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, and was working in Toronto as a mechanic. He said he liked Caravan because he could talk to strangers without feeling embarrassed. As though to prove his point, a group of Filipino girls began to gossip with him about the different shows. A Spanish waiter came over and recognized one of the girls. “You’re one of the tellers at the bank where I cash my cheque.” He offered all the girls, and the mechanic from Halifax, sangria, on the house. My companion idly wondered aloud whether the sangria was worth tasting. A man sitting at the next table, with his wife and another couple, passed her his glass for a sip.

Complaints from the crowds were few, although 1 found most of the pavilions hot, crowded and some shows unbelievably long. I remember with horror a group of Korean nymphettes, all sequins and mascara, singing Deep In The

Heart Of Texas to the accompaniment of a saxophone, xylophone, and an electric guitar. I did hear some speculation in the Kiev pavilion about the solidity of the second-story floor as the packed audience waited for the dancers to swoop on. (All Slavic dancing starts with a swoop.) But the portraits of the Ukrainian nationalists on the wall, including an 11th-century princess, Olhya, in a diadem and a 20th-century bald gentleman who looked like Lenin but certainly wasn’t, must have acted as a charm. The audience never did fall through the floor onto the cabbage rolls and perogies being served below.

It was impossible to assess how good or bad the food was at each pavilion. How can you compare Jamaican curried mutton with lasagna? There were other reasons for not fretting about the texture of the perogy or the flavor of the mole sauce. Most of the pavilions served their food canteen style because of the huge size and mobility of the crowds. And some had resorted to food prepared by caterers. Although the food served in each pavilion was typical of that particular region, it was not (with certain exceptions) the best example of its kind. It is possible though to divide the pavilions into gastronomic blocs, starting with;

l.The Poppy-Seed-Cabbage-RollAnd-Blintz Bloc

The largest number of pavilions belonged to Central Europe, stretching as far as the western boundaries of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. The connecting links between Budapest, Kiev, Bratislava, Volga and the Blue Danube were poppy seeds scattered in the cakes and squashed between strudel dough; cabbage either shredded for kraut or left in the leaf for stuffing; and palacsinta or blintz, a thin pancake sometimes stuffed with savories, sometimes sprinkled with sugar.

All these pavilions are blurred in my mind, political and regional enmities notwithstanding. (A Latvian gentleman, eating herring in neutral Valhalla told me firmly he would never put his foot in Volga.) The right-to-left politics of this bloc had to be treated diplomatically no matter what you were eating, singing or watching, and I came away from the last of them feeling that the only honest statement to be made about the Central European factions was the one hit on by the young son of a friend, who was writing a school essay on the political and economic situation in that part of the world: “In Russia,” he wrote with wisdom, “before the revolution, the people were happy and gay except they were starving to death.”

Jerusalem has to be included in this bloc despite the insuperable geographic problem. Israel was first settled by Russian Jews such as David Ben Gurion and

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Golda Meir, who obviously can’t get rid of a yen for Pan-Slavic pastries, even though more regional dishes are making cultural inroads.

The pavilion was supposed to be a replica of the Arab stalls in the Old Jerusalem market. The blintzes were made by a caterer, but one man was frying felafel (deep-fried chick-pea paste eaten between the leaves of Arab bread) in plain view for hours on end. A group of dancers in Israeli blue and bare feet, sabra style, tried to get the thinning latenight crowd interested in participatory folk dancing. That well-known Israeli tune, Never On Sunday, was struck up and a few onlookers hooked arms, Zorba style. When I remarked to one of the girls that the tune was Hellenic not Hebrew, she said, “We get them going this way, then teach them the hora.”

2. The Herring Bloc

Similar plates of loempia harengus harengus in Amsterdam, Valhalla, Scandinavia and Latvia revealed the existence of a smaller gastronomic bloc. (Originally I thought Latvia belonged to the blintz bloc; the peasant girls wear the same soft-soled slippers but the presence of herring and blond braids convinced me otherwise.)

In Amsterdam, a shoemaker especially imported from Holland carved wooden clogs while the crowd, wearing Japanese thongs, looked on in fascination. Men dressed in one of Holland’s many national costumes formed a circle to dance with women in clogs and crisp black aprons. A strangely familiar girl, dressed in the traditional Dutch costume, seemed to know the dance better than most. I suddenly remembered the last time I saw her; the night before she had been seen in her bare feet trying to teach the hora in the Jerusalem pavilion. I was sure she was a real kibbutznik but now the winged cap and dirndl skirt made me question her Zionist fervor.

She explained, “I belong to the University Settlement House Dance Group and so do the others. We dance at Jerusalem, Amsterdam and one of the Spanish pavilions.” It was a blow to authenticity but I figured she would look great in a mantilla as well.

Valhalla, of course, was Scandinavian. Most Scandinavians are Lutheran and the organizers of this pavilion were no exception. It was gratifying, ecumenically speaking, to notice that Valhalla was housed in the Catholic Information Centre, and, gastronomically speaking, to realize that a delicatessen had made the delicious open-faced sandwiches on authentic Finnish bread.

3. Empanadas and Pasteles: The Latin American Bloc

I didn’t realize until Caravan that so many Latin Americans are willing to

live in the far north. The festival had a Mexican pavilion and a conglomerate called the Pavilion Of The South Americas. A couple of Mexican accountants tried to make life exciting for me by saying they were Cuban exiles but once they got down to the empanadas, all pretensions vanished. The best sweet of the whole festival was available in the Pavilion of the South Americas. Pasteles. These were jam-filled pastries made on the spot from hand-rolled dough by Eduardo Vays, an Argentinian who now lives in Ottawa. Señor Vays and his sonin-law, Miguel Angel Guiela, with enormous good humor and awesome skill, were also cooking tortillas and chicken ayaca in a small hot kitchen. Each tortilla was fried separately in a small pan and then turned out upside down so that it looked like a bronzed or gilded omelette in the shape of a circle. Each pastele was brushed with water to keep the filling from falling out and then pressed into a rococco crescent. For a people used to Instant Mashed and Sara Lee this was awe-inspiring.

4. Singsongs And Serious Drinking: The English Bloc

Of the three pavilions in this group, Sydney, Shannon and London, Sydney was the most fun. You could eat Anzac biscuits, which are bigger than most dog biscuits and chewier by far. And watch Maori war dancing. I met a man from Auckland, six-foot-five and almost as broad, wearing a grass skirt and war paint to cover his freckles. He put on a flamboyant show for the audience of Foster lager drinkers (devotees of this beverage came from all nations) featuring fierce gestures, Maori war cries and agonized grunts, which attained the level of enthusiastic amateurism to which all folk pavilions should aspire.

After this, London, a pub like the Pig ’n’ Whistle without the buxom dancers, could only be a disappointment. Shannon was far away on Pape Avenue, in the dim reaches of east end Toronto where the Irish used to live when they were the newest immigrants. People went to Shannon for Irish coffee to finish up the evening or straight Irish whiskey to start it.

I’m not sure what other visitors to Caravan learned from the festival (except that you can have a good time in 35 different cuisines without getting drunk in one). But I came away from it feeling that the festival is so successful because it is so innately human and the racial differences serve to make the human element more intense. The most noticeable ingredient of the whole 10-day fête was the shared pleasure between Old Canadian audiences and New Canadian volunteers — which presumably is what any celebration of multiculturalism in this country should be all about. ■