Paueru Gai Dialogues #2 – reflections
The second session of the Paueru Gai Dialogues was held online on Saturday, February 27, 2021.
On Food & Culture for Community Building was hosted by erica hiroko isomura, who facilitated a discussion with panelists Carmel Tanaka, Kage, and Ingrid Mendez de Cruz, sharing stories on how food and culture contribute to their experiences of building community in Japanese Canadian, DTES communities, and beyond.
erica began with a presentation with an emphasis on food and its vital importance in connecting people to their families and to their roots, sharing photos and messages that friends and family had sent her.
One impactful piece of her presentation focussed on the British Columbia’s largest river, the Fraser River, and it’s connection to the the Stó:lō (“People of the River” in Halq’eméylem) and the Japanese immigrants who settled here and their descendants. Historically, the Stó:lō have relied on the Fraser River and its tributaries for their way of life, including as a food source, not only the river itself, but the land on both sides. For many of the Japanese Canadians who began arriving in large numbers in the late 1800s, the Fraser and its abundance of salmon represented a route to a new life in a new land – giving birth to a Japanese Canadian community in Steveston, Canada’s second largest pre-war Japanese Canadian community after Powell Street. Steveston and its way of life was the only pre-war community to draw back large numbers of Japanese Canadians after the war.
As an introduction to the guest panelists, erica touched on issues of food security and food sovereignty, ending on a light note with images of community members making and enjoying chow mein sandwiches and Spam musubi.
Next up was Kage, who shared their experience growing food at a grassroots, community-based level with the Tonari Gumi Garden Club and the Red Shiso Project. Kage was introduced to community gardens ten years ago by a friend who was a member of a self-described guerrilla garden club. That first taste of community gardens and their possibilities for addressing issues of social inequity led Kage on ten-year deep dive into home-grown food. Part of their presentation looked at problematic issues around access to community gardens and some alternative models that can be explored. A large part of Kage’s presentation was given over to the Red Shiso Project, a quest to create red shiso tea in enough quantities that it could be sold at the Tonari Gumi Food Booth at the Powell Street Festival. It turns out that you need a lot of red shiso to make a small quantity of tea, leading to the Red Shiso Project, which harnessed the power of community to grow enough red shiso to make the project viable. To give you an idea, in 2019, thanks to community gardeners, 15,500 grams of red shiso leaves were processed into 68.5 liters of red shiso syrup, that has been frozen in anticipation of the day that we can gather in Oppenheimer Park once again to listen to taiko, eat Spam musubi, sip on red shiso tea, and of course just hang out with friends and family.
Next up was Carmel Tanaka, who shared her experiences growing up with a first generation Ashkenazi Israeli mother and a sansei (third generation Japanese Canadian) father, and how growing up bi-cultural has shaped her view of the world. She shared a photo of her gathered around a table with her parents. It being the sixth night of Hanukkah and her dad’s 75th birthday, the table was laden with her mom’s Jewish coffee cake, Japanese dorayaki, genmai-cha, and a menorah – just another night at the Tanaka table.
It became clear early on in her presentation that Carmel loves mixing things up when it comes to all things culinary, combining her parents’ love of cooking with her own self-described Jewpanese identity. In sharing photos of her Rosh Hashanah miso maple orange zested trout, kabochallah (challah made with kabocha squash), and matcha cheescake, adapted from her mom’s recipe for three-layer cheesecake, she called attention to the way food can easily cross cultures with just a little creativity and a willingness to think outside the (matcha powder) box.
The final presentation was by Ingrid Mendez de Cruz, the executive director of Watari Counselling and Support Services Society. Prior to taking up the role in 2018, she served as Watari’s Latin American drug & alcohol counselor for 20 years. A refugee from Guatemala (“place of many trees”) in 1990, she has spent much of her life advocating for the disenfranchised, including around issues of food security. Much of Ingrid’s presentation was focused on the plight of temporary workers, who grow so much of the food that we enjoy on our tables but are most often out-of-sight and out-of-mind. One issue that she highlighted in healthcare and the policy wherein one cannot begin receiving healthcare benefits until three months after arriving in BC from another province or country. In case of people moving in from another province, they are covered by their by their previous health plans for the three months, but in the case of those arriving as temporary workers, they are without coverage for the first three months, typically a highly stressful period when they are coming to terms with leaving family, including young children behind.
Add to that generally deplorable living conditions, low wages, long hours and often abusive employers, and now the pandemic, and it’s clear that we have a responsibility to improved the conditions under which those who harvest our food are living. One of the initiatives Ingrid highlighted is an organization called Bici Libre, which takes in and repairing donated bikes for use by temporary workers so that have some small measure of transportation independence.
Following Ingrid’s powerful presentation and a brief question and answer period, we were sent to breakout rooms, each led by a facilitator. As with last month’s session, the breakout room was nice break from just observing, and a chance to interact with others around the theme. We were asked to share our connections with food and community and I immediately thought of my mother, the originator of The Bulletin’s Community Kitchen, and her lifelong love of not only cooking food but using it as a way to bring family and community together. I was fortunate to have Ingrid Mendez de Cruz in my group, as she shared with us her love of , and how they represent community to her, relating stories of sharing tamales among neighbours back home in Guatemala. For me, the sharing and discussion reinforced the many ways that food impacts our lives and our communities.
We ended our session by delving into questions around food, as prompted by our facilitator, Eli. Two of the questions that came out of our group were, “How can i be more honest in my everyday life about my own food journey?” and, “How can we stop wasting so much food, and really be aware of people who don’t have the privilege that we have? How can we find ways of sharing the food that we have?” with the related question, “who is already doing that work?”.
Before we knew it, time was up, and were we pulled back into the full session thanks to the miracles of Zoom technology, where we shared some of the questions that came out of the breakout rooms.
Food for thought
Following is a small selection of the questions:
• How do we have more respectful relationships with the Indigenous people who have been stewarding the land for thousands of years
• What can I grow on my balcony that matches the natural landscape and contributes to food security?
• How can we make sharing of food fun and memorable to help community building?
• What is it that we are sharing when we share food?
• How can we share food without friends and our neighbors or unhoused people in our communities?
• How can we support those who grow food for us?
• How can we use art and cultural practices to help support access to food?
• What sort of food activities are elders having that we don’t know about that they may want us to participate in? and what sort of cultural activities that elders share and teach us?
• What can we do to capture knowledge about food, that has been passed down to us?
• What are we doing to educate others in our community about our culinary cultural traditions?
• How can we bring multiple cultures and communities together to ensure that access to food is equitable for all?
• How can we find places and makers for cultural food?
• How can we build awareness and appreciation for different cultural foods (sharing without appropriation)?
• How we share, respect, appreciate and pass cultural food and culture with it to the next generation instead of using it as subject of the consumption.
• How can we build a relationship to food that is centred on meaning and relationships rather than scarcity?
• How can we make sharing food fun and memorable so that people enjoy making and sharing food in the community?
• What’s on the menu at your dream community food gathering?
• Why is food such a central part of Japanese Canadian identity?
• How can food move and make community through its ability to bring comfort and healing and its power to transform shame to pride?
• How do we balance the nutritional, environmental, and ethical considerations in our food choices?
• What are some new food traditions that your family is creating.
• What is the history of Japanese Canadian chow mein?
Wiew the entire On Food & Culture for Community Building presentations