When we talk about culinary excellence, mall food courts don’t usually come up. But even with their fluorescent lighting and tray stacks, food courts are multicultural mosaics, where many people try ethnic foods for the first time. No single dish, or series of lunch specials, can sum up an entire culture’s cuisine, but they’re a start. With essays from writers from around the world who now call Edmonton home, Luciana Erregue’s Beyond the Food Court continues the journey by looking at the only thing that can turn food, wherever it’s served, into a meal: The people.
“Food is a common starting point,” Erregue explains. “I want us to lose the fear of talking to one another, and food is a great entryway.” Like a food court layout, Erregue places disparate essays side-by-side, purposely not dividing the book up by regions. “I tried to mix things up within this diverse framework of the book. So we have the culinary languages [chapter], and there is someone from Romania, Ghana and South Africa. And I put together people from the Philippines, from India, from Cuba. Another chapter is for Canada, and Italy.”
There are recipes, but it’s not a cookbook. It’s a book of first-person stories sharing the authors’ emotions, memories and struggles, and how food shaped their lives. In “Le Hosanane Ke Letatsi: Tomorrow is Another Day,” Peter Midgley writes of how a cookbook compiled by his grandmother during the Second World War brings him home, no matter where he is in the world. Maitham Salman’s “Masgouf: The Crown of Iraqi Cuisine” explains how masgouf — a way of grilling fish impaled on sticks over an open fire that dates back thousands of years — “unites all Iraqis,” and even led to the capture of Saddam Hussein.
The anthology might be best summed up by Mila Bongco-Philipzig’s “Disposable Double Double Lives.” In it, she gets to know the Filipino temporary foreign workers (TFWs) who work with her son in the City Centre food court. They give him free food on his breaks, which reminds her of the free treats she and her siblings received as children in their village’s wet market in the Philippines. This leads to a mutually beneficial relationship of her helping them with paperwork to attain permanent residency, and her new friends sharing home-cooked Filipino fare with her. She then explains how both the Filipino and Canadian (specifically Albertan) governments, in conjunction with Tim Hortons, have for years worked together to bring a steady flow of TFWs.
Beyond the Food Court: An Anthology of Literary Cuisines (Laberinto Press) is available at Audreys Books, Glass Bookshop, Tix on the Square and www.laberintopress.com.