Saturday, December 22, 2007

trad. Canadian

Today is Christmas dinner. Not the official one, I suppose, but the one I look forward to most, when we get together with our various expat friends and their Finnish spouses (spice?), whoever's in Finland around Christmas, and cook a huge, decadent feast. It's become a tradition in the last few years, and it's our turn to host, which pleases me greatly. There's very little I like so much as making food for sharing with the people I care about. It's a fairly conventional affair, eggnog, turkey and such, with a few adaptations of the old-style dishes. Instead of stuffing, I made a bread pudding, and the usual heavy Christmas pudding, which I gave up on because local ingredients don't adapt well to my recipe, has been replaced with an absolutely heart-stopping steamed toffee pudding. Can't wait for dessert.

Preparing a meal like this, I inevitably find my thoughts drawn back to my family's Christmas table in Canada, and how it reflects my/our interpretation of tradition. Over the years, especially as my siblings and I got older, we developed a routine of two family meals, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, with slightly different rules. Christmas dinner itself, which is usually my mother's domain, is everything you'd expect of from a largely Anglo-Saxon family: turkey with all the trimmings, mashed potatoes, gravy and plum pudding, the recipe for which has been in the family for the better part of a century, a sort of poor-man's pudding made of cheap ingredients, concocted during World War I and handed down from my Scottish great-grandmother.

I always enjoy this dinner, with its relative formality and consistent elements, but for my money, the meal most accurately reflecting my family's makeup is on Christmas Eve, when all the quirky bits of our heritage come out. Sitting side-by-side with lasagna (the presence of which is more or less inexplicable, since there's not a drop of Italian blood anywhere in us) and New World desserts like New York-style cheesecakes, you'll find Greek dishes like spanakopita and dolmades, family favorites that come to us from my maternal grandfather's family. Then there are the French Canadian dishes my sister-in-law makes: baked beans, tourtière (meat pie) and occasionally the majestic six-pâtes, a huge, heavy dish made of layers of game meat stews and pastry, baked for hours and fed a steady diet of meat broth for the potatoes to absorb. Heavenly, and deadly. This is serious lumberjack fare from the colonial days.

What I love is the eclectic nature of it all, the fact that all this stuff is brought together on one table for no other reason than that it all tastes good. You don't even have to eat all of it, just take whatever strikes you as appetizing. And this, I think, is the essence of what it means to be of the New World, and from an immigrant family, indeed, nowadays, as an immigrant myself: tradition is no more or less than what you bring with you. There's a pleasing absence of blind obeisance, of doing things a certain way just because that's the way they're done, and have been for centuries. Traditions are patched together from what you know, the parts of your historical makeup that make the most sense to you, with very little reference to consistency or received wisdom.

Not that there's anything wrong with long traditions. They're common in the part of the world where I live, as in many parts of the Americas with long-established communities, and they give people a deeply rooted sense of who they are and what makes them that way, one you mess with at your peril. It's admirable, and it makes me slightly envious, coming as I do from a mixed heritage of cultures, without a long attachment to place or community to provide structures and attitudes. The Scottish and Greek come from my mother; my father is of largely British extraction, but of a family that settled in – wait for it – Turkey in the 18th century, and came to Canada via a detour of some years in what is now Zimbabwe.

Being a first-generation citizen on my dad's side, I spent a lot of time as a kid trying to figure out what, exactly, I was. Living in a small town away from the large immigrant groups, we had no particular attachment to the Greek or Scottish communities, and even English Canada was a little distant from my experience, growing up as I did in the French-speaking community, and perhaps picking up more of their traditions and cultural structures than any others. (I think my fondness for French music is attributable to simply understanding it, the way it speaks, from the start.) Living in the borderlands between many cultures can be unnerving, really having nothing that can be taken for granted as an essential part of your selfhood. Everything must be questioned, its relative value assessed on an individual basis.

Gradually, though, I came to realize that this could be a source of strength, that a lack of received wisdom is liberating, exhilarating, even. Not having a tradition to uphold, you're free to pick and choose what suits you best, what works at a given time, and to discard the structures that don't mean anything to you, or just don't fit the way you think (sonata form, indeed, form as a preset concept, is one of these things for me). It sounds like I'm endorsing some sort of postmodernist pastiche approach to life and art, which isn't really the case. Juxtaposing things only works for so long, eventually becoming self-referential. Rather, the idea is identify those structures which are strongest, figure out what they have in common, and graft them together into something that makes sense to you.

Being neither entirely of the New World or the Old, ultimately, I don't feel a responsibility to either uphold or reject any particular aspect of my heritage, only, I think, to try to sort it all out coherently and present it to the world and hope somebody finds value therein. I've long since left Christianity behind, but Christmas dinner remains, this relic of my upbringing, a paradoxical reminder both of how far I've moved away from my roots and how close I still am to them and, more than anything else, a symbol of tradition and its endless ability to adapt, incorporate new elements, and take on new and ever more valuable meanings.

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