Canadian Culinary Imaginations: food for thought on Canadian identity

The book co-edited by KPU faculty explores Canadian culture through literary and art analysis

Dr. Dorothy Barenscott, co-editor of Canadian Culinary Imaginations. (Submitted)

Canadian Culinary Imaginations is a compilation of essays, interviews, and visual art assembled and edited by KPU Faculty of Arts Associate Dean Dr. Shelley Boyd, and Fine Arts instructor Dr. Dorothy Barenscott.

The book is an interdisciplinary collection that combines the work of artists, academics, and writers from across Canada, and it delves into various topics including Indigeneity, geography, queerness, literature, politics, and even the colonial and nationalist history behind the taboo of eating beaver meat.

The book was published earlier this summer through McGill-Queen’s University Press, and an online book launch event is planned for Nov. 2.

“We’re trying in the book to prompt people into thinking about how food is actually a huge part of our imagination, the world around us, and how we actually process the world and interact with it,” says Boyd.

“We tend to sometimes take it for granted, because of course, food is always there. It’s part of our daily lives. In this volume we’re trying to show how artists, how writers, how chefs, individual Canadians, different communities, are able to sometimes embrace food in very critical, creative ways that allow you to see yourself or the world around you in a different light.”

Many of the works in Canadian Culinary Imaginations approach the topics of food and identity through various forms of art like photography, sculpting, and performance.

“There’s a really subversive aspect to the way we talk about food that allows other kinds of ideas to slip in through the conversation,” says Barenscott, referring to an interview in the book which describes a performative art exhibition and barbecue hosted by Mi’kmaw First Nations artist Ursula Johnson.

“Something as simple as a barbecue — for an artist to deploy that as a performative act — what a clever thing to do, to bring people together that would never normally congregate to talk about all kinds of things that matter to everybody.”

Barenscott and Boyd say the book integrates concepts explored by some of their previous projects, including a two-day art exhibition held on the Surrey campus in 2015, which showcased student-created artwork based on meals presented in works of Canadian literature.

“I remember when we saw that Canlit dinner party, that was actually something that captured the imagination of our department,” says Barenscott.

“Then Shelley came the next year and said ‘Why don’t we team up?’ [We could] take the poetry students were reading in Shelley’s class, give that poetry to the fine artists, and see if we can find a way to have them come together and make the artwork. The seed of this book is really around that collaboration.”

A few contributors to the book were included in the project after presenting at a multi-day symposium and art exhibition that Barenscott and Boyd organized in 2016. KPU students and faculty were also involved in creating the book and the cover of the book itself features artwork by KPU Fine Arts alum Jay Cabalu.

“It’s important to think about how those different projects all kind of feed into what became this book. You build momentum over time with a variety of initiatives,” says Boyd. “All of those little projects eventually can turn into something quite miraculous and quite fantastic.”

Canadian Culinary Imaginations also contains an essay written by Boyd on Douglas Coupland’s Souvenir of Canada and an essay written by English faculty member and Canada Research Chair in South Asian Literary and Cultural Studies Dr. Asma Sayed. The latter examines the intersection of food and South Asian diasporic culture in Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?

Though the COVID-19 pandemic did present them with some challenges near the end of the publishing process, Boyd says that the upside to launching the book online is that it could give the contributors who live outside B.C. an opportunity to attend and speak at the event virtually.

“The book is all about food as multimodal media,” says Boyd. “It proliferates throughout our cultures through so many different media channels, so in many ways, having an online book launch for this book is very appropriate.”