“California Go Home?”: Good Burgers and Bad Apples

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One time, a Canadian Border Services agent asked me why I was visiting Canada, and I thought I’d be cute and say “for the food!” and they held up the whole Greyhound to inspect my bag and ask me a bunch of questions about why I quit my job and whether things were getting serious with this one girl.

I know, I fucked up; I should’ve just said “visiting friends”. But when you’re a trans woman who dates other women, you get called “a friend” a lot. 

I didn’t want to normalize that by self-identifying as “a friend”, but I didn’t want to say “girlfriend” because we hadn’t had the talk about what words we were gonna use for each other. Also, as a gay American who looks like she hasn’t seen a doctor in a while, there are some implications to visiting your Canadian partner after quitting your job.

But I wasn’t trying to reify colonialist entitlement by fleeing a country that my ancestors all fucked up to come fuck up some other country acquired from stolen land; I just wanted to eat some pickle chips and kiss a woman who un-ironically appreciated Suburban Commando as much I did.

“All Cops Are Bastards” as a rallying cry for working class distrust of police seems initially noncommittal – of all the things police actually do, being bastards is perhaps the most benign – until you realize that for many white people, police aggression can be and often is contextualized as disproportionate rudeness.

The programming goes deep; I’ll forget the faces of cops who’ve struck me or held a gun to me at demonstrations before I forget the weight of my rummaged and disheveled bag hitting my chest as some “aspiring somebody bitterly languishing in the mediocre infamy of being that dad who coaches little league”-looking Canadian border cop grunted “enjoy the food”.

If you made a movie of my life, my walk of shame back to the Greyhound bus might be where I went from “All Cops Are Bastards” to “Fuck The Police”. Because we want political narratives to be tidy; we all want a genealogy of radicalization. I was lost before I witnessed this injustice, or heard this person speak truth to power, and then I was found. But in truth, opposition to oppression is largely a process of confronting and interrogating our own doubt and assumptions, which can spring up randomly, like a zit after months of clear skin.

Rudeness works! Instead of using the moment to reflect on the inherent violence of borders, I was just mad at this one asshole cop. I resolved I would eat as much Canadian food as I could while I was on my trip just to spite him. If not personally, then at least spiritually.

The morning after I arrived in Canada, I asked my partner (we had the talk) to take me to a good, cheap place with authentic Canadian fare.

So we went to a diner in her neighborhood with a huge decorative diorama of breakfast cereals.

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credit to Karen G/Yelp

Of course. When in Rome, be as the more dominant country immediately South to Rome that shares a colonial heritage and also dominates global popular culture.

Yeah yeah yeah, I know Nesquik was discontinued in the US in 2012. And Just Right is Australian. 

And muesli is Swiss, but breakfast cereal in America predates muesli by five decades and people really only started eating it regularly in the 60’s after the first health nut emerged from the rubble and said “to heck with this post-war scarcity, I want some smooth poops”.

This is exactly the sort of digression on authenticity that Canadian border cop wants me to psyche myself out with, I thought. Food from America can have a Canadian context. We have this conversation about chicken chow mein and spaghetti and meatballs every day.

I’m in Canada, I’m going to get Canadian food. But what, besides getting poutine instead of hashbrowns (which I did, in every place in Toronto that allowed me to do it, because for all my loathing, I’m still an American, and require french fries to cope with unfamiliar scenarios), there wasn’t much about the food offered at this diner that struck me as Canadian, or rather, as different from what I could get in America.

But then I glanced onto the burgers section, and found this:

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I’ve lived in America for most of my life, and have never seen a burger 1) that came with peanut butter, or 2) advertised as something that Mom used to make.

I’d been in Canada less than 24 hours. I’d just had an encounter that profoundly disproved American stereotypes of Canadian politesse. I was desperate to reset, to tell myself that was just one asshole. Just a bad apple.

I wanted to believe that some Canadian diner were the waitress remarked on my Californian accent wouldn’t lie to me like this. Whoever owned this restaurant or designed this menu had a mom who put peanut butter and bacon on a burger and she would be my salvation.

It was, all in all, an incredible burger. It was salty, sweet, crunchy, and, for all the nut and gristle I was picking out of my teeth, light and refreshing. It wasn’t mealy or soupy with grease. It had that groove, you know, that thickness. It was holistic, greater than the sum of its parts.  

I was floored by it. I told the waitress that it was one of the best burgers I ever had. She smiled and rolled her eyes a bit, the way you do when someone else discovers something that is obvious to you.

Another Yank bites the burg.

I told everyone I saw over the course of my visit to Canada about this burger. What prodigious luck, after my persecution for my optimism of unique Canadian culinary culture to discover such an indelible gem on my first outing.

Even if agents of Canada’s government were ready to yield to American epicurean supremacy, I would have faith.  As long as there were some moms in Canada putting peanut butter on their kids burgers instead of cheese, we could yet resist the homogenization of the global palate by Coca-Cola and Unilever. Viva la resistance!

I’m sure you don’t have to live in Canada to guess how this next part goes.

No one I’d talked to during the course of my tip who had grown up in Canada could say they’d had a burger like this. And most of them had grown up with moms. So it wasn’t an access to resources thing.

I became low-level obsessed with this while I was in Toronto, because even liberals and socialists who believe in “reforming” the police understand that the police are pretty much the only profession where it is almost impossible to hold a single employee who fucked up accountable, and so “getting back” at a cop who called you a slur or smashed out your tail light for giving him sass involves dismantling the entire system.

I was on a mission to illuminate Canadians about their own culinary history, overturning whatever decades of apathy had made that one cop so grumpy at me all so going against all advice given to me wouldn’t be my fault.

Eventually I learned from an Australian friend that putting peanut sauce on burgers is common there because of the crossover with South East Asian cuisine.

So, fine! It’s Australian. I ate an Australian burger in Canada. I can’t get this in America, it’s still authentic to me. I went to Canada, and I enjoyed the shit out of Canadian food. And not just this burger! I also liked butter tarts and poutine and this one place where they serve something called “table chicken” where they lay out a bunch of butcher paper on your table and drizzle sauce all over a pile of fried chicken.

A lot of that stuff wasn’t “invented” in Canada, but it still exists within the context of Canadian culture, the same way that  toasted white bread and condensed milk originated outside of Japan and other East and South East Asian countries, but through cultural context (i.e. wars of American imperialism) became part of their culinary landscape.

Context is not a myth, Captain Canada. It is real and alive and it is my friend.

My Greyhound back to America got held up because the drug dog freaked out at a couple of non-white people traveling with backpacks. As I passed through the line I could see the customs agent berating one of them to tears, interrupting his attempts to remain calm while conveying his situation in what was clearly not his first language by shouting “why are you lying to me? why are you lying to me?”

Our Greyhound didn’t wait for them.

Some of us lie – and get punished. Others tell their truth – and get punished. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime, but the criminal. We are judged by our context and how it fits into grander schemes of power. Context isn’t a myth; it isn’t always your friend.

It sounds like the plot of some episode of It’s Always Sunny – at some point my partner brought me to a workspace to meet some of her friends, and while we waited I started plugging the receptionist if they or their mom had ever put peanut butter on a burger – but I think fondly of that trip. It was maybe the last trip I had that was apolitically a vacation, and not a “break” or a “decompress”.

After coming back to the US, I started writing, and covering protests, and witnessing things that throw my relationship with the police state, in a sense, out of context.

When my partner went back to that diner with one of her other partners, the waitress greeted her with “California go home?” We both found that really funny; her because of the implication she was a playgirl, and me because I think I’m a pretty poor representation of California. I’ve never paid extra to put avocado on something. Not once.

But yeah, California went home and, after months of haphazard genealogy on the peanut butter burger, went to the actual diner’s website and learned it was started by a family who immigrated to Canada from Italy.

Peanut butter is hard to find in Italy; pre-sliced American-style cheese would have been virtually non-existent when the family immigrated to Canada. Peanut butter would have been a savory alternative to traditional nut spreads like gianduja (or Nutella after the 60’s). Whole culinary traditions are built on industrious moms finding ways to stretch meals out with inexpensive ingredients that also get their kids to eat their meat. In this way, the PB & Bacon Burger is uniquely Canadian in part because it hasn’t been widely adapted as a staple variant of the cheeseburger.

 

Gosh. You learn a lot about people’s context when you just listen to them.

(Photo credit: alovesdc/Flickr)

Author: Jetta Rae

Founder of Fry Havoc. Can be found on twitter at @jetta_rae

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