I only met my food hero last year, but I hope to be sitting down to meals with her for the rest of my life.
Mama G—as she’s affectionately known—arrived in Toronto as a refugee around Valentine’s Day. I am part of a sponsorship group—most of us first- or second-generation immigrants—helping her and her family to settle here.
We have spent time with Mama G doing things like filling out school permission slips, registering with a family doctor and getting the kids into soccer clubs. In return, she has invited us to her table to share delicacies from her native Syria: smoky baba ganoush made from eggplants grilled on the charcoal barbecue on her balcony; vine leaves stuffed with sticky rice; garlicky roast potatoes served under crispy-skinned chicken legs, with aromatic citrus-infused sauce poured over top.
Our new friend sometimes still seems shy, but she comes into her own in the kitchen. She laughs if ask how many cup measures of broth or tablespoons of cinnamon she tossed into the pot, as I frantically try to record her delicious recipes. She has memorized every one of our sponsorship group members' dietary preferences (“But why do all Canadians have allergies?” ask her kids) and she masterfully adapts her feasts to accommodate. And she saved Easter, at my house this year: The lamb roast was still half-raw after hours in the oven, and everybody was ravenous, so Mama G grabbed my biggest knife, then like a shawarma ninja turned the leg vertical and stripped it down, to finish the meat strips under the broiler within minutes.
Mama G and I don’t have much language in common, but we make each other laugh at the table with half-mimed stories about the antics of our kids—teenagers are not so different, wherever they grow up in the world. We both love to cook, and most of our early conversations revolved around spice combinations and where to find the freshest ingredients on a budget in Toronto’s East End. In fact many of our sponsorship group members work in food and drink, and we tantalize one another, after dinners at Mama G’s, with Instagrams of olive-oil-and-lemon-drizzled hummus, nutty lamb kibbeh or colourful tabbouleh.
When newcomers who don’t speak English or French first arrive in Canada, they have to navigate confusing paperwork, systems and cultural practises, often in isolation. They may find themselves relying on others to help with things they handled with confidence in their country of origin. That can be disempowering. Mama G has always used food to reciprocate acts of support and to draw our group members into her family (she calls the women her Canadian sisters). Through cooking, she revealed her generous and creative nature, long before she had the words to tell us about herself. With the preparation and sharing of good food comes a sense of dignity—even when everything familiar in your world has fallen away.
Community Food Centres are full of food heroes like Mama G—in fact the CFC at Regent Park welcomed my new friend into their garden this summer, to plant a small plot with fellow Syrians. She had fruit and olive trees and extensive vegetable and herb gardens back in Syria, and she missed that connection with the soil.
When I see the work that Community Food Centres Canada do by creating a space for neighbours to grow food and prepare and eat meals together, I feel grateful that they exist. In the most organic way, CFCs build self worth and forge bonds between people of all backgrounds. They give anybody who comes through their doors—no matter their story or their starting point—the chance to shine and share their food heritage. In my mind they are particularly valuable to newcomers craving support systems and a sense of belonging.
That’s why this holiday season, in honour of Mama G, I’m making a donation to support the exceptional work of Community Food Centres Canada. I hope you will celebrate your own food hero in this way too!