The origin of birthdays


My birthday was two days ago, and I managed to celebrate a little even though I had to give a final exam. Most of the celebrations involved food, and I started thinking about how odd birthdays are. Why do we celebrate them, and where did these rituals come from?

It turns out that birthday celebrations arose in Greek and Roman times, and that the lighting of candles in particular honours the pagan God of the day of our birth. So the date didn’t matter quite as much as the day itself. And of course our days of the week are still named after pagan Gods; Sunday is named for the Sun, Monday is named for the moon, Tuesday is named for the war God Tiu, Wednesday is named for Odin, Thursday for Thor, Friday for Freya, and Saturday for Saturn, the Roman God of agriculture. I was born on Saturday, which seems oddly appropriate. No wonder I spend so much time trying to preserve agricultural land.

Early Christians had a bit of a problem with lighting candles to strange Gods, and so birthdays were banned until at least the fourth century, when the celebration of Christ’s birthday began to be observed regularly, and the tradition spread once again through most Christian lands. That explains the candles, but the cake came much later; it really wasn’t popularized until it was taken up by those wonderful Victorians, who jumped on any excuse to eat cake. So here is to Saturn, God of agriculture, who probably would have supported the Agricultural Land Reserve. And thanks to my lovely partner Katherine for the cake!

Peak food, and what it means for British Columbians

Today I was picking up a few things at a local grocery store when I encountered a polite little sign warning me that the instant gratification of my arugula habit might soon be a thing of the past. A small thing surely, but I felt a little chill go down my spine, as if I had sighted an iceberg on the horizon from the bow of a speeding ship. Because it isn’t just arugula; everywhere I go these days I’m hearing two very ominous words, “peak food”. Are we headed into a period where land is going to be the new gold and food the new oil?

Is global climate change coming to a salad near you?

Is global climate change coming to a salad near you?

To be clear, the global food system that has emerged out of the green revolution is feeding us well. We eat better food at less cost than almost at any other time in history, and the “we” has gotten a lot bigger; most of the planet is well fed. But there are many signs that the easy years are coming to a close, as a number of unfortunate trends begin to converge. First, and perhaps most importantly, we are losing farmland. About 10% of the globe’s land area is cultivatable, and another 23% or so is suitable for grazing lands; about a third of the Earth’s land can thus be called agricultural. However we are losing land to desertification, erosion, salting, and pollution. We are also losing untold acreage to urban development near every city in the world as cities continue to sprawl. Here in my corner of the world, I can say with certainty we lost about 12% of our farmland near Vancouver in the last 40 years, which isn’t too bad. Without the Agricultural Land Reserve, that number would be closer to 80%. However even 12% loss isn’t sustainable in the long run, and if we want to have spaces for farms we will have to build up, not out.

Other forces are at work. We are confronting a potential shortage of phosphorus, which is mined for fertilizer. As much as 80% of global food production depends on NPK, the miracle fertilizer made of potassium and phosphorus, and nitrogen made through the Haber-Bosch process, which consumes 2% of the global energy supply, mostly in the form of natural gas. Global climate change is punishing farmers world-wide; my little sign warning of arugula shortages hides a drought crisis in California of epic scale that covers nearly 90% of the state. Canadians import two billion tons of produce from California each year, so the fact that farmers aren’t planting due to water shortages will hit us this summer at the supermarket. Many of these California farms won’t come back, as orchards are dying and investments are being lost. Droughts, floods, and other disruptions are also at work in other regions of the globe. Climate change is also upsetting the carbon dioxide balance in the world’s oceans, which could have extremely bad consequences for world fisheries.

So what can we do, as individuals? There are actually a few things. We can control food waste, which is a huge problem throughout the system. We can save money and improve our cooking skills by seeking out the unloved vegetables and fruits that are malformed or dented, but perfectly good otherwise. We can eat lower on the food chain; we can greatly decrease the environmental impact of farming with a few vegetarian meals, and it is a healthy option as well. And we can support local farmers, and urge our local governments to preserve farmland. BC’s Bill 24 needs to be amended to strengthen the Agricultural Land Reserve and tighten the rules for land exclusion. I’m still urging everyone to call their MLA or write them a stern letter asking them to send Bill 24 back to the shop for some retooling. As an example, Kamloops was once the tomato capital of BC, and all of that rich land is being lumped into Zone 2, where economic factors will override agriculture. Losing that land doesn’t seem right. Lastly, we should all think about what we could grow ourselves, even if all that means is a pear tree in the yard, or a few herbs on the deck. Every little bit helps. I’m not going to say we are headed toward certain disaster, as farmers are incredibly resilient and innovative people. But with the UN saying we need to increase food output by 60% by 2050, and all of these challenges coming along at once, I have to wonder what the future will look like. Meanwhile I’d better turn my garden beds and plant some arugula.

Changes to the ALR: An exercise in bad timing

Agriculture in California is in trouble.  Nearly 95% of the state is in a severe drought condition, and 71% is in an extreme or exceptional drought condition. Farmers are leaving fields unplanted as there simply isn’t water to raise a crop. As the drought drags on, farmers are going bankrupt, and recovery to pre-drought levels is beginning to look unlikely. This is a huge problem, and Canada is also at risk; we import somewhere around 2.8 billion dollars worth of California produce each year. Much of that goes to BC; we currently produce only about 45% of our food, and the rest comes from elsewhere.

Today’s changes to the Agricultural Land Reserve will do little raise this number. Firstly, 90% of our farmland has seen its protection downgraded at the stroke of a pen, leaving only a half percent of the province’s land under the strongest category of protection. From now on industrial uses will be accepted on the bulk of our farmland, ending 40 years of excellent planning. Though the government is framing the change as one that allows farmers to make a living off of marginal land (a reasonable cause), the fear is that the outcome will be mass exclusions and a decline in farming culture in the North. And though the North produces only 15% of farm gate receipts on 90% of the province’s farmland, this is mostly a result of the types of commodities being produced, namely grain, oil seeds, and beef. So though the return per acre is a lot lower than that for high value crops in the South, the amount of calories produced is significant; these are crops that we really need.

As for the Class 1 portion of the reserve in the South, one can hardly call the status quo an improvement. True improvement would involve stopping speculators from purchasing ALR land and then immediately applying for exclusion (There are currently 900 exclusions under consideration, and that number is climbing). It would enforce laws against soil mining and the dumping of construction waste on farmland, and it would stop speculators from leaving land fallow for decades. What we got was a vague promise for the implementation of performance standards, which might well mean that the exclusion process will speed up. And the ALC, far from being independent, will have to give detailed reports to government. The potential for future meddling is strong. At least vacant positions at the ALC will be filled, but that is a pretty small gain given the potential magnitude of loss.

The strange thing about this indifference or outright hostility to farmland is that the world market is giving strong signals that we are entering a period of dire food shortage. Farm trusts are rapidly buying up farmland around the globe, often returning as much as 20% on investment. All of that big money likely knows something; maybe they are taking a good look at California. In the meantime, British Columbians who care about food need to start fighting for our farms. We should be strengthening the ALR, not damaging it, and we should be working locally as well. In Surrey, their municipal rule that for every acre removed from the ALR two local acres must be brought in has basically brought exclusion to a halt. Today’s changes are unlikely to affect Surrey much, as they have a strong second line of defense. The rest of us should take note, and fight for the farmland that we are almost sure to need in the future.

Thai food in rural Canada

I grew up in rural coastal British Columbia, and every now and then I like to sneak back to the Sunshine Coast for a weekend away from city life. It was a bit rainy today, but I still managed to sip coffee by the beach, take in the misty forest air, and I even managed to spot a golden eagle by the ocean. We decided to finish the day with a little culinary adventure at the local rural Thai place, Absolutely Thai. When we walked in my cousin Deanna was already there waiting for take-out, proving that in a small town one doesn’t just run into people one knows, but indeed usually runs into a blood relative.

A close look shows the slide up windows from this building's drive-in days

A close look shows the slide up windows from this building’s drive-in days

The first delightful thing about this Thai restaurant is that it is located in what was once Ernie and Gwen’s Drive In, a scruffy little place that I remember well as I went to high school next door. In small town Canada restaurant renovation budgets are small to non-existent, so Absolutely Thai has retained much of the original space’s look and feel. One can perform a sort of restaurant archeology in small towns; pizza joints were once bars that were once fish and chip stands that were in some cases once failed chain restaurants.

Thai food in rural Canada deserves mention in its own right. The Thai population of Canada is very small, and so Thai restaurants are oriented to serve western tastes. Thai food became popular in the US after the Vietnam war, as Thailand was a popular recreation spot for soldiers on leave. The distinctive spicy Thai cuisine began to appear in Los Angeles and spread slowly North; the first real Thai restaurant in Vancouver was Pranakorn, which opened in 1986, followed closely by Baan Thai in 1987. These restaurants maintained an informal network that stretched all the way back to Thailand in order to secure both staff and ingredients.

Thai food restaurants have spread into many areas over the last ten years, adopting to their new surroundings. They are a great example of how the concept of authenticity in a cuisine is a bit of a myth; all cuisines adapt to their surroundings given necessity and time. In the case of Thai food, North American restaurants offer salads and appetizers, where in Thailand all dishes are served at once. Also, spices are more carefully controlled to better suit North American tastes, and  more vegetarian dishes are offered. The most interesting difference, however, is the presence of basil in Canadian Thai food. It is a stand-in for Bai Kra-pao, also known as holy basil, which I have never seen in North America. This herb is spicy and savory, and lacks the sweetness and aromatic nature of our basil. It is, however, available, and it suits North American tastes.

Mmm. Spicy!

Mmm. Spicy!

As for the meal, it was really quite excellent. Everything was extremely fresh, and the flavours were intense and clear. Rural Canada is often stereotyped as filled with greasy, oily cuisine, but there are some hidden gems. And in a town where everyone knows everyone, that pays off; they sometimes have as much as a three hour wait for orders, and people are phoning in days in advance. As might be imagined, restaurants in small towns live and die by word of mouth.

Regional mass market products: Pineapple Crush

One of the strange oddities of the modern world is the way in which giant global corporations market certain products only in specific regional enclaves. I’ve met many a Canadian who pops across the border to pick up a beloved “only in America” brand, and Canada is dotted with stores reselling British brands, Japanese brands, and just about anything else an expat could pine for. But there are a few cases were certain flavours and sub-brands are only available in Canada, and one of the oddest of those is Pineapple Crush soda, which is available in Newfoundland, to a lesser degree in the Maritimes, and also in Fort McMurray, Alberta. The odd thing is pineapple crush isn’t just available, it totally dominates the soda market in Newfoundland, and is available at every canteen and vending machine.

 pineapple crushI’m not exactly sure why Pineapple Crush is so popular in Newfoundland, but I did find it rather refreshing, in a pineapple sort of way. And when mixed with rum, it is called a “Humphy Dumphy”. I am told there is also a Birch Beer Crush available in Newfoundland as well. If anyone knows when and why these beverages found a home on Canada’s far Eastern shore, let me know.

 On a related note, I became very fond of Bitter Lemon Soda, which is sold only in the low countries of Europe. I found recently that J N & Z deli on Commercial Drive imports it, so I have been enjoying some lovely Gin and Bitter Lemon’s. I suppose we all like diversity, even in our mass-marketed products.

Small batch cider

Canada is in the middle of a craft alcohol revolution. Across the country people are distilling great spirits, pushing forward with interesting wines and beers, and even growing the raw materials, such as hops. However cider is just starting to appear on the radar in Canada. Cider has a bad reputation in this county as a bulk soft drink style alcohol, best used for getting very drunk very fast. Good cider is a serious persuit in the UK, however; most pubs have a cider on tap, offering careful blends of apples chosen to create a good balance of sweetness and body.

A bottle of very local, very small batch cider

A bottle of very local, very small batch cider

I was lucky enough to be given a bottle of cider made by a budding young cider maker, Denver Nixon. Made with local cider apples blended with a few heirloom varieties, this was a fairly sweet and gentle cider. We drank it from coupe glasses to allow the scent to fill the room. It isn’t a commercial product yet, but I have high hopes that finely crafted ciders such as this will continue to raise Canada’s reputation as a country of fine alcohol. For a taste of a good local cider that is available in stores, I quite like Sea Cider of Saanichton.


Religious culinary practices: Why we should be worried about the Quebec “Values Charter”

Last Autumn I was greatly privileged to join an old friend and her family for a dinner during the Jewish festival of Sukkot. We ate in the Sukkah, a temporary outdoor room roofed with tree bows, which was quite delightful as the weather was fine. I was reminded of the important role of food in Jewish life, and the role food plays in many religious traditions. Food sits at the centre of our lives, and so it isn’t surprising that food plays a central role in faith.

There are many reasons that Quebec’s Bill 60 should worry Canadians who prefer a “live and let live” approach to society building, but in the furor over the proposed rules concerning religious clothing and symbols, very little has been said about the sweeping rules governing what children will and will not be allowed to eat while under care funded by Quebec’s much loved daycare program. Quebec’s Bill 60, which goes under the rather taxing name of the “Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests”, has the following to say about food in clause thirty:

30. In order to facilitate social cohesion and the integration of children without regard to social or ethnic origin or religious affiliation, the policy must provide, among other things, that

(1) children’s admission must not be related to their learning a specific religious belief, dogma or practice;

(2) the objective of educational activities and communication cannot be to teach such a belief, dogma or practice; and

(3) a repeated activity or practice stemming from a religious precept, in particular with regard to dietary matters, must not be authorized if its aim, through words or actions, is to teach children that precept.

I think all Canadians should be a little disturbed by this sweeping language, which would also apply in private daycares that are government subsidized. Jewish families who keep kosher would of course be impacted, and Muslim children might well be fed pork. Following the letter of the rules, vegetarians could insist their children not eat meat, but Hindus and Jainists would not be able to make such a request. This is a deeply personal and targeted bit of government bullying, that will predominantly impact women and children.

No government in this country should be telling us how to feed our children. And if we can learn anything from history, it is that targeting a minority group’s cuisine never ends well.