In Toronto, Caribbean food seems to be the latest cultural commodity available for plunder

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A report by Andray Domise for The Globe and Mail.

If there’s something I love about the Caribbean culture I was raised in, it’s the importance we place on sharing. Visit our dance halls, and if you don’t know the steps, you will be taught. Attend our churches and if you don’t know the words to the praise music, a matron will appear to lend you the words. The greatest of these cultural pillars is food, for which our open-handedness is world-renowned.

If there is food prepared within the walls of a Caribbean household, you will be fed. If there is no food ready, it will soon come. To enter and leave our homes without food in your belly is a damning sin against the host if it wasn’t offered, and against yourself if it wasn’t accepted.

Our generosity with our cuisine, steeped as it is in stews and spices, is more than living necessity or gustatory pleasure. It’s a microcosm of our resilient culture. What scraps of language and religion we managed to keep in enslaved bondage, we mixed with tepid British stoicism to produce patois dialect and yard culture. We took hymns of the Anglican church, infused them with folk music carried from our ancestral homes, fermented them with jazz and rhythm and blues, and poured out bittersweet reggae.

Our food, and the culture we built around it, is no different. Oxtail, curry goat, rundown stew, ackee and saltfish – what offal and leavings the slavers threw away, we inflamed with our signature flavours and transformed into culinary art. And what good is art, if not shared with an audience?

I think about our cultural generosity often, especially when it’s taken for granted, or advantage of. Our willingness to share often leads to the misconception that our creations have become community property, to be picked up and carried away while leaving us empty-handed.

That tendency came to mind recently, when the Gusto 54 Restaurant Group (owned by Janet Zuccarini) issued a press release announcing the imminent arrival of a new King West restaurant, Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen. “I love Jamaican food,” the release quotes Zuccarini as saying, “and always thought we needed an amazing Jamaican restaurant in Toronto. I’ve visited Jamaica many times and have several close Jamaican friends who introduced me to the deliciousness of Jamaican food beyond jerk chicken.”

The release goes on to describe the planned emphasis on fresh food inspired by Jamaican culinary traditions, prepared with local ingredients, and “rounded out with healthy, modern twists.” Zuccarini continues: “I think that, in such a multicultural city, there’s an opening for a Jamaican concept that’s true to our brand.”

This is how Caribbean culture is repackaged for North American consumption. In a recent Globe piece about cultural appropriation and food, Zuccarini said another part of her motivation was her love of reggae music, which makes her “feel very transported … like I’m on vacation.” But reggae wasn’t born as a mellow soundtrack for beach bums and weed smokers; it was part of political, revolutionary Rastafarian culture. Today, the genre has been denatured for pop radio, transformed into a bland, non-threatening creation dubbed “tropical house” that makes bank for singers like Justin Bieber.

To be fair, tropical house isn’t just reggae: it also stole bits of soca, from nearby Trinidad, and Latino rhythms from South America. And in that vein, the Toronto-based festival that West Indians created to share our culture with the city, now known as the Caribbean Carnival, has also been taken out of our hands. Out of the hundreds of millions of dollars in local revenue generated each year, the community barely sees any returns.

Diluted and stripped of its ancestral link to survival and resistance, with “modern twists” added to improve our base and unenlightened cuisine, Caribbean food seems to be the latest cultural commodity available for plunder. In 1985, Toronto food inspectors raided Jamaican restaurants and confiscated “patties” because they didn’t match the city’s definition of the term – hamburger patties. Today, there’s a small opening for our food and culture to be accepted here, as long as it’s offered under a white woman’s brand umbrella.

Dozens of amazing Caribbean restaurants have lived out their quiet struggle in Toronto for decades, dotting the landscape throughout the inner suburbs in Scarborough, Rexdale, and Eglinton West. There’s Rap’s, the jerk chicken and patty shop where my mother would take me for lunch after a haircut at Castries barbershop. There’s Albert’s, a landmark at the corner of St. Clair Avenue and Vaughan Road. And there’s the world famous back-ah-yard restaurant The Real Jerk, owned by Ed and Lily Pottinger, who have dealt with the worst of neighbourhood gentrification and real estate discrimination that Toronto has to offer.

In 2012, The Real Jerk was temporarily evicted from its long-time home at Queen Street and Broadview Avenue after its building was sold to a new landlord. Later in the year, the Pottingers applied for a commercial space on the ground floor of the low-rise Edge Lofts at Queen and Broadview, but building residents revolted against the idea. More than two dozen of them wrote letters to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, concerned about a “bar” on the ground floor negatively affecting property values, and the hypothetical noise that patrons might generate.

Deciding against setting up shop where they were clearly not wanted, the Pottingers withdrew their application and finally settled on a location at Gerrard Street East and Carlaw Avenue. That location later became an iconic backdrop for the music video to the chart-topping single Work, a collaboration between superstars Rihanna and Drake. The Real Jerk is more successful now than it’s ever been, while Il Ponte, the Italian restaurant that was deemed sufficiently “family-oriented” to be accepted at Edge Lofts, seems empty most evenings.

A number of Caribbean restaurant owners and caterers declined to speak on the record, afraid of discouraging potential customers. One said that opening franchise locations downtown is nearly impossible, in part because of what might be called a “cultural obstacle”: landlords who ask outright about the nationality of the food to be offered on the menu and the type of clientele the restaurant hopes to attract, then decline to offer a lease.

Chubby’s hasn’t opened its doors yet, and I haven’t sampled the food. But the concept of an “amazing Jamaican restaurant in Toronto,” proffered by a restaurateur who has visited my ancestral home a few times, and who intends to package the culture in a fashion true to the brand of a downtown gastro-chain doesn’t fill me with hope.

There is indeed more to Jamaican cuisine than jerk chicken, but that void is beyond Zuccarini’s capability to fill. In such a multicultural city, our food shouldn’t have to be smuggled onto someone else’s menus for it to find an audience.

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