THE BIRTH OF SHAWARMA POUTINE.
In the long-running annual series Oh, The Humanities! National Post reporters survey academic scholarship at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, with an eye to the curious, the mysterious and the hilarious. Once known as “the Learneds,” because it is a gathering of learned societies, the Congress has gone entirely virtual this year, hosted at the University of Alberta. Over the coming days, Canadian academics will share their insights on such diverse topics as the origins of English names for sushi rolls, new techniques in student cheating and how “Stay the Blazes Home!” became a pandemic motto. First, the social history of shawarma poutine.
The first time Robert Nelson, head of history at the University of Windsor, ate shawarma poutine, at Windsor's fanciest Lebanese restaurant a few years ago, he did not exactly thrill to it. Although this curious fusion dish has since inspired a documentary, an academic research project, a scholarly book about cross-border ethnic foodways and a presentation at next week's Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, at the time it seemed neither this nor that, and not enough of either.
Here were french fries, beef gravy, chicken bits and a white sauce drizzled over top.
It was not shawarma, that spicy marinated, spit-roasted meat wrapped into pita with the zing of lemony parsley, creamy sesame butter and the fragrant memory of pomegranate molasses.
Nor was it stylized peasant food, evoking agrarian pioneer Quebec with the comforting combo of a winter store vegetable, a cheap dairy delicacy and last night's gravy.
Somehow, this marriage of two classics seemed “way too healthy for a poutine,” and either “gutsy” or “heretical,” Nelson said. But together the fries and chicken also told a new story, reflected a people's changing food culture and demonstrated a truth about nationalism that Nelson has learned after surveying religion, language, history, costume, music and all the other aspects of human life that make people see themselves as the same, and others as different.
“All these things you can find in texts about nationalism all over the world,” he said in an interview. Then suddenly food history takes off 20 years ago, “and it's like holy s--- have we been wrong about what's important to people's identity.”
What really cuts deep is whatever grandmothers made on quiet afternoons in the old country. “We eat our identity,” Nelson said. “Everything else is secondary.”
So, having digested his inspiration, Nelson set off to investigate, recruiting Arab Canadian students to help interview people with a long-standing connection to Windsor's Arab quarter on Wyandotte Street.
His research charts the growth of a local food economy, and the establishment in the 1990s of two important bakeries, New Yasmeen and Royal Pita Company, that solved the problem of fresh bread for households that were no longer baking it themselves. The first proper and still thriving Arab restaurant, El-Mayor, soon followed at the centre of these new supply chains. Where once people who needed the right olives or spices travelled across the border to Detroit's Eastern Market, now Windsor's shawarma and tabouleh game was coming into its own.
Regionally, he compares Windsor-Detroit to the American Southwest, Alsace and Transylvania as areas where ethnic foodways straddle international borders with ease. But Windsor experienced a change at that border that hit Arabs in Windsor especially hard.
After 9/11, “A city that for two hundred years had been the Canadian side of an international region quite suddenly became the cul-de-sac at the bottom of Ontario, backed up against a fortress moat,” Nelson writes. “This thickening of the border greatly accelerated the growth of Wyandotte Street with the expectation that all food products would now have to be available to those who did not want to leave the country for an afternoon.”
He interviewed, for example, Taher Abumeeiz, a Libyan Canadian
restaurant owner who bought a pizzeria from a Greek family and knew he had to assimilate and bake his pies in the Italian style, as the Greeks had, without fusing any Greek elements onto the classics. But in time, as confidence in Windsor's established Arab foodways increased, Abumeeiz started putting out a sign for “shawarma pizza,” which kept selling out and is now featured in The Best of Windsor Cookbook.
Shawarma poutine has also caught on, and is on menus in the Arab communities of Dearborn, Mich., but Nelson documents the original Canadianness of the dish, a Windsor specialty on par with the famous local pizza.
AA Gill, the late British restaurant critic, had a theory that Lebanese food was particularly disruptive to English culinary sensibilities because it undid more than a century of cultural preference for service à la russe, which is to say in courses, rather than on a buffet.
Serving individual dishes in courses plated by staff in the Russian style was what made restaurants so popular in the first place in 19th century Paris and London, replacing service à la française, the more lavish presentation of all the food all at once.
Russian service allowed food to be served hot more efficiently, and the expense more evenly shared, in Gill's view promoting a culinary culture focused on the individual diner, the fundamental customer in a booming new market.
“Lebanese food is one of the few dinners left to us that are eaten in the old medieval way, with the meze piled high,” he wrote. “To get the benefit of this sort of food you've got to forget a hundred years of ordering for yourself and order for the table.”
Now, in a restaurant-crushing pandemic, these platter-focused menus have turned out to be supportive of Windsor's Arab foodways because, as Nelson puts it, it is simply perfect for takeout and sharing.
Where a burger will go cold and the fries congeal mere minutes out of the fryer, and pasta seize into a lump, a fattoush salad with some shawarma and falafel travels brilliantly, like stir fries, curries and pizza.
It will even cross an international border, as long as it is allowed.