I had the opportunity to drive through Ontario on Canada Day not long ago, travelling along the two rural lanes of Highway 7 through the heart of Ontario to the edge of the Ottawa River and the outskirts of our nation's capital. This thousand-kilometer trek gave me time to observe and ponder what this nation is really all about. Let me share my conclusions.
Outside our urban areas, Ontario is sparsely populated. Human habitation is randomly scattered like confetti along the highways, with nodes of activity separated by great swathes of untamed bush and swampland. Long asphalt ribbons that cut through the emptiness tie these communities together like lines in a connect-the-dots drawing. Yet across this vast and varied province, there is one single, unifying element that defines our Canadian culture in absolute terms, a skein that runs through the warp and weft of the Canadian psyche.
It's not our language, not our universal social programs, not even the brightly visible icon of our flag waving proudly in the breeze. It's not even the animosity we hold each other in - the biploarization of English vs. French, east vs. west, everyone vs. Ontario. No, - it's the chip wagon.
Yes, the glue of our national identity is the grease of the french fry.
In every town, every city, even in those humble clumps of buildings too spartan for even the nomenclature of hamlet to stick, you'll find a chip truck or some equivalent structure, nestled close to the busiest traffic routes. Recycled school portables, old buses and delivery vans, utility sheds - all get pressed into service of the great potato. They often defy local building ordinances and architectural controls, or even common sense, in order to provide the requisite outlet for deep-fried sustenance we crave. We don't care what their guise: all we attend to is what they serve.
They are advertised along the highway with hand-lettered signs, crude but effective, posted miles ahead in both directions, just to build the sense of savoury anticipation that, perhaps around the next bend, the chip truck is waiting. Drivers befuddled by all the geegaws and gadgets their technologically-cluttered SUVs offer anxiously await the next chip stop where they can simplify their lives momentarily with a serving of fries.
And even though they're not homes in any sense of the word even to itinerant RV gypsies, they advertise "home-made" fries, as if some spiritual mother in the great Kitchen In The Sky lords over them all, hand-cutting the ectoplasmic potatoes into corporeal nourishment so they fall from her heavenly hands like square-cut manna into the sizzling deep fat fryers of chip trucks across the province - instead of being poured from a plastic bag dug from an ice-lined freezer nearby.
In places where there are more mosquitoes than men, where the rock thrusts raw knuckles of rough granite through thin soil and weatherworn trees stand out starkly against the grey skies in Tom-Thomson-like solitude, where lowlands are swampy wallows filled with bullrushes and turgid algae and the silence goes on for miles, chip wagons are set up, little bastions of civilization against the encroaching wilderness.
There are no signs of habitation for miles along the southern edge of the great Canadian Shield where Highway 7 runs its narrow course. The few settlers who carve their existence from this hard land do so without the cable TV, video stores and doughnut shops that most of us require as the minimum elements to a comfortable life. Yet there as solace in their isolation sits a chip truck, nestled precariously close to the traffic, a worn picnic table in front and the air dense with the aromas of cooking spuds.
The road's shoulder is often cluttered with cars and from them emerge, like pilgrims come to worship at a shrine, the customers in search of greasy fulfillment.
Our national holiday sees banks, appliance stores, municipal offices and supermarkets close. But not the ubiquitous chip wagon. Its cooks open early in the mist-laden morning, accompanied by the sounds of loons and songbirds. They warm the grease bins in preparation of serving the continual stream of traffic that will start to line up at their window almost as soon as the sun tops the horizon. Canada Day offers us a chance to experience a full day of quality spud ingesting from one end of the province to the other, without being interrupted by the inconvenience of work.
Inclement weather doesn't deter them, for these cooks know once the fires are lit, they've donned the mantle of national unity and they take that role seriously. These trucks and their dedicated staff exist to bring people of all religious beliefs, national origins, skin colouration, mother tongue and political stripe together in the quest for the best potato boiled in lard in a mobile home, smothered in gelatinous unpalatable gravy and dipped in ketchup. And never forget that stolid dish served on a flaccid paper plate, poutine - french fries covered in melted processed cheese - a culinary example of Canadiana that brings together Franco and Anglo cultures in a way our politicans can never achieve.
It has become almost a national mania to seek out and find that single best serving, the chip that speaks for all of our aspirations.
Stop and partake. You'll sense the depth of awe and reverence here, as, with heads bowed, the consumers replay the ancient ritual of salt and vinegar, their faces wrinkled in smiles as they crunch into the crisp tuber. The misty past comes alive and for a moment you can feel the ethereal presence of the Inca who first cultivated Solanum tuberosum in his arid, mountain fields under the shadow of the white-capped Andes. Little did he know these lumpy knots of starch buried in the mountainous soil at his feet would one day cross oceans, spread across continents and finally grace the highways of modern, bustling Ontario.
You can't help but feel the invisible hand of the Great Culinary Spirit move you as you spear the last soggy tater on the wooden fork, lift its limp form out of the cardboard box, dripping with gravy and ketchup, and, in a private communion with the Maker Of Starchy Tubers, consume the morsel in silent grace.
Is there anything else that says Canada as well - or as often - as the chip wagon? It speaks to our national quest for thicker waistlines, clogged arteries, heart congestion and acne. You cannot help but recall Shakepeare's words, when Caesar warned against Cassius and other thin men, as you tuck into the taters.
To enhance the cultural impact of cholesterol buildup, many trucks also serve hamburgers and hotdogs, often to be washed down with the appropriately over-refined health-deteriorating white-sugar-laden soda pops. One can almost feel the teeth as they dissolve in this sugary torrent. O Canada, all the hopes and dreams of our pioneer forebearers culminate here under the little awning, as we reach out to gather in the harvest of a century-and-a-half of history in this little cardboard container.
There is no reason to wonder why Canadians find ourselves drawn so strongly to chip wagons. We're inundated with laws, wrapped head-to-toe like mummies in regulations and guidelines to protect us, to serve the best interests of our health, welfare and general well-being. We're smothered in red tape, triplicate forms and bylaws aimed at making us good and productive, if not always carefree and joyous, citizens. Chip wagons offer freedom from the politically-correct but comestibly restrictive course of svelte good health, open arteries and clear skin that has been determined is best for us by fashion media and health departments. California fashion be damned! We're Canadians and we can fill out our waistlines as we see fit! If we wish to emulate our American neighbours, why we are only taking the next logical step in the free trade agreement.
And what says Canada better than the potato? It's white - and so are most of us. It's basically bland, colourless and stodgy - can't you see the resemblance? It spends most of its time buried safely in the ground away from controversy, challenge and confrontation. And it's mostly harmless. Better yet, it comes from PEI or perhaps another province, not trucked in from some southern state like winter's cardboard tomatoes. Potatoes should be our national plant.
Chip wagons are the promised land of self-indulgence, a place where Canadians can step away from the sanctimonious herd and make the individual decision to eat something that promises no redeeming social, moral or salubrious benefits, simply lip-smacking private pleasure in all its potential plumptitude. We can cast our calorie-cautious reservations to the wind and bite the spud with the knowledge that we're spitting in the face of the rotundophobes.
Forget back bacon, forget Blue, forget maple syrup. Chips are our provincial provender and our national nosh.
If our politicians really wanted to reach the people, they'd set up chip wagons in small towns and serve their wares with a dose of their policy written on the napkins. Funding cuts and reductions in social services would be accepted more easily if served with gracious portions of ketchup and gravy. What Canadian could lament the loss of our health system for long, when confronted by a plate of gravy-rich french fries hot from the oil? O Canada, we munch on guard for thee...
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to add your two cents' worth or to just comment on my pomposity. Check back again. Last update: Mar. 9 2005.
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