The uncontested centrepiece
of Canadian unity
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
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.
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
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
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...
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