Is that oyster sauce in my gravy?

I took my daughter, Lucy, to Toronto to meet her Chinese Canadian grand god-parents and celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving with them. In Mike and Shirley’s house at Thanksgiving, like so many across North America, the day belongs to family, friends and food.

I held Lucy in my arms in the doorway of Auntie Shirley’s kitchen in the hours preceding dinner. Generations of family busied themselves with all the usual fare you would expect to find at this traditional celebration, with one or two twists along the way. Shirley beckoned me inside and held out a spoon that had been ceremonially drawn from the gravy. She invited me to inspect it. It was at once familiar as gravy should be, but it had an unexpected flavour that I couldn’t quite place. Reluctant as she was to reveal the identity of this secret ingredient that elevated her gravy to mythological status, I managed to coax it from her in the interests of all humanity. “Oyster sauce” she let on, eventually. “It goes especially well with the sticky rice, shitake mushroom and Chinese ham stuffing.”

Oyster sauce in Thanksgiving gravy! Who’d have thought it? Odd, though, that I should have been surprised by such a thing. After all, in my pantry oyster sauce sits alongside the ketchup, the mustard and the mayonnaise.

So as China meets North America in a Jewish suburb of Toronto, I got thinking about the extent to which our societies have been infiltrated and enriched by cuisines from distant lands. After all, food knows no boundaries: you can’t take the curry out of Britain any more than you can strip America of its fajita. So isn’t it time we gave food its due and elevated it to the political stage? What about settling international disputes with cake competitions, church fete-style? Or what about a reality TV show where congressional candidates have barbeque cook-offs? Stop telling us about how family values matter to you, show me what you actually do for yours! Can you feed them a perfectly cooked T-bone in 20 minutes or less?

I reckon there should be a UN resolution that calls on politicians, diplomats and dignitaries to begin each meeting on foreign soil with a cooking class in which they learn to prepare a feast using only local ingredients and methods. And at the dinner which follows in the company of their hosts, there must be an embargo on any political discussion. Then I could imagine the opening salvo of the meeting going something like: “Now Mr Head-of-State, before we start negotiating disputed borders and that mobilization of forces in the north, you have to remind me — what was in that marinade?”

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