If you ask food historian Jeffrey Pilcher why Scarborough has emerged as a renowned multicultural food hotspot, the answer is pretty obvious.
“In a word, immigration,” says Professor Pilcher, who teaches food studies at U of T Scarborough.
“Scarborough is one of the leading immigrant-receiving areas in North America, and there’s a real richness and diversity of cuisines here. But just as important are the connections that people make when they get here.”
These connections include what he calls “culinary infrastructure” – the markets, transportation, sanitation and even the knowledge networks of food journalists and cooking schools that all play an important role in feeding this part of the city.
Since it was established at U of T Scarborough about four years ago, the Culinaria Research Centre has been unpacking aspects of this story through research – most of it student led – revealing how Toronto evolved into a city known for its food.
And a big part of that story involves Scarborough.
Before the Second World War, Scarborough was mostly occupied by rural farmland that played an important role as a market garden feeding Toronto. It wasn’t until the post-war boom and the growth of Scarborough as a bedroom community that immigrants, mostly from Europe, began to move out of the city in large numbers.
One of the first things newcomers do when they arrive is to find ways to feed its community, notes Pilcher. This extends beyond restaurants and grocery stores that sell familiar foods to include the infrastructure that allows the system to operate.
“We know how with food we’re familiar with smells and tastes – there’s a reason it’s called comfort food,” says Pilcher, who is a leading scholar in the emerging field of food history.
“It’s important that it gets done according to cultural traditions, and that includes getting the right kind of ingredients. If we can’t source the right type of ingredients or cook it properly, we feel a loss.”
He points to halal meats or sourcing the right type of mango for a recipe that may not be readily available in large supermarkets, as prime examples. Scarborough has also become an important centre in North America to find different types of mangos because of the demand from various communities. Students in the History of Culinary Ethnography have also begun to analyze the establishment of halal food locations in East Toronto as centres for community-building.
Another important development in Scarborough’s food history is also being explored as part of Scarborough Chinatown. The digital project coordinated by postdoc Camille Bégin focuses on Agincourt, the area around Sheppard and Midland Aves that beginning in the 1980s has evolved into one of the Toronto’s main “Chinatowns.”
Transit infrastructure – or in the case of Scarborough, a lack thereof – also presents its own set of challenges that continue today, says Pilcher.
“Anybody who commutes to or from Scarborough knows that transit in this city is sorely lacking, and that’s a problem,” he says.
“If you’re coming from downtown and want to eat at a great restaurant in this part of the city, what are you going to do? If you hop on the Don Valley at 5 o’clock to go out for dinner, well, you might eat by nine.”
He adds one of the goals of the Culinaria program is to help train the next generation of innovators in the system who can facilitate support for food business owners in Scarborough.
As for the evolution of food culture in Scarborough, Pilcher says beyond being important sources of entrepreneurship and comforting reminders of home, they offer a tapestry of tastes that often can’t be found anywhere else in the city. He says it’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked, especially for a city that prides itself on being one of the most multicultural in the world.
“What the presence of these immigrant-owned businesses give us is an alternative to bland, industrial processed foods found in our supermarkets and fast food joints,” he says.
“You just don’t need to microwave a pizza; you can get a dosa instead. There’s something to be said for having these different kinds of food options.”