Friday, 24 February 2017


"Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most significant trademarks of a culture." Mark Kurlansky

The door opens, the bell tinkles, the wooden floors creak, and it is once again time to enjoy the delectable atmosphere of food and camaraderie that is any cooking class at The Passionate Cook's Essentials. Lisa Hutchinson, the owner, has created the unique opportunity to enhance one's cooking skills and expand one's recipe collection, all while enjoying the company of others genuinely interested in delicious, made-from-scratch food. Classes are limited to twelve students, a class size intimate enough to allow for questions, conversation and plenty of laughter.  Quite simply, I love these classes which have afforded me the privilege of meeting many like-minded residents and which have taken me to Italy, France, Morocco, Spain, Newfoundland, India, and even Mongolia without ever leaving Uxbridge.

Last night I enjoyed the privilege of being transported to pre-civil war Syria. Cecilia, fromager for The Passionate Cook Essentials, has worked closely with one of Uxbridge's refugee Syrian families to learn more about their delicious cuisine and to teach us more about the food, culture and customs of Syria. Food, she reminded us, is a universal language.

It is easy to forget that even under Bashar al-Assad and before the disasterous civil war, Syrians had lives and homes like us. Part of the Lavant 'fertile crescent', Syria was once the bread basket of the Middle East; their food culture is ancient. "Bread and salt between us." We learned that the Syrian culture is one that emphasizes the importance of family, hospitality and generosity. To cook is to be home and to commune over a meal with family and friends.

Interspersed with cooking demonstrations for shamandar (beet dip), lamb kofta in tahini sauce, vermicelli rice, Syrian salad, and m'hallabiya and while savouring these tasty dishes, Cecelia offered us a far more intimate insight into what life was like in Syria and how our refugee families are handling what she referred to as "their soft landing in the warmth of Uxbridge".

Of the many cooking classes, I have enjoyed at The Passionate Cook Essentials, this class offered to me, so much more than food and on so many levels. Not only did I enjoy the chance to taste and learn to prepare the cuisine of another culture, but it brought home many truths.

Food is indeed a universal language. How eager this Syrian family has been to share and teach Cecelia about their food and culture. Her relationship with the family has quickly developed into one of friend.

The class illustrated for me how much has been lost in the Syrian war, how the bread basket of the Middle East has been wiped out and how, due to an uncertain future, an ancient food culture and way of life may disappear.

How alone some of our refugees must feel. How they must miss the aromas and activity of their markets, their language, their neighbourhoods and their friends and family either left behind or now dead.

Mostly, listening to Cecelia reminded me that treating our refugees with interest in their culture and respect for what they have lost will go a long way to promoting a peaceful transition, trust and understanding.

Saturday, 18 February 2017


"In time we hate that which we often fear." William Shakespeare

I know that I am frequently naive, that I enjoy rose-coloured glasses. I love nothing more than to pat my Canada on the back for not being governed by fear and hate as is our neighbour to the south. I congratulate my Canada for its compassion, for understanding that the current refugee crisis is the largest such crisis since World War II. To quote the Mayor of Belluno, Italy, "...a problem that is much bigger than us." I am overwhelmed with relief that my Canada has stepped up. In 1979 we welcomed 60,000 Vietnamese boat people to our shores. One of those boat people is now my dentist and one, my eye doctor. Both are extremely talented men, eager to give back to the community which  welcomed them to Canada and took them in. By February, 2016, we resettled more than 25,000 Syrian refugees, a process which compassionately continues.

That said and in spite of rose-coloured glasses, I am fully aware that the seething fears and hatreds now characterizing America are on simmer in Canada, merely awaiting their chance to boil over. All that is needed is permission to turn up that heat, either from the general public or a Trump-like leader. Kellie Leitch, a Conservative Party leadership hopeful, is sure eager to do so. Rick Mercer frequently warns that Canada is not immune to such fear and hatred. He reminds us that in 1939, fearing German spies on board, we turned back a ship carrying 907 Jewish refugees. Perhaps, I should have titled this blog, "Oh Canada, We Stand On Guard For Thee".

Closer to home, an anti-Islam group blocked entrances to a Toronto masjid during prayer services. And yesterday at little Uxpool, the full reality of this simmering fear, hate and ignorance brought me to my knees in frustration.

Swimmer: I hate that all of these people are being allowed in.
Me (trying to be the voice of reason): Have you met any of our Uxbridge Syrian families?
Swimmer: No! I'm from Port Perry and we have THEM there, too.
Me: And?
Swimmer: One is a lawyer. Okay, I guess. Just don't let the ones from the tents in. It's disgusting.
Me (now biting my tongue): I think if you spoke to your lawyer refugee, you would discover that he
lived in a tent. One of our young refugee families gave birth to their son in a tent. (Now with a slight edge to my voice). By the way, she is a medical doctor and he, an accountant.
Swimmer under her breath: They're disgusting.

Dear God! Remind me to contact the United Nations Refugee Agency and Canadian Government screeners; they should be told to just interview refugees residing in luxury hotels. Tongue bleeding, I actually cried in utter frustration while driving home.

I was taught to face my fears. Jump in that deep water. Knock on that door. Speak to that audience. How I wish that, rather that sitting on the sidelines simmering with fear and hate, these Canadians would take the opportunity to meet just one of our recent refugees. Hear their heartbreaking story. Feel their excitement about their second chance at a new life. I'm betting that views would change.

Our government has led the way. Let us show some compassion.