Issa snack: Torontonians chew over how Caribana became a food festival

West Indian voices discuss how Caribbean culture is consumed and commodified (and how to appreciate an authentic experience)


Face of 2021 Carnival Lateisha Williams, Tereka T and Rafaelle order from MOB Seafood & Tings, one of the food trucks that will be serving at Toronto Carnival's (aka Caribana) festival in Scarborough.
Nick Lachance

Face of 2021 Carnival Lateisha Williams, Tereka T and Rafaelle Brereton order from MOB Seafood & Tings, one of the food trucks that will be serving at Toronto Carnival’s festival in Scarborough.

CARNIVAL FLAVOURS X STREET EATS Friday (July 30) to Sunday (August 1). Scarborough Town Centre parking lot (520 Progress). Free (ticket required). streeteatsmarket.com.


In another pandemic summer, the Toronto Caribbean Carnival (formerly known as Caribana) had to pivot from big trucks to food trucks. The annual Emancipation Day celebration that typically showcases feathered revellers and speakers bumping soca is now using food as the entry point into West Indian culture. But even without the road, the Toronto Caribbean Carnival is hitting a few bumps.

The city of Toronto isn’t issuing permits for public events, so the festival had to partner with Street Eats, a food truck festival already set up in the Scarborough Town Centre parking lot. That means Caribbean vendors like MOB Seafood & Tings will be tossing up West Indian-style boil and smashed plantain near the Carib Beer Garden alongside other established vendors serving tacos and taters. The dream of a thriving Caribbean food truck festival with music, masqueraders and other cultural signifiers is now a section in the crowded alternative to Scarborough Ribfest.

“Due to COVID-19, it was hard to anticipate what we could or could not do,” says Andre Newell of the Toronto Caribbean Carnival. He points out that Carnival was going for something along the lines of the award-winning food festival organized in 2010 at Ontario Place. Held alongside festivities like the Grand Parade, the food fest showcased cuisines from different islands. Trinidad, Antigua, St. Lucia, Grenada, Guyana and more were represented. People could collect stamps on passports as they sampled the diverse offerings, hoping to win prizes. There was a rum punch bar, a corn soup man and a fresh coconut chopping corner.

But this year, Toronto Carnival had been working with a reduced team constantly pivoting during the city’s changing pandemic regulations while managing the Carnival Flavours program (promoting Caribbean restaurants across the Greater Toronto area) and a Patio Lime series (social events with food, music and masqueraders) that unexpectedly grew in popularity. They couldn’t overextend themselves with managing the logistics of a food truck festival.

“We had to pivot to Street Eats because we were running short on time,” says Newell, explaining the decision to team up with an organization that already had an infrastructure in place in Scarborough. “We wanted to have a presence somewhere in that area and do something that allowed Caribbean vendors to get out and support their businesses, essentially. We’ve learned to rely on partners to really get things done, especially with not having as much internal resources as we had in previous years.”

But a roundtable of West Indian voices organized by NOW expressed disappointment that the food festival where we might expect buss up shut will be serving BeaverTails instead, diluting the Caribbean celebration we were all expecting. The roundtable includes culture writers Sharine Taylor (Jamaican), Bee Quammie (Jamaican) and Stephanie Hinds (Guyanese), teacher Ainsley Romany (Trini) and NOW’s art director Daniel de Souza (Trini).

They discuss Toronto Carnival’s pivot to a food focus and how food can be an entry point into Caribbean culture. But they also consider how culture is commodified and consumed, moving beyond food to consider festivals, tourism and even dress and language. And they talk about the continued lack of investment in that culture, and the Black community who produces it, which is how an organization like the Toronto Carnival that consistently draws in millions is constantly on the ropes.

“All festivals have this conversation of the amount of economic impact versus the investment,” says Newell, agreeing that sponsorships and government contributions certainly do not reflect the festival’s value. “One thing that’s happened with COVID-19 is that the value of these festivals on tourism and the local economy has become highlighted. We’re hoping that will be reflected in the investment.”

Caribana revellers dance outside a food truck
Nick Lachance

Lateisha Williams

The Pivot

Radheyan Simonpillai: Sharine, you’ve written in both Azure and the New York Times about the importance of the road to Carnival. How do you feel about this pivot to a food truck festival?

Sharine Taylor: I do think that the food truck festival thing is a really interesting pivot. There is a culinary diversity that each nation within the Caribbean offers. I imagine that a food festival would be a really cool way to expand on what we think about when we think about Caribbean culture. But I do think it might have been a lost opportunity for folks to get involved in learning about Caribana’s history and the educational aspects of it. There are models that exist that afford people ways to interact with this festival, parade or this time of the year that’s like a bit more on topic and increases general literacy on the subject.

Ainsley Romany: I remember last time I played mas, which was two years ago here in Toronto, I would take pieces off my costume to give it to kids who were watching and enjoying the carnival. And that was my way of expanding the culture out to people who may want to be part of it but don’t have opportunity. That for me resonates so much because I am a teacher. I am an educator. I love to see kids get involved. I love kiddies’ carnival. My daughters played in kiddies’ carnival. And to say that now we have to rely on a food truck as representation, I feel like it’s a big slap in the face to our community – a rich community, a vibrant community, a community that’s all about giving in every sense of the word.

Stephanie Hinds: Food is such a huge part of Caribbean culture. This allows us to commune in a way that we do in a traditional Caribbean setting. Typically, when you get to the end of the road, we call it Guyanese corner because all the old Guyanese people – the ones with the gold teeth and stuff – end up there. You get there, there’s a bunch of food trucks and it’s this fantastic, wonderful time.

Rad: I’m not sure how many West Indian vendors are confirmed. Toronto Carnival partnered with Street Eats Market, a food truck festival that’s already happening at the STC parking lot. Right now, confirmed vendors are taco shops, funnel cakes, Vietnamese food and the Jerk Brothers.

I know that Toronto Carnival was hoping that this food truck festival was happening on their own terms on Exhibition grounds. But the city isn’t giving out permits for public events during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s why Toronto Carnival is just piggybacking on this other festival.

Stephanie: It’s falling flat for me. I’m looking at the last several months. I’m looking at how quickly Doug Ford was able to pivot in terms of reopening the entire province, entering into stage three sooner than anticipated. I look at the Eurocup: the amount of people that flooded into the streets and the fact that that was allowed. There wasn’t any negative news coverage of it. I didn’t hear any politicians coming out to condemn the amount of maskless people in the streets. What it says to me is that when Black people gather and congregate, we pose a health and safety risk, and as a result of that, we have to be treated like second-class citizens.

I don’t think that Toronto Carnival could have gone on in its typical way where hundreds of thousands of people flood the streets and you have people coming in from abroad to witness the fantastic, magical greatest show on earth that is our cultural parade. But I do think that they could have done something more than park a bunch of food trucks in a parking lot and call it a festival.

Sixty-five percent of adults in Toronto have been double-vaccinated. I think we’re getting into a safer place. But I think that there’s a lot of restrictions that are still barring Black people from making their grand re-entrance into society. And I think that there’s absolutely an agenda behind that. And I’m not here for it.

Caribana revellers party together
Nick Lachance

Lateisha Williams, Tereka T and Rafaelle Brereton celebrate at The Real Jerk.

Representing

Rad: It’s also interesting when you think of the infrastructure of the food truck scene. How many West Indian food trucks do you know? How many doubles food trucks do you see?

Stephanie: There’s quite a few like Randy’s. This is a conversation of privilege. If you’re thinking about all the little mom-and-pop shops, the little Caribbean restaurants, typically what you’re going to see is not a food truck, but a regular truck with a giant vessel of soup. We do the best that we can with what we have. Not everybody in Caribbean communities are coming from places of generational wealth, so we have our own way of improvising with that. They are commercializing this and making it this thing where you have to be insured, you have to get the licence and you have to do all this stuff, when that’s not what we as revellers and party-goers expect. If I see the corn soup man selling from the back of his GMC Safari, I’m eating that.

Daniel de Souza: What’s disappointing is that this [food festival] didn’t come in part and parcel with an investment back into the community to have other people start food trucks.

Stephanie: Let me remind you that annually this carnival brings in almost $440 million of economic activity for the city. Where is that money going and why are we not getting any of it back?

Daniel: Is this not still the biggest Caribbean festival in…

Stephanie: …all of North America!

Daniel: It’s galling that it brings in so much money and it’s still not taken seriously that way. Nothing is enough to get [Carnival] the same kind of respect that Pride certainly has within the city, within local politics and even within the community. Pride used to make a lot of gay people very rich. And I don’t think that the Caribbean community has been able to benefit from Caribana in the same way that gay people managed to benefit and have fun at Pride.

I didn’t realize that [the food festival] was going to be a mix of other cultures too. The Caribbean food festival is obscured now by having tacos and other things. People aren’t going to know what Caribbean food is. And this opportunity of even being able to sort of cross-shop between islands that are neighbours but still have these little differences between these similar seeming products, that’s kind of obliterated now. You’re not going to get that kind of subtlety. And that’s really disappointing to hear. Toronto makes everything super difficult for anything that goes on in public. I can only imagine what a festival the size of Caribana has to go through.

Bee Quammie: My last two trips in the before times were to Barbados and Antigua. The delicious food, the traditional dishes and national dishes that I got to eat on both islands were spectacular. When I started hearing about this idea for a Caribbean food truck festival, I wasn’t even thinking the mechanics of what an actual food truck is. I’m thinking tents, GMCs and trucks pulled up. I was thinking about eating fungee from somebody from Antigua and fish from somebody from Barbados. Like Daniel said, it’s so disappointing to hear that it’s just watered down. That’s been totally made tepid by piggybacking on something else, instead of honouring the culture and the nuance of the culture that we’re talking about today. We’re talking about the diversity and we’re not seeing that reflected in the evolution of these world-class events that we have in the city. I’m just really disappointed. And I’m confused. Who are they marketing this to?

Stephanie: I don’t know if the strategy behind this is to keep all of the Caribbean people in the city in their own corner. I feel like with the parade, because it’s generating so much money for the city, that’s when you’re seeing the ads for the Toronto Caribbean Carnival. That’s when you’re seeing it promoted to everybody. But this little thing that they’re doing as a substitute, it’s like it’s only being marketed to us and it’s still missing the mark. Out of the six people on this call, from what I understand, the only person that knew what was going on was [Rad]. That’s troubling to me and it has very intense implications.

Caribana revellers order from a food truck
Nick Lachance

Consuming culture

Rad: Y’all said it. Who is this for? Is a food truck festival more accessible to people who are not necessarily from the culture? And what does that mean to have them?

Daniel: It’s a major missed opportunity. The food truck concept is a very toothless version of what Toronto Carnival could be and has been in the past. This is the easiest way to get people into the festival. I’m a 40-year-old gay guy. Toronto Carnival always happens so close to Pride. It always stuns me how quickly gay people are like, “rolling up the mats from Pride, we’re done now, we’re not going out for August.” To get people to do Caribana stuff or Caribana nights at clubs you would normally go to was like pulling teeth. It’s like, “Oh, no, that’s not our crowd.” There’s this fear of taking part or making the first step. Food trucks would have been a really easy way into that.

Sharine: If we’re looking at the roots of Carnival, even some of the diasporic iterations of it, a lot of the context that informs it is that it belonged to an insular community. Nobody’s ancestors were like, “yeah, this is going to be the money-maker centuries later.” So my question for carnivals is: what happens when you take this insular celebration and you put it on a stage where it’s commodified and then there’s all these different politics attached to it? How does that transform it? I don’t think that Caribana is just Caribana anymore. It’s a place for people to do politics. It’s a place for people to work out things that they might not get to work out in other spaces. It becomes a lot of things to a lot of different people. How much is it really for Caribbean people? And how much is it really for the people that it’s supposed to be in service to?

My bar is high as far as culture is concerned. Culture for me is serious business, so a food festival was never going to be enough for me. I don’t think that it’s ever going to serve it justice. But what is happening right now, at least from what I’ve heard today, and from the very cursory things that I’ve interacted with, it feels like we’re an afterthought.

Bee: There’s a big difference from inviting an outsider into an authentic space versus tailoring that space to be comfortable for the outsider. We see a lot of different things happening when it comes to the ways that we celebrate and amplify – and I say “we” meaning the city, gatekeepers and the powers that be. I was thinking of my own question: Who is this for? There’s two sides to that. Some of the lack of benefit is because we don’t always get to have that authentic experience that somebody is invited into and that an outsider should know should be treated with respect as a person visiting that culture. We’re not benefiting because so much of this has been tailored to making sure it’s okay for all of these outsiders. The food’s not too spicy, the music’s not too loud and it’s not too wild. We can’t benefit authentically from that.

That’s something for gatekeepers to keep in mind. It’s okay to keep the space authentic and to use that energy to ensure that outsiders understand how to respect that space when they’re invited in – as opposed to telling us, the people who are creating and maintaining these authentic spaces, what we have to do to make it palatable to everybody else.

Caribana revellers get inside the food truck
Nick Lachance

MOB Seafood owner Monique Bernard (centre) lets the revelry in her truck.

Authenticity vs. commodity

Rad: I want to explore this idea of the outsiders and authentic spaces. There was this discourse online about Adele wearing bantu knots to the Notting Hill Carnival. What was interesting to me was the different reaction between the diaspora and the people living on the islands. Some people considered it appropriation and some people consider it appreciation.

Ainsley: Culture vultures, man. They just gravitate to the culture. They love it. They embrace it. They make it their own. But then when shit goes bad or shit’s perceived a certain way – the negative spin – they’re like, ‘oh, no, I didn’t do it like that.”

Stephanie: I follow a lot of Caribbean accounts on Instagram. If a group of African dancers are to perform a routine with Afrobeats, they might get a repost, they might get a double tap. If a white girl from Chicago – mediocre, semi on beat – is to wine or do some dancehall routine, she gets reposted and everybody loves it and everyone’s in the comment section telling her that she’s invited to the cookout.

What I noticed about people in the islands – who are always so pleased and tickled pink by white people or any “other” participating in the culture – is they don’t see it as often as we do. They are on islands where most people look one way; even in a place like Trinidad where you have Asian Trinidadians, Indian Trinidadians, Black Trinidadians and Portuguese Trinidadians. Same thing with Guyana. It’s a novelty there to have people express interest in your culture. Here in Canada, it’s exhausting. It’s tiresome and it’s problematic.

I’m headed to Miami for Carnival in October. I had to upload a picture of myself to secure boat ride tickets. They will say that it’s to prevent fraud. But what it actually is, and Trinidad did this too, it’s to make sure that you fit the standard and the expectation of the type of women they want. There are very, very popular, wealthy carnival photographers who will not post you if your skin is darker than mine. I’m extremely pale. I’m biracial.

This is even happening in the Caribbean. The idea that Black people are now the outsiders and we almost have to ask for permission to come and participate in something that was started by us is problematic. So that’s why I think a lot of people get upset and exhausted when we see people dabbling in our culture.

Sharine: Sometimes, what happens in the diaspora and what happens on the islands makes space for very interesting things to interrogate. Some of us in the diaspora have very fraught connections to back home. Especially being on this stolen land, trying to figure out dual identity – that’s a lot of work. Particularly in a space like Toronto, where for a lot of first- or second-gen people you have to figure out what it means to retain your culture and what it means to pass on the torch if you have kids and what that looks like. There’s a lot to contend with. When you try to engage with your culture and then people make fun of you for it, or people are not as welcoming. And then you see somebody who has zero connections to this space, and – to Stephanie’s point – they become this novelty. That’s a negotiation that a lot of people have to contend with.

It opens up these conversations about the aesthetics of Blackness, and the expansiveness of Blackness. What happens when this thing, that is really supposed to be something that was insular, is now commodified. Carnival is a tourism product. When you look at the output, and people see who gets to go on the stages and who bands want to see as their ideal person wearing their costumes, a lot of the time it’s not people who look like us.

I try to stress this as much as I can, especially in the Caribbean. A lot of these economies are post-independence economies. I’m talking about places that [became] independent recently, like 50, 60 years ago. In Antigua, it was 40 years ago. All of these places that have these colonial powers removed (sort of, not really), they had to figure out what the economy was going to look like. And then Carnival became a thing that could generate economy. Then it no longer becomes an “us” thing and it becomes like an “us and everyone” else thing.

For people who are not able to go back to the Caribbean region, an event like Caribana is a space for them to get out all of their carnival desires and dreams, hopes, inspiration, etc. When we are mindful of that tourism aspect, then it changes what the output looks like.

People know where to get their food from at Caribana. People who have been on the road enough know exactly where to go. They know exactly who to go to. So if you’re having a food festival with folks we don’t know, then I’m just questioning who is this whole thing made for.

Bee: My trip to Antigua was a press trip. I was the only Black person in the press group. The tourism board organized all these different events and places for us to go and things to see. Everywhere we went, it was like “Fort this,” named after this British admiral who came here and did this, and “Fort that,” named after this white man who did this. The colonialism aspect of it was so overwhelming.

Something else that was really troubling was when we went to tour a new resort. The driver explained to me that it was on the edge of a cliff called Devil’s Bridge. He said that Devil’s Bridge was where slave ships would come. That’s where they would let people off. Enslaved folks would either jump off the boat to try to swim back (and drown), or people who then made it off the boats would run back there and die by suicide instead of choosing to stay and work on the plantations. When we toured the resort, we saw the different rooms and spaces. The manager was so excited to bring us to this one area that she said was going to be the premium experience, because you get the beautiful view of Devil’s Bridge with the sunset right there.

I just cried standing here, looking at the waves crashing and thinking about that historical connection. And thinking about how now this is a prime location for somebody to come to this island and spend a lot of money to stay in a room where they can watch the sunset with no idea what the history of this space really is.

I’ve always thought about how do we decolonize tourism? Knowing that there’s this relationship between tourism and economy, as we’ve been talking about throughout the Caribbean region. How do we decolonize tourism, so every tour is not going to a fort named after a white British man who came to reap the benefits of the island? How do we understand the contributions of the Afro-Caribbean and Indigenous people who lived on these islands? Will that shift have a ripple effect, inspiring an avenue for evolution in other spaces throughout the diaspora as well? Even though we’re in post-independence time for a lot of these islands, so much is still catered to the people who are coming in.

Caribana revellers eat the signature dish from MOB Seafood & Tings
Nick Lachance

Authentic dishes

Rad: Seeing as how this is a food festival – but a food festival that may not represent the diversity of Caribbean food as well as it should – let’s pick the dish you want everyone to try and appreciate.

Sharine: Everyone should try some kind of roadside soup. I don’t know what it is about the soup that’s made on the road – and it doesn’t really matter what kind of soup it is – but roadside soup slaps. Pick your flavour. Have it. It’ll be the best thing ever.

Bee: Antigua has incredible food. My Jamaican people are going to be mad I’m not saying Jamaican. But you want to have ducana and salt fish. Ducana is made with sweet potato, coconut, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg – a whole bunch of delicious stuff cooked up with salt fish. Or have fungee balls with salt fish. Fungee balls are made out of cornmeal and okra. Dee-licious. Best thing I’ve ever had in my life. Find an Antiguan person to make it for you.

Daniel: Mine is super simple. Rotis are such a big thing in Toronto. But it’s always like Gandhi roti. I wish people would try proper West Indian roti. I always think of Trinidadian roti as the go-to. That is what I would get people to try.

Rad: I might be partial to Guyanese roti.

Stephanie: As you should be, Rad. But I’ll jump in. First, I thought of Bajan fishcakes. And then I thought about a nice authentic bake and shark. But I think, really, what everybody needs in their life – and it’s vegetarian and vegan friendly – is a nice dhalpuri. It’s very important that it’s dhalpuri – and not a paratha – with some nice hearty dhal. There is nothing in the world like it. You want to talk about food that warms your soul. You leave a party a little too intoxicated and it just hits the spot. And you got to make sure the roti is Guyanese, as we all know.

Ainsley: Oh my god, why?

Rad: Guyanese goat and roti is just slightly different from the Trini version, but there’s something to it.

Stephanie: Ours is just flakier.

Ainsley: Here’s my food. Everyone should try doubles. Go get a doubles, slight pepper, a little chana. And you’re good. You have nothing to worry about.

@justsayrad

Listen to the entire conversation (in two parts) on the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:

And here’s part 2:

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