Food advocate warrior and Accidental Caterer, John Croutch redefines our relationship to food.
Visitors to John Croutch’s downtown Toronto apartment are greeted by a photography collection that pays homage to the beauty of women. Native mothers from a bygone era pose with their babies in tikinagans (cradle boards); nearby hangs a modern black and white close-up of a woman’s torso – the photograph initiated by the model in an effort to document the beauty of her own body. A framed picture of Croutch’s late Anishinaabe mother smiling broadly sits atop the counter and beams into the room. A small container-garden holding fresh herbs is your first hint that Croutch, whose lineage hails from Wikwemikong First Nation with Canadian-German roots, is an urban Indian foodie.
Like many young people, John started working in restaurants as a teenager. “Restaurant work was something that you could always pick up.” Raised in Parry Sound, Ontario, John’s first job was at a truck-stop diner on highway 69, appropriately named ‘The 69er’ just north of town. John worked his way through journalism school at various restaurants which eventually led him to develop a career as a restaurant owner and caterer.
From 1997 to 2004, John and his current business partner, Tracy Singh, owned and operated the Frecklebean Café at McCaul and Dundas in downtown Toronto. Named after John’s younger brother’s pet name for him, the restaurant thrived on neighborhood clientele and tourists visiting the Art Gallery of Ontario. However, after SARS and 9/11, tourism declined and the café eventually shut down. John took this opportunity to go back to school to get his bachelors degree at the University of Toronto.
“After we closed people kept coming to us, asking for catering because they loved our food. And so that’s how we accidentally became caterers [and how his business earned its name] … because the demand was so great that we couldn’t turn it down.”
Accidental Caterer emphasizes sustainability in its approach to serving quality food with an Indigenous twist. John and Tracy buy local and use ceramic rather than plastic: even their cutlery is biodegradable. They don’t own vehicles but instead rent zip cars to deliver their dishes. “My beliefs have to transfer to the business or I wouldn’t have felt legitimate. I would like to go organic but unfortunately I don’t think most consumers can afford to pay the extra costs.”
In 2010, John was invited by Slow Food Toronto to attend a Terra Madre gathering in Turin, Italy focused on Indigenous peoples and their role as leaders of a movement towards a sustainable future.
John built his career within the food industry and through it he uncovered a passion for food and a deep curiosity to unravel the historical, spiritual, and physical connections that he and the Indigenous communities of his ancestry have to food. “I’ve always been into health food and holistic thinking about one’s body and how one stays healthy. As a First Nations person that’s something we’re supposed to be very cognizant of – our body, mind, and spirit connection. I think we’ve lost that in some way or had it taken away.”
John discussed the impact of the reserve system on Indigenous peoples’ relationship to food. “We always had food security as First Nations people. There were lean years of course, depending on the weather, but now our lean years are man-made because our traditional hunting grounds are limited. First Nations people historically had large swaths of land to hunt and gather and then we were forced onto small reserves by the government and our food security was affected. Food security means that you have access to healthy, fairly priced, quality food and we don’t have access to that. What little of our lands that do remain, we now have to deal with contaminants such as mercury poisoning that are carried in with the winds, and DDT contaminants in the soil and water which gets into the food supply and then into our bodies when we consume that food. We can’t do without food, water, and oxygen, however we’re contaminating all of it – something has to give – and what gives is our health.”
For John, thinking about food security and in particular the lack of food security in First Nations communities, especially the fly-in communities, pushed him in the direction of caring on a deeper level. “It inspired me to get more involved in health issues in our communities so I developed a workshop called Decolonizing Food that includes the idea of food insecurity.”
Once contained on reserves, John explained, “There were points in time when our communities were starving and they [the Government] had to start to feed us. The cheapest thing they could give us was flour and out of that flour we devised a form of cheap bread called Fry-bread and Bannock. Bannock is basically a Scottish item; it’s a scone. But it’s now become a traditional food which is high glycemic and if eaten too much, causes obesity and leads to diabetes.” Cases of diabetes have reached epidemic levels in many First Nations, with many community members facing a daily struggle to survive because of it. Most instances of this disease are preventable and on a basic level we know that eating high glycemic foods is not healthy; why do we continue to eat these ‘traditional’ foods if they are killing us?
John explained that one of the reasons that we have embraced this food. “We’ve made it our own and to a limited extent we’ve decolonized it ourselves. It’s like the N-word; the black community has taken that word and use it themselves, however it shouldn’t be used outside of that ethnic and racial group. But I think we’re paying a price for it.” John pointed out that while First Nations people are tired of being told what to do and are engaged in larger movements towards sovereignty and cultural revitalization we still need to redefine that relationship we have to food. John questioned, “Why do the people with the least amount of money smoke the most and eat the worst food?”
While the last few generations of First Nations communities endured incredible stresses from colonization, such as forced containment onto reserves and the residential school system, we managed to create tasty comfort foods that filled aching bellies and sometimes broken hearts. “After seven generations of eating a small selection of food rations, our taste buds have become so used to salt and sugar that many other foods seem tasteless by comparison.” Many of us have also been socialized to approach eating within a poverty mentality. We often consume and even hoard large portions without slowing down, which served us well when faced with the potential reality of going to bed hungry. John points out that we have developed an emotional connection to food. “We demonize drug users for engaging mood altering substances, but the very same pleasure centres are also affected by food.”
Perhaps the greatest impact of colonization has been the silencing of the symbiotic relationship we had to food in the past. John explained, “Food always controlled our movements and being in tune with our bodies controlled our existence.” This relationship established and maintained a vital understanding of weather, harvesting seasons, and animal migration patterns, all of which also informed the spiritual part of ourselves.
“Our spirits were animal spirits. We respected the animals and plants and gave them our thanks for giving us life. We learned respect for life through food. Today that relationship is broken and food is plentiful, and as a result we waste so much. For example, we used to use all the food including bones which many of us throw away now.”
Many of our communities continue to remain shackled by poverty and land loss, a situation that creates an economic scenario that demands cheap food. Individuals are now self-replicating the rations handed out by Indian agents of the past. “As a result,” John said “we’re getting calorie-dense food, (that are) very nutritionally lacking.” He pointed out that the demand for cheap food extends beyond Aboriginal communities, as the majority of agriculture today produces crops such as corn to develop cheap processed foods. “Almost every item of processed food that you look at or touch has a corn product in it – including our pet foods. Corn is one of the biggest subsidized crops in North America.”
Corn is a traditional food developed and cultivated for millennia by Indigenous communities throughout Turtle Island. It was often grown in combination with the cultivation of beans and squash; together they’re known as the three sisters. The three crops are planted close together and benefit from each other. The maize (corn) provides a structure for the beans to climb, the beans provide the nitrogen to the soil that the other plants utilize, and the squash spreads along the ground, blocking the sunlight which helps prevent the establishment of weeds. The squash leaves also act as a “living mulch”, creating a microclimate to retain moisture in the soil, and the prickly hairs of the vine deter pests. Maize lacks the amino acids lysine and tryptophan, which the human body needs to make proteins and niacin, but beans contain both and therefore maize and beans together provide a balanced diet.
However, corn alone became an obvious choice to alter and mass-produce within the capitalist driven food industry. “With it you can produce corn oil, ethanol, fructose, glucose, and high fructose corn syrup. You can feed it to cows, you can feed it to fish, and by subsidizing it that means you can also produce cheap corn-fed beef. Almost everything we eat today includes corn syrup as an ingredient, and much like eating too much beef, it is unhealthy for us.”
The desire to produce cheap food has motivated the food industry to become as efficient as possible and the mass production of domesticated animal meat through giant feed lots has also evolved. The mass production of our foods has created dire consequences on our individual health, the health of our communities, and the wellbeing of the planet. “The end product of the feed lots is the run off which produces E. coli (a harmful bacteria). There’s no way we should be getting Lysteria from cantaloupes or E. coli from sprouts. However this occurs often today as the bacteria leaches into our food and water system.”
John points out, “There’s a disjuncture between government food policy intended to protect consumers and the interests of big agriculture. As a result, food industry lobby groups co-opt the very agencies put in place by governments to oversee the safety of our food.”
John reflected that not only has the food we’re eating changed but so too has the quantity and portion size. “You used to be able to get an 8-ounce cup of pop in a restaurant and by 1985, you could get a 64-ounce Super Slurpee from 7/11. You’ve seen them – they’re almost the size of a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket.” He points out, “We’re getting so many of our calories from liquid pop and juices and processed foods, not from real food.”
At first glance what appears to be a positive trend in the food industry right now is the demand for nutritious liquid products such as vitamin water and energy drinks. John breaks down the hype. “These products are so overly-processed that the natural vitamins and minerals that may have previously existed are destroyed and as a result the products are then ‘fortified’ with additives. It’s a big scam because they are loaded with calories in the form of sugar or high doses of caffeine.”
John explained that he hasn’t eaten fast food in twenty years, which is difficult to comprehend; after all he lives in the Mecca of fast food in the downtown area. When asked if he cheats, even just once in a while, his face contorted. “What? Eat ground up paste of tails and ears? In addition to the paste that makes up fast food burgers, are salt, sugar, and flavouring agents. Even premium orange juice is kept for a year, stripped of all its natural flavours, colours, and vitamins, and then flavoring agents and artificial colours are added to it. Corporations spend billions of dollars marketing taste. We think we have a variety of food to choose from but from KFC, to Tropicana, to Quaker, to Taco Bell – they’re all owned by PepsiCo. Fast food is not real food, its science.”
John recommends buying meat from small markets to avoid growth hormones and the prevalence of disease found within mass producing farms whose livestock require the regular administration of antibiotics in order to live. “Through our meat consumption we are also consuming antibiotics which is actually making us more susceptible to illness (because it can lead to bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics which can then lead to disease). Food should provide our bodies with sustenance and also contain the power to heal and prevent illness. Many of us cannot identify where our food is coming from but we are eating it anyways.” The priorities of food production today are focused more on quantity than quality which negatively impacts the wellbeing of the planet and all of her inhabitants.
We know that eating fast food is unhealthy, but surely we can continue to eat one of our most sacred ‘traditional’ foods in Indian country: what about Indian Tacos? The bread is Scottish, the meat, cheese, and sour cream are the product and by-products of European domesticated animals (most likely mass produced) and the experience of forced containment may be the major factor that brought about its development. So do we even have traditional food anymore? “Of course we do!,” John said. “Look at tomatoes, they originally came from this part of the world, it’s just now they are considered to be ‘traditional’ to Italians.” The beans are also rooted in Indigenous cultivation. “When we rigidly define ‘traditional’ we pigeon-hole ourselves.” We end up replicating and eating foods that may not provide nourishment and are even damaging our bodies and communities. The recipes that developed from food rations years ago aren’t working for us today. The outrageous diabetes and obesity numbers in our communities are proof.
The symbiotic relationship that our ancestors had with food has been altered forever but it is not broken and we can bring it back. As self-determining adults, we make the decision about what is placed on our families’ plates. Our communities take great pride in the hope of the seventh generation because we see aspects of this Prophesy fulfilled in our communities daily. Movements towards cultural revitalization are leading the way, but there remains a disconnect when we participate in a ceremonial fast and then pig out at McDonalds afterwards. John reiterated, “We are the seventh generation, but how many people live that? Many of us put more care into our vehicles then our own bodies.”
As consumers we have to start reading the packages and asking, what are these ingredients? The Asbestos that we used in the past to insulate our homes was once considered safe but it isn’t anymore, which may be the case with the ingredients we eat today. Many argue that artificial ingredients, such as Aspartame (already banned in Europe), are jeopardizing our health and wellbeing. We have to be conscious eaters, take responsibility, and start loving ourselves. We have the power to take control of our lives and our healthcare and if we require guidance in this difficult endeavor we have ancestral teachings to show us how. “What I would like to see us get back to is the idea of family as central. Our families have become very disjointed and we need to revitalize the family. I don’t think a lot of people sit down and have a meal with their family anymore. It’s not enough just to eat calories; we have to start cooking, re-learning to cook, eating together and giving thanks for the life forces we are ingesting.”
In a reaction to the pitfalls of fast food, there is a larger food movement happening across the country, which can be viewed as the beginning of a movement towards de-colonizing the food industry. For John, the rise in local farmers markets is an indication of people demanding change. He lists, “the Localvore movement, the 100 Mile Diet, and the Slowfood Movement. At their base it’s about good quality ingredients – you know where the food comes from.” While I’ve never engaged these labels in my personal approach to eating, reflecting on the eating habits of our pre-contact ancestors I’d argue these are our traditional approaches to eating as well.
John’s little downtown balcony has 12 varieties of herbs and looks pretty. He also accesses the Native Students Association garden at The University of Toronto up the road where he helps cultivate Indigenous Tobacco, Sage, and Cedar, our healing and ceremonial medicines that have been harvested alongside our traditional foods for millennia. John explains, “A garden plot of land the size of a small room can produce enough food to feed a family. Indigenous heirloom tomatoes don’t look as fancy but are amazingly tasty!” Let’s celebrate and honour the traditions of our ancestors beyond the narrow view of a colonial lens. Look at all the global foods that are traditional to Indigenous people around the world and through appropriation are now considered the traditional foods of colonizer societies; for example, potatoes are Indigenous to the Americas but they are viewed as traditionally Irish, and many of the hot peppers used in Indian cuisine originally came from South America.
And Indigenous societies we have also appropriated food-gathering techniques and traded with one another in our quest to make a tasty dish. Let’s recover our symbiotic relationship with food and make this the foundation of our food choices. Let’s start by teaching and exposing our children to their birthright – which includes traditional food and food gathering knowledge. John’s work reminds us to “be supportive of each other.” Speaking about the he dismantling of our traditional food systems, John tells us, “(It) happened to us collectively and we need to support each other to re-build them.”
Still, I can’t get over the idea of chucking the Indian Taco. I prodded him again, John, say it ain’t so! To which he replied, “Yes we can have it – beans and cheese are healthy but make it a small piece of fry-bread and add some good meat or smoked salmon. Game is very lean meat for the most part. Just don’t have a huge piece of fry bread everyday!”
Food tips by John Croutch:
• Get your nutrition from real unprocessed food
• Try to buy fair trade and organic if possible
• Buy fresh and wash it really well, especially if it is not organic
• Buy in season … Question peaches available in the winter
• Eat slower, serve smaller portions
• Avoid farmed fish as it is of inferior quality and their closed environments contaminate wild fish
• Eat less meat, get more plant-based protein
• Eat more fruits and vegetables, frozen is a good option if you can’t get fresh
• Don’t drink liquid calories, this includes not only pop, but juice too
• If you can – go hunting for wild game / if you live in an urban setting go to farmers markets and buy game meat. Form a collective and buy game meat in bulk
• Plant a garden.
• Rekindle your traditional connection to the earth and begin to re-value small farmers (we should pay them what they’re worth)
• Having trouble finding fresh produce – especially in the far north? Try dehydrated vegetables for soups and stews. They’re lightweight, affordable, and packed with nutrition.
• Cook with your children, you’ll be surprised what a kid will eat when he or she makes it
• Plan your meals
• Be mindful of our traditional values as they relate to the mind, body, and spirit