I was 11 years-old during the Northeast Blackout of 2003 when the electricity in most of Ontario suddenly went down for several hours in August. Traffic lights went out, causing horrific congestion in the streets, air conditioners went down on what was a sweltering hot day, and fridges and freezers ceased to function, putting everyone’s precious food stores at risk.
I lived in a co-op with my family at the time and I can remember many of the Black families in the neighbourhood coming together for a big cookout, with everyone contributing whatever perishable goods could be barbecued and shared. I’ll never forget that night we spent as a community, eating, talking and laughing until the sun went down and we were forced into our candlelit homes until the power was restored.
When I look back at my life, some of my best memories involve some sort of picnic.
I remember countless multicultural festivals, which were a feast for the eyes and a gastronomic journey. I remember backyard barbeques and family gatherings at the park, where I knew the food would never disappoint and a good laugh was inevitable.
And of course, I remember the elaborate and exciting production that was the traditional picnic at Niagara Falls. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone of Ghanaian or Nigerian descent who doesn’t have memories of eating jollof, fried plantain, barbequed chicken marinated in your auntie’s secret sauce, and heaps of watermelon by the Falls at some point in their lives.
As members of the diaspora, we seem to always take advantage of the precious few hot, sunny days Canada has to offer, and a tasty meal al fresco is the perfect complement.
Eating is a fully sensory experience, and the ambiance is just as important as the scents and flavours of the food. Great food tastes even better when you feel good, so what better than a scenic setting to enhance a perfect dish?
What makes this even better is the fact that our food is perfectly suited for the outdoors. The vibrant colours and irresistible flavours characteristic of Afro-Caribbean dishes are amplified by the sun and fresh air; the irresistible aromas stand as an invitation to others nearby to come join and dig in.
By eating outside, our unwritten picnic philosophy of “the more, the merrier” rings true as the outdoor space allows for far more guests than could be accommodated indoors. And it’s only fitting because many of us only know how to prepare our signature dishes in quantities that would satisfy a small town.
This is just as well, because a picnic is not a picnic without people. We rarely remember meals we’ve eaten by ourselves, but we will always remember a good meal when it was shared with special people.
Food fuels love and connection.
When eating with others, especially outdoors, the conversations we have, the games we play, and the moments we share are boosted by the good humour that comes with a happy belly. As my mother likes to say, “Eating good food in good company is a celebration of life.”
But at the heart of it all, if you ask me why we Black folks love to eat outside, I would say it’s because it’s in our blood. We relish the combination of good food and good people just like our ancestors, who prepared and shared their outdoor meals with a side of sacred customs and oral traditions.
Eating outside is the perfect expression of gratitude for food and an act that brings us closer together as we commune with nature. These days, whenever possible, I draw on my cherished memories of picnics gone by and I still insist on making the most of any sunny day with a feast and some friends.
Even now, in the time of COVID-19 when our gatherings must be much smaller, less frequent, and feature hand sanitizer and masks to keep everyone safe, I believe engaging in this time-honoured tradition is so important. It’s how we have built community for generations and I see no reason to stop now.