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Manitoba Food History Project ‘trucks along’

A Winnipeg-based food history project delves into how cultural forces shaped food production in the province

In Winnipeg there’s this tradition of burgers called the ‘fat boy.’

The staple of drive-in restaurants, they’re fairly ordinary beef burgers with lettuce, tomato and a thick pickle spear, except they have a chili sauce that isn’t found much elsewhere.

These burgers are also often served in Greek Canadian restaurants.

To some residents of Winnipeg, fat boys might just be part of the landscape. To Zach Hamilton, a University of Winnipeg student (and transplant to Winnipeg) participating in the Manitoba Food History Project, it was something worth digging into.

As suspected, there was a story behind it.

The Manitoba Food History Project explores the province’s history through the lens of food production, sales and consumption from 1870 to the present. Janis Thiessen, a history professor at the University of Winnipeg, leads the study.

Since summer of 2018 Thiessen, with co-researchers Kimberley Moore and Kent Davies, has travelled across Manitoba in a food truck. Instead of cooking food, they invite people aboard the truck to cook with them and talk about food preparation and traditions in their families. These interviews were recorded for preservation in the university’s Oral History Centre.

Janis Thiessen (right) conducts an interview aboard the food truck.
photo: Kimberley Moore

This year, the University of Winnipeg offered a two-week course that trained students in gathering and recording oral history, and then brought them aboard the food truck to conduct interviews.

Hamilton, in search of the story of the chili sauce, interviewed restaurateur John Ginakes, owner of legendary eatery Johnny G’s and others. He also spoke to Demitris Scouras, whose family founded the Red Top Drive Inn on St. Mary’s Road.

Hamilton compiled these interviews in an episode of the project’s podcast, “Preserves.”

Ginakes and Scouras told Hamilton how Greek immigrants in the 1950s arrived in Canada with little education or money. They’d band together to open restaurants, and then work 15 or 16 hours a day to keep them open. They’d also train other Greek immigrants in their restaurants, who would go on to open their own businesses.

The chili sauce recipe was yet another thing shared from restaurant to restaurant.

“We’re using food history to tell stories about migration, or settlement, or ethnicity and identity,” Thiessen told the Manitoba Co-operator. “Any aspect of history at all, but food is the way in to try and relate to the subject.”

“It’s very relatable because everyone eats. Everyone has feelings about eating,” she said.

Thiessen’s interviews have taken her to Steinbach, Altona, Dauphin, St. Norbert and even Churchill. She said even the interviews that seem ordinary are important.

“This is the kind of thing that has been ignored by history,” Thiessen said. Cooking dinner isn’t documented, she said, so it has been largely lost to time.

People like the Greek immigrants to Winnipeg, or wider groups like women, have often been undervalued and thus understudied by historians, said Thiessen.

“The story of ‘how do you feed families?’ is pretty key,” she said, adding that people get away with saying, “we should eat like our great-grandmothers did,” with very little knowledge of how they actually ate.

“We can’t generalize about the past — we can’t assume on the basis of our own present experience or our, you know, happy-go-lucky feelings of how people used to live in the past,” Thiessen said. “There is no, ‘it’s not a banking history, it’s not a business owner, it’s just a housewife… ’ they’re all equally important in understanding various aspects of human life, and the ones that have been dismissed too often in the past are often ones that are really key.”

Thiessen said histories like these show that the present was not inevitable, but was shaped by various forces and choices. Understanding this gives us the chance to make better decisions for the future, she said.

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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