Beavers and turtles; exploring Canadian culture with Emm Gryner

Since I had an embodiment of Canadian culture in front of me, I decided to start off by asking her a question that had been bugging me for years…

"I once saw a sign on a Chinese restaurant in Vancouver (or maybe it was in Burnaby) that advertised, 'Canadian food.' So my question is, 'What is Canadian food?' "

Emm was taken aback. "I've no idea…" A mischievous thought popped into her head. "Like maybe fried beaver?" She punctuated her joke with laughter that bubbled up from her belly.

I sensed that she was pulling my leg.

Yet, the notion sounded quite plausible. And ignorant of the nuances of Canadian gastronomy, I wondered if, indeed, it was a delicacy in some parts of the country. So I asked hesitantly,

"Do they... eh, do people eat beaver, there?"

I regretted the words the moment they escaped from my lips. That's what happens when you ask questions on an empty stomach, and after having driven an hour-and-a-half to get to the club. I'm afraid my presence of mind was lacking.

Honestly, I wasn't trying to test her or to trap her in some controversy… whether it be animal rights or wanton sexual practices

She gave a weak, half-laugh. "I don't want to answer that... Theo..." she said in a friendly voice, but warning me off.

I sensed that she was tacitly acknowledging the slang meaning of the word, "beaver" and that she didn't want to get caught up in some conversation negotiating double entendre's.

In the back of my mind, I was thinking that Canadian's were just like , Americans, sharing the same raunchy humor… Ah well, crude, lewd jokes have no borders. I tried to backpedal, "I mean, well..."

"I don't know. I don't know." she said in a perfunctory manner that seemed to indicate a wish to move on to another topic.

I tried to recover a sense of propriety and modicum of gravitas. I started to pontificate, "Actually, it has significance..."

"No, to answer your question, No, not that I know of.

I plowed on, "Well, that would placate the animal lovers. But that has interesting significance here in the DC area. A couple years ago they found a beaver in the Tidal Basin, and they tried to... They found several beavers. Of course they noticed that because someone was gnawing all the cherry trees..."

"Okay..." she said, humoring me.

I began to suspect that every time I opened my mouth, I was giving the wrong impression, that I was sounding like some over-sexed slob. But I couldn't help myself. I had to complete the story and prove that I was not trying to make crude jokes. Unfortunately, my next utterance dug me deeper in a hole.

"So there was a big beaver hunt..."

Emm reacted with, "Very shocking... yeah, shocking..." She said it in a soft, neutral voice that intended to mock, but didn't drip with sarcasm.

As someone in the popular music business, she'd probably seen, heard, and done it all several times over.

I tried to end my tale...

"So it was the big news for the season, you know. And they finally caught them, and... they didn't rub 'em out. They just transported them to an unknown location."

How could I get out of this embarrassing line of discussion? Yet my overactive mental database refused to give up. An image of an old Canadian stamp suddenly surfaced into my conscious like an abruptly rising submarine. The stamp bore the engraved likeness of a beaver. (This memory was a consequence of a previous dabbling in philately.)

It led me to wonder whether the furry critters had a legendary place in Canadian lore. After all, hadn't fur trapping and trading been the initial reason for the white man's interest in Canada? This all flashed through my mind and prompted me to say without any transition or explanation…

"I guess as a Canadian, you probably… there's probably something instinctive about beaver vibes..."

Oop! I did it again!

Surely by now she was convinced that I had some Freudian fixation on Canadian sex practices with the national rodent.

It was time to end this line of discussion, so she said, "Yeah, you know what? I don't know."

Relieved to be out of the minefield of my own making, I asked the next question about her favorite hockey team..

"Definitely the Maple Leafs… Definitely the Maple Leafs," she replied.

Personally, I had little interest in the sport, but in order to explore the Canadian mindset, I could leave no stone unturned. I also asked questions about politics, gossip rags, and comedy.

At one point, I indulged myself in a tirade about crazy Canadian millionaires who'd migrated south and become easy targets for gossip columnists.

I vented my spleen against Jack Kent Cooke, known for his sport teams ownership in L.A., and then DC. His stormy relationship with his wife, a woman half his age whom he'd married twice, became well known., especially after his death. It seemed easier to mention one of his personal controversies rather than all his business ones.

I'm afraid that I allowed some of my feelings to spill out, which was something I'd generally avoided in years of interviews.

Emm didn't offer any opinions about sports team owners or other flamboyant captains of commodity capitalism. In retrospect, I realize that I needed to refine my approach to make it easier for the interviewee to respond. I had a chance to more fully engage Emm towards the end of the interview, when I said…

"On your online journal, you said you're the kind of person that'll stop for turtles. So I was kinda wondering how much you knew about turtles. Here's a turtle question for you..."

"I regret saying everything about..." Emm muttered.

"Is it true that those little turtles you can buy in pet stores... if you feed them dog food they'll become humongous turtles?"

"Oh god... I don't know. What kind of a question is that?" She demanded.

"Well, I, I..."

"Is that right up there with the 'do people eat beavers?' ques..."

"No, No! This is serious!" I insisted, perhaps a bit too emphatically.

"Okay, I'm sorrrry...", she replied with defensive sarcasm.

"No, No..." I tried to repeat myself in more soothing tones.

"...'serious' questions..."

"It's comical," I admitted, "but it's actually based on something a musician told me."

Emm decided to humor me, "Really..."

I blurted nervously, "He showed me a turtle. He was actually turtle-sitting for a friend, and he brought it with him to the gig. 'cause he was on his way to return it..."

"Okay..." She continued to humor me.

"...to the friend, and it looked like... He said that his friend had read it in a book, that you feed these things dogfood and they get huge."

"No, I don't know anything about that." (Perhaps music celebrities like her had not seen it all.)

"And this thing was, like... that." I held my hands apart about the diameter of a cantelope.

"I'll look into that, though."

"Okay," I responded. It was my turn to play the straight man.

Emm delivered the punch line, "I'll feed the next turtle I see a bag of Purina, and we'll see what happens."

Ba Da Boom!

It was a wonderfully funny line, and I smiled. I knew I had that coming.

Yet, I was mildly surprised. 'They have Purina in Canada?!' I thought to myself in amazement. More evidence that U.S. consumer brands had penetrated the great Northern unknown. I simply had no idea how "civilized" Canada was.

In retrospect, I hope I had not put a dangerous idea into a gullible mind. One can just imagine a diabolical clan of Canadian nationalists raising an army of giant turtles and sending them across the border to wreak havoc on the American ecosystem. (No doubt, it would be cheaper than trying to genetically modify the reptiles). It's a scary thought, almost on the level of killer bees and fire ants.

But it wouldn't be the first time that Canadians had attempted to corrupt the moral fiber of American society. Remember, it was two guys from Toronto that came up with the idea of NakedNews.com.

At the end of interview, was I any closer to defining the Canadian identity? Or describing Canadian culture? In one sense, I was back where I started. I still did not know what was Canadian food.


Thanks to Walter Lee for scanning and animation help


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