This episode of the Food Matters podcast series features Dr. Robert L. Nelson, head of the Department of History at the University of Windsor. Dr. Nelson discusses the Windsor/Detroit foodway and how it joins diasporic communities, people who have settled away from their homelands. Don’t know what a foodway is? Dr. Nelson explains how it includes much more than getting food from one point to another.

Podcast episode host: Allison Norris

Interviewee: Robert L. Nelson

Podcast theme music: Laura Bruno

Script editor: Kathy Dobson

Script editor & project manager: Irena Knezevic & Myriam Durocher


Allison Norris: Good day folks! You’re listening to the ‘Food Matters’ podcast series, brought to you by Carleton University.

My name is Allison Norris and I’m your host. In this episode I’ll be speaking with Dr. Robert L. Nelson, Head of the Department of History at the University of Windsor, who presented at the Food Matters & Materialities conference. After the conference, I had the chance to speak with Dr. Nelson over Zoom about his research and conference presentation: Food Matters at the Border Arab Foodways in the Windsor/Detroit Region.

*music *

AN: Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, Michigan are separated by the Detroit River, which serves as a visual marker of the border between the Canada and the United States. For as long as anyone can remember, people have crossed the Canada/US border between the two cities, for work, leisure, and to visit family on either side. Detroit has the highest percentage of Arab population of any metropolitan area in the United States, many of whom settled in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn. The proximity to this thriving Arab community, has attracted the Arab diaspora who came to Canada, to settle nearby in Windsor. Between the two cities is an extended diasporic community, which has long shared jobs, community events, and importantly, food—restaurants, baked goods, and access to specialized ingredients. The ‘foodway’ has been a subject of study for Dr. Robert Nelson. Before we get to what a ‘foodway’ is, Dr. Nelson and I chatted about what brought him to food studies and this particular foodway.

Dr. Robert L. Nelson: First of all, I come out of a very established field, modern German history, history of colonialism. I was always interested in food and became quite a serious cook, starting around 14 years, 15 years ago now. And found that I was very much interested in cooking in terms of a way to learn about other history and cultures around the world. It’s a is really interesting vehicle into history and culture around the world through food. So, I would basically want to cook cuisines in a way in which I was learning history and culture at the same time. And so slowly, but surely, I was realizing I’d never heard of food history. It was becoming more and more clear to me that there must be something like this, so I finally looked into it and realized there really this solid, but very much emerging, field of food history. So, I started reading around and realizing man, I would love to find an academic project so that I could do my hobby as an actual research, academic research, project.

AN: Interested in border studies as well, Robert realized he didn’t have to look too far from home.

RN: It was immediately clear. There’s all kinds of things you could do with food here locally, but in terms of what is the most famous, obvious cross border community that is also a huge part of the food life of Windsor Detroit, it is the Arab diaspora community that is incredibly connected on both sides of the border, in Dearborn, in Windsor. Arab food, it’s just a really major part of Windsor life in terms of where you go and what you eat and grabbing fast food. Getting shawarma at a Lebanese joint is every bit as much as any other kind of food, for anyone in Windsor. So that seemed obvious. So I just thought, let’s look into this, and right away, it seemed to be a really rich field to get into.

AN: So, Robert started this research with two graduate students, one of whom had a Syrian background and helped break the ice with shop and restaurant owners in the community. The other student, of Lebanese background, knew members of the community who said they would love to be interviewed. The students predicted that members would be surprised that their community was an area of academic interest.

RN: I found my interviewee subjects were very eager and told me many times, they never thought anyone would put any attention at an academic level to what they’re involved in; they are very happy that the story was being told. The response we got over and over again was you’re right to treat this as a serious topic, but we’re nevertheless surprised that you’re treating this is a serious topic. And thank you for doing it.

AN: Okay, so, like, what is a foodway? And what makes the Windsor/Detroit Arab foodway particularly interesting to study?

RN: ‘Foodway’ can be any of the various ways in which food moves through culture, history, and society. Arab foodways, that is the mobility of the food trucks that literally cook pita bread in Detroit, in Dearborn in the morning, and physically cross over, literally physically bringing, or the NAFTA highway food trucks that come up and pass through, over the Ambassador Bridge. So, there’s the straightforward mobility of a foodway.

There’s the foodway of ways in which identity is passed from generation to generation. So I really focus a lot on ways in which diaspora communities remake their identity through food—Sunday afternoon gatherings, the family, where members of the family cook food, specifically, that were part of where they came from, and want to pass on to their children—that’s a foodway. If you can think of ways in which food can inform so many elements of society. All of those things, say together, fall into this catch-all term that we use called ‘foodway’.

AN: So, like, a lot of stuff goes into a foodway. It can even be something that’s intergenerational, like passing along cultural knowledge in the form of recipes.

RN: This became one of my kind of favorite areas of food history from studies is exactly how that happens in terms of a migrant community that wants to connect to where they came from when they’re in the new territory. So, for instance, a lot of young men in Windsor, who arrive without family, and have these great stories of calling home to mother, and “how do I make this?” And the amount of times this version of the story was repeated was incredible. “How do I recreate this dish, mom? I need to know. Can you send me the recipe?” First of all, mother saying, “I don’t have a recipe. I didn’t write down a recipe. I know how to make this.” That gets repeated so often that story.

AN: I’m starting have flashbacks of the time I asked my grandmother for a recipe. She handed me a piece of cardboard from the inside of a cereal box, closed her eyes, and for five minutes just described how she cooked it, as I struggled to transcribe and record measurements. Based on what Robert says, I am far from alone in this experience.

RN: This idea we have of recipes being written down, is actually a very specific kind of tradition. So, first of all, mother saying, “No, it’s not written down. Let me just tell you how to do it.” And then another thing, which I never thought was really an invention, our understanding of measurements, tablespoons, half cup measures, etcetera. Mother telling son, “a handful of flour,” the son saying, “mum, my hand is twice as big as yours… how useful is your handful of flour?” Just these wonderful, rich stories that I got, that is example of generational transfer of these traditions to this kind of way to recreate the homeland in the diaspora in these little very little ways… language around substitution, “how do I get ingredients that are not available here?” “what is the substitution for those ingredients?” So, all those various things have been a really rich field.

AN: The Windsor/Detroit Arab foodways highlight how folks in the diaspora, who may lack access to traditional ingredients and tools, face additional challenges worth looking into. For most of the Windsor/Detroit Arab foodway’s history, the majority of food production and sales have occurred in Detroit, with folks from Windsor crossing over to buy goods, or commercial trucks from Detroit stocking a limited number of shelves and restaurants in Windsor.

RN: There’s a long history of this border. 1796 is the magical creation of the border down the middle of the Detroit River. But for almost all of that history, the border exists as some kind of imagined construct, but people who live in Windsor/Detroit have crossed back and forth across this imaginary line pretty freely for virtually its entire history.

AN: But two major events over the last twenty years have reshaped this dynamic, despite the close proximity of the communities. Robert says that prior to 9/11, crossing the Windsor/Detroit boarder was fairly easy for people in the Arab communities, which shows how normal and daily an occurrence it was to cross the border along this foodway. But after events of September 11, 2001, crossing that border became far more difficult. Without the access to Detroit on which it had come to reply, with this foodway’s connection under strain, the community in Windsor had to adapt.

RN: The border got a lot more difficult after 9/11 and so, as I spoke about in my paper, the food community here really becomes an independent Windsor-side-of-the-border food community, so you do not have to cross the border anymore. And it kind of explodes into existence early 2002, when people don’t want to cross the border all the time anymore. They do continue to all the time, because the Dearborn community has so much to offer beyond just foodways. Nevertheless, that community explodes in 2002, and continues to grow with increased migration over the last 20 years, to the extent that it had become a rather self-sustaining community.

AN: As a result of the border complications, the Wyandotte corridor, which Robert says was sparse in 1999, had begun to develop into a neighbourhood by 2002, under pressure to create a more localized foodway. Robert observes that by 2005, about 4 blocks were covered with grocery stores and restaurants—the corridor was so well developed, it looked like it had been there for decades. That development would be a very good thing come March 2020.

*clip of newscast: “The world health organization has now confirmed what many epidemiologists have been saying for weeks: the Corona virus is a pandemic…”*

AN: Robert says neither 9/11 or Trump’s 2017 travel ban on Muslim countries, remotely compare to when the Covid-19 pandemic closed the Windsor/Detroit border indefinitely. This only prompted more growth on the Windsor side of the foodway.

RN: That has been such a more significant break in this border community than 9/11 ever was. And one just sees it in the Wyandot corridor, the Arab community in Windsor, just how much more developed has become even since March of 2020, in terms of you now can be live in the world of the Arab diaspora completely on the Windsor side and have no need to cross anymore. That’s been a surprise that the pandemic is much more of a break than anything else.

AN: Having studied the Arab foodway so close to home, what’s next for Robert? Continuing work on the larger cross-border foodway project, closer to his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia.

RN: Chinese foodways was the foodway that I grew up being familiar with, being someone in Vancouver, as the dominant ethnic foodway of Vancouver. The Arab foodways and Chinese foodways are similar in that they’re both migrant food communities along the border, whereas the Mexican foodway is a very different story—it is the hegemonic foodway on one side of that border. So, how does that compare and contrast? And how does the two-hour drive between Vancouver and Seattle make those family connections and foodway connections different from the immediacy of the Windsor/Detroit story? So that’s the larger project.


AN: Many thanks to Dr. Robert L. Nelson for sharing this research.


AN: This podcast was brought to you by Carleton University. I’m Allison Norris and I was your host for this episode. Thank you to Kathy Dobson and Myriam Durocher, project managers and editors for this series. And to Laura Bruno for creating the theme music. You can find more Food Matters’ podcasts, articles and interviews on the Food Matters website. Thanks for listening!