Just a few kilometers south of the sleepy town of Clinton is the even sleepier town of Vanastra. In a yester-era Vanastra housed the top secret Royal Canadian Air Force base responsible for training Canadian, American, and British radar technicians in WW2.
But within its rural Huron County exterior contains a vibrant community of Laotian refugees and first (and second!) generation Canadians. This community is where Chris and Charlie are from, and almost all of the Lao heritage cooks that they’ve employed since the opening of Laohaus in 2015.
At the end of the Vietnam War, Chris and Charlie’s parents came to Canada as refugees. A Canadian sponsor family was required them when they arrived, so they ended up in Montreal. The arrival of Lao refugees was chaotic. Without internet communications like email or Facebook, people lost track of the people they knew back in Laos as they were scattered across Canada (and many other countries, such as France, Germany, England, and Thailand) going to wherever sponsor families would put them up. Establishing yourself in another country when you have nothing is a frightening and difficult situation, having to get by the language barriers and other cultural barriers in order to support yourself and get by. Word of mouth led people to where they could get well-paying jobs without language skills and locally recognized certifications. Before long, because of the its proximity to factories, Vanastra had a thriving Laotian community.
Something similar to the cultural protectionism that can be seen in Quebec French culture happened there. Quebec, surrounded by all sides by the English, steadfastly preserved its French heritage, turning it into a living fossil. When modern-day French speakers from France simply say ‘Fuck’ when they curse you out, Quebecers use a medieval lexicon spanning almost every implement found in a Catholic church. La cuisine traditionnelle Quebecoise is wholly dependent on a decidedly medieval European arrangement of spices: nutmeg, clove, cinnamon. Although that harmony finds itself in many cuisines, often in the dessert section of the menu, Quebec holds on, putting it in meat-pies, all the way into their poutine sauce.
Vanastra’s Lao community has been there for 40 years, not 400, but in a similar way the emphasis on cultural protection offers us a photograph of what Laos was cooking like up until the end of the 70’s. It also gives us a sense of what has changed in the Canadian context. Still yet, Chris and Charlie and all of the other Lao children in Vanastra, were raised with an understanding of the Lao language and culture, and were taught to have pride in still having that.
It also served for a practical reason, Charlie explains: “When people were coming from Laos to Vanastra everyone was helping each other out and trying to get set up. People didn’t know where the jobs were, or how to buy a house in Canada, so the people that were already here for a couple of years were helping the new people who were coming.”
“Every weekend there was a Lao party,” he reminisced. “That’s how I grew up, around people doing Lao things. Like they’d get an animal and the men would kill it and skin it and be burning the skin over a fire, and the women would be cleaning it and butchering it. People’d be drinking beers and there’d be lots of food. And I’d have to talk to all the other Lao kids that I didn’t even know! I wasn’t playing no game boy – I didn’t even have a game boy – I’d have to go talk to all the kids. That’s probably how I developed my social skills.”
“Every time people’d get together it was always about food. And my mom was a really good cook, she’d be catering weddings and doing events, and we’d always be around that. That’s probably why my brother and I are doing what we’re doing right now.”
I asked him if he felt like that strong cultural connection would continue into the next generation. “I don’t know. Like, I’d like that, but it was really important when everyone was coming over here, you know? Everyone’s all set up now. You can see it with the young kids now – they don’t speak Lao. It’s a different time.”