Learn how to see. —Leonardo Da Vinci
Growing up in the Mile End neighbourhood of Montréal in the 70s and 80s, we had a lot of neighbours of Italian heritage. I secretly envied them. Not counting the Jewish population, who kept to themselves, the Italians were visibly more affluent than the rest of us. They were homeowners, occupying the duplexes and triplexes characteristic of Mile End with their multi-generational families. Their homes were adorned with vegetable gardens in the front and/or back. They had their own churches and their own shops. They even had their own cooking show on television from which my Indian parents learnt to cook pasta dishes by watching Chef Pasquale, despite not understanding a word of Italian, except of course mangiare.
Not far from Mile End, Montréal’s very own Little Italy had already been established. Though we would pass through it occasionally, we never had the need to go there. We did, however, frequent the neighbourhood Italian grocery store, Latina, a short distance from our home, for an emergency purchase of tomatoes or milk. It was always an exotic affair. The smell of cheese would make me want to hold my nose and the sight of beef tongue would make me cringe that I would be grateful we would cut right through the meat section. But my parents would always linger by the barrels of olives sitting in brine; they look like gunda they would say but it would take years before they would venture into buying some. Italian opera always filled the air only to be muted by overly excited, jovial greetings between friends— in Italian, of course. I always felt a sense of community here, a community though, that we were not a part of. Though my parents never seemed very concerned, I always had a feeling that we had overstepped some invisible line, that we were not welcomed there. Mile End was a mosaic of so many immigrant groups, but we were newcomers, visibly new, visibly different and as I stared at everything unfamiliar and fascinating in that neighbourhood grocery store, I always had this feeling that a thousand pairs of eyes were staring right back at me.
It wasn’t only the gap in wealth or race that divided us. Other measures to divide us children were already in place when we arrived, thwarting any chance at friendship. Back then, the public school system was divided not only by language (French and English) but by religion as well, namely Catholic and Protestant. The Italian and Portuguese children would attend the neighbourhood Catholic school, while the rest of us—mostly Asians, South Asians, and Greeks would attend the neighbourhood Protestant school. Each morning, on our way to school, the two groups of children crossed paths and exchanged pleasantries across that thin line we imagined between “us” and “them”.
It wouldn’t be until I was out of the public school system and attending CEGEP and university and in the workforce that I had a chance to really get to know Montréal-Italians. They told me stories of their parents or grandparents coming to Canada as economic migrants escaping poverty of the Italian countryside, of the discrimination the community faced in its early days and especially during WW2. We compared stories of growing up ethnic in Canadian society and found that we had much in common. I realized that the envy and prejudices I once had were so unfounded. And that’s the problem inherent to humankind, that we allow the differences that we perceive to divide us even before we can get to know each other.
These cookies are essentially a vegan version of the Italian brutti ma buoni (translates to ‘ugly but good’) cookies. Instead of coarsely chopping the hazelnuts though, I blitz them in a food processor to obtain a fine consistency. They may not appear to be the prettiest of cookies, but if you can learn how to see, you will see that they are pretty good!
Vegan Hazelnut Cookies
(yields 18 cookies)
- 150 g whole hazelnuts (mine were blanched)
- 60 g raw sugar
- 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 30 g aquafaba
- Preheat oven to 325 °F.
- Bake hazelnuts on a cook tray, in a single layer for 7-10 minutes. Stir and check a few times to ensure the bake evenly and that they do not burn.
- Allow to cool. (If your hazelnuts were not already blanched, rub of skins at this point.)
- When ready to proceed with making the cookies, preheat oven to 350 °F.
- Process hazelnuts and sugar in a mini food processor until fine.
- In a bowl, mix with baking powder.
- Mix in aquafaba.
- Roll mixture into small balls and place on cookie sheet, about 2 inches apart.
- Slightly press down with two fingers.
- Bake for about 12 minutes.