Nothing says more about a place than its food. A culture and a people can all be reflected within the food that’s served in a specific city or state or country. This sort of reflection is also found within the soccer culture of a place, and often times these reflections can tell you about a place even if you’ve never been there.
With the world seeming so strange and different right now, I want to tell you the story of a place through the two things almost every place on the planet has — food and soccer.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
To an American, Toronto is a dichotomy. It’s familiar yet still different. It’s like Chicago but cleaner, like New York but nicer. Perhaps you know it as Canada’s largest city, its financial and (English-speaking) cultural capital. Maybe you know it’s sports teams or artists. But it’s more.
I thought I knew Toronto. I’ve probably been there more than I have any other city outside of the United States. My wife and I honeymooned there. Considering I couldn’t even pronounce it correctly, I was wrong. “No second ‘t’. Turrono,” instructed Sonja Missio, co-founder of the website Unusual Efforts.
Post-European colonization, Toronto started as a trading post, eventually being ceded to the British crown in 1763. Then called Fort York, it quickly became a destination for loyalists fleeing the American Revolution. Like most older cities in eastern North America, Toronto became a destination for waves of immigrants and remains a city whose neighborhoods are defined by the people moving in.
“Toronto has always been a sort of a city of neighborhoods,” says Asif Hossain, who joined Toronto FC in 2007. “It’s always been a migrant destination.” The migrants that arrived 40 or 50 year ago primarily from Eastern Europe have largely moved to the suburbs, their old neighborhoods now full of people from South Asia, Africa, and South America.
“People will tell you that Toronto is the most multicultural city in the world,” says Paul Beirne, who joined Toronto FC in 2007 to be the club’s first employee after Major League Soccer awarded the team to Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE). “I know other cities lay claim to that as well. But over in 2006, over 50% of Torontonians were born elsewhere. And now it’s even higher.” TFC helped push the sport into the front of the consciousness of sports fans throughout Canada. Beirne left TFC in 2013, later becoming the President of the Canadian Premier League, stepping down at the end of the 2019 season.
“Back (around) 2009, MLSE actually put this panel together,” says Hossain, who was hired by Beirne back in 2007. The panel was comprised of employees throughout MLSE, “and at that time the discussion topic actually was ‘what’s gonna happen to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the future?’ Because more than 50% of Torontonians weren’t born in Toronto, hockey isn’t a sport that they grew up with.” While problematic for the Leafs, it’s turned out to be a boom for the Toronto Raptors as well as TFC.
“People are always gonna love the Leafs here as long as they exist.” Hossain continues. But because of the recent success of the Raptors, “they can charge tickets at Leafs prices now. 12 years ago, that was unthinkable.”
It’s not just Toronto FC that’s pushing the Leafs for space in the sports-conscious of Torontonians. “During the Women’s World Cup 2015 I was at a Boston Pizza, which is just a franchise in Canada,” says Shireen Ahmed, co-host of the popular Burn It All Down podcast. “They were showing the women’s game and the NHL playoffs were on. One of the men started shouting when they put the hockey game on” for the channel to be put back to the Women’s World Cup match. “It was some random (game in the NHL playoffs), but not like hugely important in the series, like maybe game two. And I know hockey fans would think that’s blasphemous because all playoff matches are critical, right? They were like completely furious that they were changing from the Canadian women’s match. I loved that energy.”
While TFC has had players from almost 50 different countries, the diversity of the team wasn’t something that was given much consideration. Toronto has had “an obscene amount of players,” says Missio. “So we will always have more nationalities than everyone else because in our early days we went through players like trading cards. It was wild.”
“We knew that soccer was going to be successful in Toronto, because of the multicultural nature of the city,” says Beirne. “Obviously that is reflected in our food. Not only are those two things sort of universal globally, that the culture of food on the street in any given city is reflected in the the fans of the football club. That was what we tried to achieve with our food program at (BMO Field). So we we decided to make the food program very much about reflecting the people in the stands as opposed to hot dogs and pizza slices in popcorn. And as a result we really got a lot of credit from our supporters for that.”
“We sold things like chip buttys, and to this day my favorite dish when I go to a match at BMO Field is the porchetta sandwich. There’s a there’s a pig that they they roast up every match and so you can get that on a sandwich. We did Scotch eggs. We did you know, different different foods from all around the world we did Jamaican patties one year.”
“Those things never sold a ton,” he says. “But the credit we got and the sort of branding associated with BMO Field because of that was terrific. But in reality people just want hot dogs and beer.”
In addition to the rum-and-coke in a can (another story for another day), one of my favorite things to eat at a Toronto FC match is poutine from the Smoke’s Poutinerie truck in the north end of the stadium. Poutine is a dish that started in Québec and mainly consists of three ingredients: french fries, brown gravy, and cheese curds (“They have to squeak when you bite them” my friend’s wife, a Montréal native once told me.)
“There’s a deeper connection to Smoke’s” than just a Canadian chain setting up on premises, says Beirne. He explains that in 2006, one of the people working on creating the TFC logo was a designer by the name of Ryan Smolkin.
“(Smolkin) was working for an agency. The crest was really a partnership between designers at Maple Leaf Sports designers and Major League Soccer and Adidas, and also these outside designers. And Ryan was the outside designer. And it was one of the reasons we were always really proud of that TFC logo is because sometimes they say design by committee it reduces things. But we we found that having these fresh pairs of eyes at different places with different ways of looking at things, every time we got a new revision of it, it was better and better and better. And so I think the TFC logo that we ended up with was spot on for the city at that time. It was exactly what we needed. So when he went off and started doing his poutine thing, it was a no-brainer.”
As diverse as the food is in the stadium, outside it’s even more so, reflecting the overall diversity of the city.
“Here you can get the best bowl of ramen you’ve ever had in your life in North America, walk down the street and have the best pizza you’ve ever had in your life in North America, and keep going and have the best sushi” says Missio. Good food’s not the only thing you should check out. “Toronto is really a city of beer. And our craft breweries, our restaurants that serve special things, that’s where you want to (check out).”
“You’ve got authentic cuisine ranging from like Little India on Gerrard Street to Korea Town, which is on Bloor West, West Village,” says Ahmed. ”Toronto is very much a city rooted in food. Incredible and very authentic communities with very authentic food. It’s not just, ‘Hey, I spent a year in Thailand. So here’s my version.’ It’s not the sort of gentrified version. It’s street food. It’s a combination of things. It’s mom and pop restaurants. The best Palestinian restaurant in the whole city is a hole in the wall, and maybe three or four people can sit at a time.”
“It’s a city of constant change,” says Hossain. “The neighborhoods are constantly changing. People are always moving in and out of here, throughout history.” While most of the changes are good, Hossain does see some potential for things to change for the worse.
“I worry that we’re pricing a lot of people out of the city very rapidly. And if that ever happens, I would actually think that there could be some negative consequences to Toronto FC as well. If that Southside, where the atmosphere of the stadium is really carried and the pulse of the game is really carried in some ways, if that ever starts to disappear because people have just been priced out of the city and become too much of a hassle to come in and out, then I think it would be really bad for the team as well. So I really hope the people that live in the city that made BMO Field their own that made Toronto FC their own that have been part of the pub and food culture of the city continue to be that into the next generation of the city.”
That said, Toronto is a city for the world to enjoy. “Everyone in the world has a cousin who lives here,” says Beirne when I ask him what he wants people to know about Toronto. “I don’t think I need to tell them anything. I think they already know about Toronto because they someone in their extended family already lives here. That’s the kind of place we are.”
Places to eat:
- Smoke’s Poutinerie - Multiple locations throughout the city - Poutine in plaid, served with a side of glam metal.
- La Palette - 492 Queen Street West - A little pricey but worth it. Small and intimate, try the Quack and Track (leg of duck confit with a 3 ounce horse tenderloin served rare).
- George Street Diner - 129 George Street - Recommended by Sonja, it’s the brunch spot in Toronto where you can get “everything from pancakes to traditional English and Irish breakfasts.”
- California Sandwiches - Multiple locations throughout the city - Recommended by Asif, try the veal sandwiches. Make sure to bring cash and don’t go on Sundays (they’re closed).
- St. Lawrence Market - 93 Front Street East - A large enclosed market, get a peameal bacon sandwich from Carousel Bakery, pick up some mustard from Kozlik’s, and try some cheeses from Olympic Food & Cheese Mart.
Places to check out:
- The Neighborhoods - Throughout the city - Recommended by Paul to explore some of the neighborhoods like Little Italy and Little Portugal/Little Brazil.
- Trinity Bellwoods Park - 790 Queen Street West - Recommended by Asif, a large park in the middle of the city to take a stroll.
- Toronto Islands - South Central part of Toronto - Recommended by Sonja, another large park in the city. Ride bikes, check out the amusement park, and enjoy the sights.