I am, in terms of family history and genealogy, a bit of a mutt. The name Kirby, derived from Kerr, and meaning “by the Kerr”; Kerr being a copse or wood, arrived in England with the Norman invasion and spread to most parts of England, Scotland and even Ireland. The Kirbys have both English and Irish tartans and crests. As far as I know, my family, way way back, came from northern England, around Yorkshire, but no one in our family has ever traced the tree back that far to say for sure. (There’s also a story that gets told when family members have had a bit too much to drink that links us to pirates but the veracity of this yarn is unproven. Still.. yarr!)
In any case, I spent my youth not really feeling as if I had a “culture” per se. Which was alright growing up in Nova Scotia, since most of us were pasty anglo-saxons who had little clue as to what part of the Isles we came from.
It wasn’t until I was older, and when someone else pointed it out as a positive trait, that I looked to my Nova Scotian upbringing as part of my own “culture”.
Living in Toronto, surrounded by ethnic groups where people kept close ties to the motherland and continued to live within their culture (through religion, food, music and even dress), I felt a little lost. Embracing my Nova Scotian upbringing was a anchor for me in a sea of otherness.
The problem is, of course, that I’m not a big fan of fiddle music, and tartans are nobody’s fashion friend. Still, it’s where I’m from, and that’s important to me. And just as anyone from another culture has every right to be angry or uncomfortable when their culture is maligned or misrepresented, I’m protective of all things Nova Scotian, even if those things are not of great personal interest.
Yesterday, Greg and I stopped for brunch is a pub not too far from our home. This pub is part of a chain of “Irish” pubs, corporately-owned, and while the food is actually not bad, we tend not to frequent the place because it feels really corporate, and because the female servers are forced to dress in what we refer to as “ass-grabbers” (aka. short plaid kilts).
My menu included a handout for a lobster dinner taking place on October 4th. it was obviously a marketing scheme by Labatt to promote Keith’s beer, as the event was to celebrate Alexander Keith’s birthday, and is being held at all of the chain’s locations. Labatt would like the world to believe that, in Nova Scotia, Keith’s birthday exceeds the revelry of New Year’s and St. Patrick’s Day combined, but I truly don’t know anyone back home who remembers the day, let alone cares.
Greg and I perused the menu for the event and I asked the server, “What’s this all about?”
“Well,” she replied in the perkiest of voices, “Keith Alexander’s birthday is Thursday, and we’re an Irish pub, so we’re having a big party!”
Now, I know it’s mean of me to pick on ditzy servers. She can’t help it, obviously nobody has made a point of truly informing the staff here about what they’re selling (I’ve had issues with servers in other locations of this chain before; in one case, the girl didn’t know what a stout was), but I just can’t help myself.
“Uh… Alexander Keith was Scottish.”
“Oh. Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m very sure. I grew up in Halifax. My first under-aged drink was at the pub in his brewery. He was the mayor of Halifax three times. He was a mason. I am quite positive he was Scottish.”
She fled and I didn’t see her again for the rest of the meal. Greg suggested that I’d made her cry and she hid in the kitchen until we left.
But here’s the thing – Keith was Scottish. There’s no reason to be holding an event in his honour at an Irish pub. The problem is that Toronto has few true Scottish pubs and if the event marketing guy from Labatt showed up at the door to pitch the idea they’d likely have told him to take a hike.
So the distorted menu; Dartmouth Donairs, East Coast Maple Syrup Pie (from back when we were, what, part of Quebec?) and the maple and blueberry salad with maple and acai dressing (you know, from the great acai fields of Cape Breton) began to push the promotion beyond irritating into the territory of offensive.
I get that it’s supposed to be all in good fun. I get that it’s just a promotion to sell some beer. But as a Nova Scotian, it feels really weird, uncomfortably weird, to see my home, my culture, so distorted and twisted and outright manipulated, just to sell some beer.
The corporate restaurant chain and its staff – they don’t care. And that’s about what I’d expect from such a place. But I’d have hoped that Labatt would, when setting up these promotional events, supply the restaurants with information. Surely someone not from Nova Scotia might ask a question similar to mine with the intention being genuine interest and desire for knowledge. And surely the server should be able to provide a brief (and accurate!) explanation as to who the man was and why they’re throwing a party for his birthday.
Our server got Keith’s name wrong, got his background wrong, and if I had queried her about the origin of some of the dishes on the celebratory menu, probably wouldn’t have been able to explain them. (I was dying to ask what the difference was between a Darthmouth donair and the more commonly known Halifax version, but Greg stopped me, for fear that I really would make her cry.)
The kicker to all of this is, most amusingly, is that the Keith’s birthday event at this pub chain… isn’t even on Keith’s birthday.