Canadian cuisine a native can be proud of
NEW YORK &
Canadians joke that we are without identity: We are not American! And we're not British or French, either. Somewhere among the denials drifts the Canadian soul.
That has never caused me trouble, except when it comes to food &
arguably the most concrete cultural heritage. When I travel to such places as Uganda, Egypt and Mexico, I am asked: What do your people eat? What is Canadian food? I mutter about maple syrup, back bacon and pea soup, but nobody's satisfied. When actually called upon to produce my ethnic Canadian cuisine, I resort to cooking the distinctive foods of my Eastern European forebears.
So I was relieved a few months back to learn that Toronto chefs from Canoe Restaurant Bar would be visiting the James Beard House in New York, where I now live, to show off the haute food traditions of my homeland. I might not be able to eat caribou or Quebec foie gras, Pelee Island caviar or Nunavut caribou every day, but I was eager to talk to the chefs about their &
and my &
culinary heritage. Maybe the meal would tell me who I am.
I did some research. People go out to eat their infatuations, not their insecurities, and up to 1995, when Canoe opened, Canadians had been more interested in New York cuisine, European fare or sushi. The concept of Canadian food had been reserved largely for government-issued cookbooks or for dreary diplomatic meals that served Ontario wine, caribou steak and seal flipper pie, wrote food critic Jacob Richler in the National Post. "Guaranteed to make you cringe."
Seal flipper pie? I'd never heard of it, so I polled my mother, aunt, sister and cousins on what foods they thought of as Canadian. Moose meat, buffalo and musk ox, they variously mentioned; fresh apples and corn; butter tarts (mini-pecan pies without the pecans), Nanaimo bars (a chocolate-and-cream-layered dessert), tuna-potato gelatin mold (an oddity in a 1972 cookbook from Canada's Department of Fisheries and Forestry), poutine (fried potatoes mixed with fresh cheese curds and topped with hot gravy) and Smarties chocolate candies (which are actually British).
As I read more, I learned that lobster is legendary on the east coast, once so common it was served to prisoners; that salmon is king on the west; and that in culinary enclaves in between, immigrants had adapted faraway recipes to local ingredients. Scrunchins are fried cubes of fatback pork that are served sprinkled over fish in Newfoundland, wrote Bill Casselman, author of the book "Canadian Food Words." Sea-moss pudding is a traditional maritime dessert with seaweed as a jelling agent. Beavertail beans is an old Ontario dish in which the rodent's tail is cut off and blistered over a fire until the skin loosens, and then the flesh is boiled in a pot of beans.
With that in mind, I was not sure what to expect when I arrived at the dinner and met chef Anthony Walsh, who was wearing chef whites with both Canadian and American flags on the lapels. I asked what he ate as a child.
"It wasn't so much the food, it was the intent of the food," said Walsh, 41, whose soft voice is tinged with the accent of French Canada (he grew up bilingual in Montreal). He comes from a house of six children, five of them boys, and nightly meals kept them close, he said. His mother, a fourth-generation Montrealer of Irish-English heritage, cooked the French Canadian classics: baked beans, Habitant pea soup with leftover hambone, and tourtiere, a kind of meat pie that was on the menu on this night.
Canada was different then, and so was the food, said his mother, Ann Walsh, 74, when I talked to her later. There were two dominant culinary streams, and she cooked both: the Quebecois; and her heritage, the British Isles, "very ordinary &
roast beef and boiled ham and that kind of thing." Ethnic communities kept to themselves, and she had never tasted pasta &
that exotic Italian food &
until she was married.
A few generations later, more than half the residents of Toronto are foreign-born, from such places as Guyana, Hong Kong and Ethiopia. It's hard to say what is Canadian, unless it's the food of aboriginal people, said some of my Canadian chef and restaurateur dining companions as we sat down. Canoe defines it less by recipes than by fresh products of the Canadian land, cooked by Walsh with his straight French training in mind.
But on occasion, Walsh goes all out and makes meals like this one: "over-the-top Canadian." Appetizers included salt cod doughnuts with parsley tartar sauce. The first course was richly flavored lobster and a single tender scallop with celery honey and apple mustard. Then came foie gras, round black caviar-like lentils and matsutake mushrooms. Each course had ingredients that nearly spanned Canada's thousands of miles.
When I ventured backstage, I found a cool and fast preparation with the calm of a Canadian kitchen. The chefs were syncopating, hitting a spoon to the plate and sliding it across to leave a crimson trail of roasted beets in canola oil. "More chokes!" called Walsh, asking for Jerusalem artichokes. "More chokes coming up." "Mustard greens!" "Greens down here." "Chefs are a pain," someone said. "Not Canadian ones," Walsh answered.
Something about these people and their routines seemed familiar to me. They were sweet, chill and innovative, and even spoke with an upturned eh?
Soon I was tasting the tender, rich and mildly gamy caribou hind. It was hard to imagine that such a rugged animal could possess such silken flesh &
especially after it had been frozen, though the freezing happened naturally on the Nunavut tundra where an Inuit hunter had killed it, Walsh said. It was served with savory chocolate, cocoa beans steeped in maple syrup, Niagara cabernet vinegar and hints of ginger and chili peppers.
The chefs gave me an exquisite dessert of steamed maple pudding to taste while they worked. Its deep, full flavor with quince preserves and an impossibly lemony, buttery sauce got a zing from cranberries. It was a familiar dish with familiar ingredients, but nothing about it tasted familiar.
When you're talking about a national cuisine, memories &
are part of every recipe. I began to think about the flavors from my childhood in rural southern Ontario. Fresh asparagus and potatoes and squash that my mother picked up after work at multiple stops at roadside farms. And the breakfasts my father made of eggs and thick, salty back bacon. Sharp cheddar aged nearby that my sister and I ate with crackers, leaving crumbs in bed. We always begged to stop at a chip wagon, an immobile trailer equipped with a deep-fryer so it could sell cardboard boxes of french fries doused with salt and vinegar. In school once, we made tire d'erable: heated maple syrup taken outside on a cold, bright day to drop into the snow until it hardened, so it could melt again on our tongues.
Those were the kinds of experiences Walsh had distilled into his meal. There might not quite yet be a shared national culinary identity, but it's getting closer.
"Canadians are always searching for where we're all from. We're an understated group of people," he told me later. "I'd like to think in the big picture my food is about exactly that understated, assured competence. It's pretty uniquely Canadian."
If Canadian food is the confidence of training, talent, fine local ingredients and myriad cultural influences, I like it. And if the food comes from a place where people don't show off but are quirky, caring and know what they're doing, I like where I'm from.