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One Nanaimo Bar

For fiddleheads a penny,

For bannock a dime,

A nickel for some tourtière,

A quarter for perogy time.

A loonie for some maple pie,

A toonie for a sugar star –

But all the GST you want

For one Nanaimo bar![1]


Numerous studies have examined the role of food and nationalism.[2] As early as 1822, Baron Karl Friedrich von Rumohr wrote about various foods and cooking techniques in Geist der Kochkunst, encouraging the German housewife to observe the virtues of simple, traditional German food in order to promote a German identity.[3] Still, some authorities argue that the concept of a genuine national cuisine has little validity, asserting that there are in fact only regional or local cuisines that represent the whole, based on perceptions that arise about how people choose to eat in many countries. Sidney W. Mintz, for example, believes that national cuisines are constructs for some other purpose. Mintz perceives French cuisine as an artifice based on the various regional foods of people living inside a political system, arguing that it is inherently artificial to sell “French” cookbooks and bring tourists to France—or customers to “French” restaurants in America—without acknowledging the real social importance of cooking that varies significantly from one part of the country to the next.[4] From the perspective of a nation’s economy, however, there is real value in promoting a nation’s food as national, because this establishes a brand with potential to generate appeal and can enhance revenues in any destination: the value of almost any culinary brand exceeds the worth of its generic namesake.

Of course, the question of whether a national cuisine can actually exist or not is far less important than whether one can be successfully asserted. Although constantly evolving, notions of national cuisines have entered the vernacular of most major languages. French, Italian, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese cuisines are each sufficiently distinctive to enable most people to form a clear opinion about their nature. Others—like Thai, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Spanish, or Ethiopian—may be less familiar, yet are widely acknowledged to be distinctive. But nations that are comprised of highly heterogeneous populations face a challenge if they attempt to assert a national cuisine. For example, Richard R. Wilk believes that Belizean cuisine does not really exist, both because Belize’s population is a complex melting pot and because “[o]ne version of national food was developed in America by Belizeans for Americans; another was developed partly by Americans in Belize, for Belizeans; but a third version of Belizean food is the one that attracts the most attention: the version developed by Belizean and foreign entrepreneurs to feed foreign tourists with a taste for something authentically Belizean.”[5] Where there is even greater hegemony, in the United States, Michael Pollan points out that “Americans have never had a single, strong, stable culinary tradition.”[6] And in Canada, where the emphasis is on the mosaic rather than the melting pot, Canadian cuisine becomes an even more elusive concept given the considerable variety of foods that can be found across the country. Indeed, that multicultural diversity may be regarded as a defining characteristic of the nation.

Still, difficulty in defining the singular cuisine of a country does not preclude the existence of a national cuisine. For example, Igor Cusack points out that various African states have developed cuisines based on a variety of regional and ethnic distinctions to construct what might be termed a national culture.[7] While cuisines of other nations may use different constructs, most contemporary diets are not actually based on indigenous ingredients, just those that happen to prosper within their borders. And while certain products are ubiquitous in French cooking, for instance, “French cuisine” refers not merely to the ingredients themselves but rather to the highly systematic and formal process that dictates how they are assembled, subjected to various manipulations, presented on the plate, and served. Only fanatical chefs like Michel Bras in Laguiole (on the Aubrac Plateau in France) or Marc Veyrac in Annecy and Megan rely strictly on local, wild, and indigenous plants that lend distinction to their kitchens.

Other cuisines are more likely to be identified by the tools they employ, the fuels they use, or a reliance on characteristic sauces.[8] While such elements may be distinctive, according to Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson they do not amount to a true national cuisine, which requires a comprehensive literature to substantiate it.[9] Ferguson argues that cuisine cannot exist without the critical discourse in cookbooks, journalism, and literature that deals with the code that structures the practice of food. In other words, culinary preparations become a cuisine when, and only when, the preparations are articulated and formalized and enter the public domain.[10] In the case of French cuisine, that is, what became French derived not so much from the food eaten as from the texts written and avidly read.[11]

Rather than accepting the premise that there is a Canadian cuisine, this study considers the evidence for its existence and the elements that might be used to define it. It begins with an examination of native and non-indigenous ingredients that leads to the identification of typical Canadian recipes incorporating them. It then discusses opportunities to eat Canadian foods in restaurants and other food outlets, including festivals, expositions, and markets. Finally, it observes the way the notion of a Canadian cuisine has been expressed by various public and corporate institutions, media, and professional food organizations advancing a Canadian culinary identity.


Canada’s first cooks were aboriginal peoples who are known to have employed over five hundred plant species in their diets.[12] Although cultivation was practiced only in southern Ontario and the St. Lawrence Lowlands, early Canadians were able to forage for a wide variety of edible algae, fungi, roots, lichens, conifers, and fruit. Certain foods that constituted major elements in their diets, such as salal,[13] mountain ash, and campion, are seldom encountered today except where they have some parochial appeal (Table 1). However, the Canadian larder continues to provide a wide assortment of other plants which have remained popular to the present day. These include wild rice,[14] a wide assortment of berries, and the “three sisters”: corn, beans, and squash.[15]

Critically important in the diets of early native peoples was a broad diversity of animals that were hunted in the air and water and on land (Table 2). Most are familiar, such as the sockeye,[16] but some, like the oolichan,[17] remain obscure.

Early commentators on the Canadian aboriginal diet provided picturesque accounts of the various types of food that were consumed. In 1859, Peter Lund Simmonds wrote what is arguably the first book that attempted to consider the global human diet: The Curiosities of Food: Dainties and Delicacies of Different Nations Obtained from the Animal Kingdom.[18] In it Simmonds describes pemmican, a term that comes from the Cree word for manufactured grease, “which is so much used by arctic travelers and the Hudson’s Bay Company traders”:

This meat of any kind dried and pounded, and saturated with fat. There is as much nourishment in one pound of pemmican as in four pounds of ordinary meat. It may be eaten as it is, or partially cooked, and has a pleasant taste. Sometimes it is mixed with a sufficient quantity of Indian meal and water to cause it to adhere, and then fried or stewed.[19]

Farther north, Simmonds says, “[t]he Esquimaux [sic] will eat the raw flesh of the whale with the same apparent relish, when newly killed, or after it has been buried in the ground for several months.”[20] He writes that aboriginals preserved the head and fins of seals under the grass in the summer. In the winter, whole seals were buried in the snow to be eaten partly frozen and partly putrid. Land animals were also eaten without squeamishness, as the intestines of smaller creatures are only squeezed between fingers to eliminate their contents.[21] Simmonds describes winter stores consisting of rypeu or ptarmigan mixed with fresh train-oil,[22] as well as preserves composed of fresh, rotten, and half-hatched eggs, crab cakes, and angelica. Fat was sucked out of sea-fowl and pancakes made from the grease of seal skins; some people even made what amounted to edible sledges, constructed in part with salmon on a structure of reindeer bones. In desperate times, the vehicle became the nourishment.[23]

Simmonds reports that “[t]he mouse, to the Esquimaux epicures, is a real bonne bouche,” and after being caught is run through with a twig, broiled over the fire, and eaten whole.[24] An even more troublesome image for modern tastes is evoked by Simmonds’ assertion that “[o]ne of the ordinary acts of hospitality and civility on the part of the Esquimaux ladies is to take a bird, or a piece of seal-flesh, chew it up very nicely, and hand it to a visitor, who is expected to be overcome with gratitude, and finish the operation of chewing and digesting the delicate morsel.”[25] The author includes a similar account involving John Dunn, a Canadian cook who wanted to prepare a special meal for a friend on the Oregon Trail. He settled on his best dog—which was, as Simmonds recounts, a favourite meat among Canadian voyageurs or boatmen.[26]

However, the Canadian landscape also provided dishes far more acceptable to the European palate. “If we are shooting in Canada,” Simmonds writes, “[w]e may easily add to our mess the ruffled grouse,” also known as the birch partridge. Less tasty (according to Simmonds) was the Spruce partridge, because it fed upon laurel leaves. He is much more sanguine about the Esquimaux curlew.[27] Simmonds is kind enough to provide a recipe:

Expedition is the maxim of all sylvan cookery, and as plucking the feathers of a partridge would be too great a tax on the time and the patience of the voyageur, the method most in vogue is to run your hunting knife round his throat and ankles and down his breast, when, taking a leg in each hand, and pressing your thumb into his back, you pop him out of his skin, as you would a pea from its pod. Then make a spread-eagle of him on a forked twig, the other extremity of which is thrust into the ground, and after wrapping a rasher of bacon around his neck and under his wings, as ladies wear a scarf, you incline him to the fire, turning the spit in the ground, and you will have a (proud) result… . When your other avocations will not afford time even for the skinning process, an alternative mode is to make a paste of ashes and water, and roll up your bird therein, with the feathers, and all the appurtenances thereof, and thrust the performance in the fire. In due time, on breaking the cemented shell (which is like a sugared almond), the feathers, skin, &c., adhere to it, and then you have the pure kernel of poultry within.[28]

Also generally acceptable to the diets of Europeans were the fish. Simmonds claims:

The white-fish of the bays and lakes of Canada is represented to be the finest fish in the world by the Canadians. The flavour of it is incomparable, especially when split open and fried with eggs and crumbs of bread. Those caught in Lake Huron are more highly prized than any others. Several Indian tribes mainly subsist on this fish, and it forms the principal food of the fur posts for eight or nine months of the year …. Other species of fish that inhabit these great inland seas are the mashkinonge, or mashkilonge, the pike or jack, the pickerely or gilt carp, the perch and a species of trout called namogus by the Chippeways [sic].[29]

Abundant to the point of deprecation were lobsters, which in Simmonds’ account are “found almost everywhere on the North American coasts, and in the Bay of Chaleur, in such extraordinary numbers, that they are used by thousand to manure the land.”[30]

Such ingredients appeared in numerous and imaginative recipes. Madeline Thomas and Mary Jane Obee, two elders from Saskatoon, explained in a 1974 CBC radio interview that pemmican was often crushed and mixed with grease, eaten cold, or dampened and fried in grease with a little added meat.[31] Some versions were made by adding choke cherries which were crushed or mashed on flat stone, or alternatively slow-aged pemmican could be cooked over an open fire with bannock, an unleavened bread that was a staple of the Native and Métis diets. Other original Native recipes given by Thomas and Obee included roast polar bear, boiled reindeer, sweet pickled beaver, squirrel fricassee, fried woodchuck, stuffed whale breast, steamed muskrat, boiled caribou hooves, and baked skunk.

Aboriginal peoples made inventive use of the tools they could devise from various plants, animals, and rocks. Foods were boiled in bowls hollowed out from soft soapstone by the Beothuks,[32] while the Shuswap of the Kamloops region of British Columbia made use of spruce bark and cleaned deer stomach for the same purpose.[33] Cooking was accomplished by adding hot rocks to the contents of the vessel. Cedar was a popular wood to cook and flavour fish.

Europeans not only brought new ingredients but also introduced new cooking techniques. Bannock was originally leavened with roe from suckers and cooked on sticks, but benefited from baking powder and frying in pans as soon as these items became available. While some of these traditional foods did not appeal to early European settlers, a measure of their importance and Canada’s historical commitment to indigenous ingredients is illustrated by one of the perhaps apocryphal terms of agreement when Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949: islanders were given perpetual entitlement to harvest mur, a seabird locally known as turr.

Modern Canadian cuisine can and does incorporate a broad variety of identifiably indigenous ingredients, which appear on the menus of the nation’s restaurants. The best menus eschew generic ingredients in favour of those which celebrate the qualities of terroir. Their provenance is evident in their names: Digby scallops, Matane shrimp, Brome Lake duckling, Gaspé salmon, Malpeque oysters. In addition, there are a great many Canadian artisanal products, including the growing range of regional cheeses such as Balderson cheddar, or one of the many cheeses of Quebec: Cabriole, Mamirolle, Le Metis, Bluebry, Ermite, Le Pied de vent, Le Bleu de la Montonniere.


Governments at all levels are positioned to support the concept of a Canadian cuisine, through food services at various legislatures, with promotions at numerous consulates and trade offices, and in the composition of menus that are created for formal dinners. For example, the Canadian Consulate General in New York City hosted the Northern Delights food promotion in 2001 and Eat! Drink in 2002. In the text that addressed the question of what Canadian food is, Jennifer Cockrall-King wrote that the answer varies a great deal, depending on where it is asked. Because the country “stretches from the Pacific to Atlantic and from Northern tundra to deserts and rainforests,”

there is no single definition of Canadian cuisine. It starts with ingredients that spring from the landscape and with traditional dishes steeped in the region's history and culture. On the front lines of Canada's culinary scene, each chef innovatively reinterprets these elements to reflect a very personal vision of the land, food and people around him or her.[34]

However, perhaps the foremost federal exponent of Canadian cuisine has been the Governor General, whether at Rideau Hall in Ottawa or La Citadelle in Quebec.[35] These residences are the symbolic cultural centres of the country, and provide a forum for Canada to present itself to its own citizens and to other nations. When Adrienne Clarkson assumed office in 1999, she recognized the opportunity to showcase Canadian cuisine through the meals that are served each year to Canadian and foreign visitors. Described as the “nation’s dinner table,” the kitchen was committed to the use of Canadian ingredients; whenever possible, herbs and vegetables came from the Canadian woodlands on-site garden at Rideau Hall, or from a network of provisioners across the country.[36] Table 3 contains a selection of Canadian products that were often used for state functions under Clarkson.

Menus were intentionally constructed to reflect both the guests and the occasion. The cuisine also acknowledged Canada’s diversity through the balance of the many flavours and cultures influencing the recipes. The creative chefs of Rideau Hall have produced dishes such as pumpkin cranberry forest cake and an aboriginal interpretation of traditional french toast that is made with bannock bread and served with birch syrup and wild berry compote. An article in Le Soleil about a meal at Rideau Hall describes ravioli with Quebec foie gras and Nova Scotia crab, Arctic char tartare, Alberta cheese profiteroles with sweetbreads, a terrine of Newfoundland and Labrador tongue and cod cheeks, and an Île d'Orléans blackberry mousse with wild ginger.[37]

The considerable imagination of the chefs at Rideau Hall is revealed in the full menu shown in Table 4. In general, Rideau Hall dishes are designed to present the essence of Canada, revealing what is native and what is brought, and incorporating ingredients from guests’ regions of origin.[38]

The food served during Clarkson’s tenure was intended to reflect concerns about the impact of agricultural systems on the environment, a mandate that remains central to Michaëlle Jean’s Rideau Hall kitchen.[39] There was and continues to be an emphasis on products that are fresh, seasonal, and organic, and where possible, on native plants which have never been subject to hybridization. Hence fiddleheads are served in the early spring, heirloom tomatoes in summer, apples and pears in autumn, and root vegetables in the winter.

Another important element of fine dining taken up by the chefs at Rideau Hall is the French tradition of serving cheeses at the end of the meal. Artisanal cheese production has grown across the nation, but is most prominent in Quebec, which provides Rideau Hall with delicacies from a growing array of outstanding cheeses such as Mi-Carême and Riopele from Îsle-aux-Grues.

Clarkson’s emphasis on Canadian provenance also included a transformation of the wine collection to reflect the cuisine that was being served, so that the 4,000-bottle cellar contained only Canadian liqueurs, spirits, and VQA wines.[40] At every meal in Canada or abroad at least one wine from Ontario and one from British Columbia was served to provide guests with the opportunity to savour the similarities and the differences between the two regions. The wines were designed to provide a “unique balance of natural sugars and acidity” which naturally complements Canadian cuisine;[41] under Jean, Rideau Hall remains “committed to showcasing the excellence and diversity of the [Canadian wine] industry in every glass [they] pour.”[42] As elsewhere, reds are typically suited to game and fowl, while whites best match fish and shellfish. The standard-bearer of the industry, ice wine, accompanies both savoury and sweet foods.

The writer and philosopher John Raulston Saul, husband of Adrienne Clarkson, has observed that the mission of Rideau Hall must reflect the Canadian identity:

People need to look at themselves in a mirror to help them understand where they come from—and one of those mirrors is the soil that produces food and drink for us. I believe we need to nourish ourselves with the products of the soil to which we belong. You might say it’s a grounding element. The concept of a nation that nourishes its people stimulates the imagination of this particular writer, who has walked the length and breadth of the country. From north to south and from east to west, we have so many different micro-climates that produce an extraordinary amount of foodstuffs. I’m thrilled to show the rest of the world that, rather than working with imported products, we are creating a local gastronomy that truly reflects who we are. You discover a country through its cooking; our cuisine is constantly evolving, which makes it all the more interesting.[43]

Clarkson’s Rideau Hall provides an example of how public office may attempt to elevate public awareness of a Canadian cuisine, but there is little evidence that the Rideau Hall initiative has succeeded widely. At the government level, more effective are various programs and policies that have been designed to advance the profile of the nation’s food. One provincial example is the Culinary Tourism and Action Plan of the Ontario Ministry of Tourism.[44] The Ministry’s website also informs the public about culinary tourism opportunities such as Savour the Harvest and Savour Ontario Getaways and Culinary Hotspots. Through partnerships with other levels of government, economic development offices, and independent operators, the public can readily access information about various food trails[45] and numerous festivals, events, and expositions.

Festivals and Events

Most nations celebrate their foods and beverages during seasonal events featuring local or regional products. In Canada, there are various wine festivals, such as the annual Niagara Wine Festival and the Niagara Icewine Festival, the Niagara New Vintage Festival, and the Fairmont Banff Springs International Festival of Wine and Food. Numerous wine and cheese events include the Toronto Wine and Cheese Show and Rocky Mountain Wine and Food Festival. Specific foods are the theme for a great many local festivals, including many celebrating the quintessential Canadian product: maple syrup.[46] Fruit-themed festivals include the Annapolis Valley Apple Blossom Festival and the Abbotsville Berry Festival. There are also more savoury festivals such as the Hybrid Corn and Apple Festival in Morden, Manitoba and the Bean Festival in Zurich, Ontario. Examples of more broadly-based food festivals are The Niagara Food Festival in Welland, Ontario, Bon Appetit Ottawa, Prince Edward County’s Taste the County, and Savour Muskoka.

Culinary events that are promoted by commercial interests provide an opportunity to focus attention on local produce and, where possible, local wines. Prominent restaurateurs and celebrity chefs demonstrate their potential, although only those who can afford the high cost of participating typically enjoy the results. Gourmet magazine’s support of the Niagara Food and Wine Classic in Niagara Falls illustrates that magazine’s recognition of the culinary importance of the region.

Among the most iconic international occasions in Canadian history was Expo 67, an event held in Montreal to celebrate the nation’s centenary. Rhona Richman Kenneally has shown that restaurants in the federal and provincial pavilions of Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic provinces used “food and the environments and circumstances in which food is eaten [t]o serve as important arenas for the expression of national cultural identity,”[47] yet also observes the irony of the fact that Expo 67 menus tended to emphasize native ingredients such as beluga caviar, char, and bison that were largely unfamiliar to most Canadians at the time.[48]

Restaurants and Food Services

However important the role of government, the hospitality industry is better positioned to advance the notion of Canadian cuisine. This occurs at the level of national corporations in the hospitality sector, such as Fairmont, Delta, and Four Seasons hotels, and in the travel sector, such as Air Canada and the Canadian Pacific Railroad. VIA Rail insists that on both the Eastern and Western transcontinental routes, “we make sure our menus reflect the areas that the train is traveling through.”[49] The corporation stresses that “regional cuisine is not only about the quality and freshness of the meat, fish and vegetables, but also about choosing produce that is close at hand, as well as great Canadian wines to complement our meals.”[50]

Even more influential is the great number of independent entrepreneurs who are food and beverage producers, processors, and retailers. Perhaps the most important exponents of a Canadian cuisine are restaurants which characterize their food as typically Canadian, despite not necessarily being located in Canada. The reality of Canadian cuisine might therefore be evident in the certification of Disney’s Epcot Canadian restaurant, the Cellier Steakhouse. The menu says that the food has been “inspired by the people and provinces of Canada,” and features mid-western corn-fed beef with seafood from cool waters in a warm ambience.[51] A similar exporting of Canadian cuisine was underscored by Joe Schlesinger in the 1970s. In a 1974 broadcast, Schlesinger reported that “there is a Canadian cuisine. There must be because the French have discovered it.”[52] In his broadcast “Canadian Dishes are a Hit in France,” he focuses on La Pergola, a now-defunct restaurant on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées, whose Canadian menu featured such items as pancakes and maple syrup, Canadian whisky salmon, halibut, cheddar, lobster, and Montreal Smoked Meat.[53] Even a provincial city such as Metz, in the Lorraine region of eastern France, has a Canadian restaurant called Canada’Venture.

In 2006, listed 91 “Canadian” restaurants across the country.[54] Many feature native ingredients, such as La Tanière in St. Foy, Quebec, which specializes in game. La Tanière’s sophisticated menu includes a carpaccio of elk and cattails served with a reduction of cider and balsamic vinegar. Another Quebec restaurant, Aux Anciens Canadiens, offers a menu with a distinctly Canadian theme. The 2005 edition of the travel guide Routard advises that "[i]f you could eat in only one restaurant in the province of Quebec, it would be this one. Because it is the only one of its kind, they cook very good Canadian food with the best local ingredients.”[55] Also in Quebec City is the outstanding Le Saint Amour which, while drawing heavily from the French tradition, offers choices that are clearly organized along Canadian geographical principles. Diners are invited to choose from such categories as “surf,” “prairie,” and “tundra.” Ingredients such as Gaspésie scallop, Inuit caribou, western bison, local squab, and Alberta lamb emphasize the breadth of ingredients supported by local producers of fruit and vegetables.

Terry Kennedy, a pioneer of Canadian cuisine, created distinctive and imaginative menus featuring indigenous elements for Toronto’s Metropolis Restaurant in the late 1980s.[56] Examples include “federalist” onion soup made from Ontario onion and cider and topped with Oka, St. Benoit, and cheddar cheeses and sage; Pacific birch-smoked salmon and a soft fritter made from mild Oka cheese rolled in cornbread crumbs, served with a pot of equally mild chili sauce; smoked and char-grilled PEI mussels; Huron County rabbit complemented by a maple brandy sauce; and Brome duckling from Quebec.[57] In Toronto, Tundra serves Canadian smoked salmon with Indian candied salmon corn blini, lobster thermador with Canadian mustard cream, and braised bison short ribs. The Passamaquoddy Room of the Algonquin Fairmont in St. Andrews, New Brunswick offers such items as roasted Nunavut caribou with Bay of Fundy scallops, smoked duck breast with Annapolis valley roasted apple and bacon salad and local organic green salad with St. George cranberry vinaigrette and balsamic reduction. Other well-known restaurants that serve Canadian cuisine are Vancouver Island's Sooke Harbour House, Lumière and West in Vancouver, Edmonton's Hardware Grill, River Café and Catch in Calgary, Winnipeg's 529 Wellington, Canoe in Toronto, Montreal's Toqué! and Le Passe Partout, Initiale in Quebec City, Chives in Halifax and the Inn at Bay Fortune on PEI. Perhaps the greatest commitment to a uniquely Canadian cuisine can be found at Eignesinn Farm, Michael Stadtländer’s 100-acre property near Collingwood, Ontario. He and his wife raise organic plants and animals that are served twice a week.

Canadian food does not originate only in the sophisticated kitchens of prominent restaurants. More modest and obscure establishments across the nation often serve foods that are peculiar to place, perhaps nowhere more than Newfoundland, where many restaurants offer a wide variety of idiosyncratic dishes rarely found off the island. These include cod tongue, fish and brewis, toutons and scrunchions, and moose, which can be found in soups, sandwiches, subs, stew, burgers and even as a topping for pizza.[58]

Dishes such as these and others (like those in Table 5 below) are a reminder that the iconic dishes of nations tend to consist of proletarian foods based on easily accessible and inexpensive local ingredients. If the exalted pot au feu and confit are the heart and soul of French food, it is not unreasonable to consider jiggs dinner and bottled moose as their Canadian counterparts. Often such fare only awaits a gifted chef to broaden its appeal to a wider spectrum of palates.

Bill Casselman points out that there is a great deal of whimsy in Canadian food words, evidenced by dish names like “son of a bitch in the sack” and “pets de soeur.[59] That Canadians perhaps do not regard their food with great solemnity does not minimize the attachment they feel towards it.

The nanaimo bar is one dish generally regarded as a definitively Canadian confection. Yet it could have been invented anywhere, brought from Britain perhaps, and passed on within families before finally arriving in the eponymous town in British Columbia.[60] Another illustration of a stereotypical Canadian food is the butter tart, a staple[61] of early Canadian cooking. Its contemporary importance is evident in the prominence it received during the Archives Canada exhibition of Canadian food. A poster proclaims:

Forget the beaver, forget the glorious maple leaf, forget the majestic and haunting loon – for all these years the country has completely overlooked the most important contribution to our identity as a nation, the butter tart…. The delicate crust supports the rich and creamy centre just as the oceans border our natural resources and the people and the animals that dwell here. Variations and sizes of butter tarts abound, just as there are so many varied cultures living harmoniously in our wonderful country. The Americans have their symbols and sayings, eagles and apple pies, bombs and movie stars. We have the butter tart. Born and baked in this incredible land of ours to be a constant reminder of how sweet and likeable we are.[62]

The exhibition focused attention on Canadian cookery and its influence on the nation’s culture and history. It portrayed the evolution of cooking in Canada by illustrating the foods and cooking methods of Canada's indigenous peoples and then the culinary traditions of the early settlers. The exhibition culminated with a depiction of Canada’s multicultural heritage and its impact on the way food is enjoyed.

The butter tart, like the other dishes in Table 5, reflects the long and evolving immigration which has shaped Canada since the arrival of the first Europeans. Original recipes are transformed by the availability of indigenous products. British, Irish, and Scottish settlers were predominant influences and account for the foods of English Canada in the Maritimes and southern Ontario. Various parts of Ontario exhibit strong Dutch or Scandinavian influences. In the west, Germans, Poles, and Ukrainians were the strongest influences. Over the decades, Canadian food has been immensely impacted by continual waves of immigration.

For example, the Chinese people who began to arrive before Canadian Confederation in the 1850s modified traditional recipes, with the result that a “lot of Chinese foods as we know them today are actually North American inventions.”[63] According to Josephine Smart, the first immigrants opened their cafés for a predominantly non-Chinese clientele, so they adapted their dishes to accommodate local tastes and available ingredients. The result is a genre of Canadianized Chinese food which is very much a part of the Chinese-Canadian culinary identity.

Additionally, what is today broadly regarded as French cuisine informs the food of Quebec, parts of the Maritimes, and northern Ontario. The quintessential populist food of Quebec is poutine, a plate of french fries topped with fresh cheese curds and hot gravy. Although the origin of the dish and even the name is disputed, poutine is generally attributed to Fernand Lachance, owner of the Café Ideal in Warwick Quebec.[64] Since its invention in 1957, poutine’s popularity has grown in Quebec and throughout Canada. Several fast food chains—including A & W, Burger King, McDonald’s, Harveys, Licks, KFC, and New York Fries—have introduced the item. Montreal’s La Banquise serves 25 variations on the classic dish; Toronto’s Lola serves an upscale and some would say corrupted version, lobster poutine. In December 2004, New York Fries along with the CBC hosted an event called X Poutine. The goal was the assembly of the world’s largest poutine, successfully achieved with an 808-pound monstrosity.

Other traditional dishes of Quebec include tourtière, pâté à la viande, pâté chinois, cipaille and its larger cousin, the festive Lac St. Jean. They variously contain layers of pastry, ground meat, savoury and other seasonings, chunks of game, wild birds, pork, and potatoes, and are typically baked in cast iron pots.[65]


A presumption that a Canadian cuisine exists is evident throughout the Canadian educational system. At the high school level, first- and second-year students use the text Food for Today to learn about the aboriginal heritage of Canadian food and to look at Canada’s regional foods.[66] Also, various Canadian university courses deal with the subject of food in general and the existence of a national cuisine in particular.[67] In western Canada, The Art Institute of Vancouver through the Dubrulle Culinary Arts program offers a course in North American Regional Cuisine. Many of the nation’s community colleges which have programmes in culinary education teach courses about Canadian food.[68] Toronto’s Humber College, for example, operates a Canadian Culinary Arts Demonstration Theatre and Kitchen Lab which supports, among other courses, Emerging Trends in Canadian Cuisine. The calendar description indicates that this course will provide the student with:

practical insights into the factors that influence Canadian cuisine. The student will be exposed to ingredients and recipes representative of the distinct regions of Canada. The student will prepare and present contemporary Canadian dishes incorporating current styling concepts.[69]

Culinary Bodies

The 1,000-year-old Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland marks the earliest site of European cooking in Canada. However, Canadian culinary history can be said to begin at Port-Royal on the Annapolis Basin of Acadia in Nova Scotia. In 1605, Samuel de Champlain, an explorer and cartographer, founded Port-Royal. Oppressively cold weather in 1606-7 led Champlain to bolster the men’s spirits by establishing what has been described as the first “cooking club” or “food fraternity” on Canadian soil.[70] He sought to generally elevate the spirits of his men, provide a source of activity, offer a source of entertainment and distraction, and at the same time ensure a proper diet. Each night one of the men would plan and prepare the food for the banquet. There was plentiful wine to accompany the meal, and much singing and merriment among those present. Common delicacies included fricasseed beaver tail and boiled moose nose. The Mi'kmaq were invited to the feasts, and they supplied most of the fresh food. There is no record of the menus, but readily available game and fish would have provided the main ingredients. A sweetened and spiced wine known as hippocras was a favourite drink of the period and served at the end of the meal. A recipe for hippocras (to be served warm) includes the following ingredients: 4.5 litres of red wine, 1 litre of white sugar, 1 stick of cinnamon, 6 peppercorns, 6 teaspoons of nutmeg, 24 cloves, 2 teaspoons of ground ginger and a cup of orange blossom water. L’Ordre de Bon Temps only lasted only one year since a combination of brutal winter and logistical mistakes in selecting a site persuaded those who survived to return to France.[71]

The Canadian Culinary Federation (CCF) promotes the notion of a unique Canadian cuisine that reflects the nation’s cultural diversity and agricultural abundance. The body consists of prominent chefs throughout Canada who belong to such affiliations as the Escoffier Society, the Calgary Academy of Chefs and Cooks, the British Columbia Chefs Association, the Hamilton District Society of Chefs and Cooks, and the Muskoka & District Chefs Association.

The CCF participates in the Bocuse d’Or, regarded as one of the most prestigious culinary competitions in the world. Founded by French chef Paul Bocuse, “the competition celebrates gastronomic accomplishment throughout the world.”[72] Another important event that provides an opportunity for Canadian chefs to exhibit their skills and showcase Canadian cuisine is the Culinary Olympics, held annually in Frankfurt, Germany. Culinary Team Canada last competed in the World Championship in the 2004 VKD World Culinary Olympics at Erfurt in Germany. Hosted by the German Cooks Association and sanctioned by the World Association of Cooks Societies, the competition included 32 national teams and 1,100 participants from around the world. Culinary Team Canada was World Champion in the National Restaurant Cold Display Category, with gold medals in the Cold Buffet Category, the Cold Restaurant Display Category, and in the Pastry Category. A silver medal was awarded to Team Canada in the Hot Restaurant Category.[73]

Canadian cuisine was also the focus of Northern Bounty, a 1993 conference that led to the formation of Cuisine Canada, an organization promoting the celebration of “Canada's unfolding culinary traditions.”[74] Established by Anita Stewart, the organization’s website explains that Cuisine Canada is “the first national alliance of Canadian culinary professionals who share a common desire to encourage the development, use, and recognition of fine Canadian food and wine. Cuisine Canada is about culinary awareness and national pride. Cuisine Canada is about opportunity.” [75]These aims are articulated in the organization’s objectives (Table 6) and through the ongoing annual Northern Bounty event.

Canadian women have also made an important contribution to Canadian foodways through the establishment of The Women’s Culinary Network. Centered in Toronto with membership across the nation, it supports women in the industry by hosting events, operating a job site, and honouring a woman of the year. Women are also prominent in the Culinary Historians of Ontario. Founded in 1994, this scholarly organization serves as an information network for foodways research in Ontario and aims to celebrate Canada's culinary heritage.[76] Membership consists of those with an interest in Ontario's historic food and beverages over the entire span of the province’s history. Activities include research, interpretation, preservation, and a newsletter, the Culinary Chronicles.

Another significant development that supports the integrity of a national cuisine, in Canada as elsewhere, has been the establishment of the Slow Food movement. Since the movement’s emergence in Europe, many countries have embraced principles that emphasize “honest,” natural, and locally produced “real food.” In 2009, thirty-eight convivia or chapters were members of Slow Food Canada.[77]


Print media are valuable sources of information about food, not least through the publication of recipes that regularly appear in Canadian newspapers and magazines. Indeed, Chatelaine, which may be regarded as Canada’s national women’s magazine, maintains a strong food-based editorial component. Canadian Homemakers, whose content is almost exclusively recipes, has successfully transitioned from a magazine distributed at no cost to a subscription-based monthly. These magazines compete against the formidable influence of American electronic and print media, which poses a constant threat to the establishment and preservation of a distinct Canadian culinary culture.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the nation’s public broadcaster, has the formidable mandate to promote unity in an increasingly multicultural population across a vast expanse of territory. Over a 40-year period, CBC Radio has sought to uphold that mandate with programming presenting the national audience with information about food that has nurtured the country. Hence, listeners may learn about a restaurant in Edmonton whose menu is geographically arranged into three separate sections: the West is represented with dishes like Arctic char, Boundary Bay crab bouchées, Alberta lamb kebabs, buffalo, and Ogo Pogo apple dumplings; the East has items such as fish, fiddleheads, lobster, and fish chowder; and the Central portion of the menu consists of Ontario pheasant, Golden Horseshoe cheese canapé, and Laurentian tourtière.[78] CBC Radio also provides a forum for the discussion of Canadian food through interviews with food authorities. For example, Peter Gzowski, host of CBC Morningside, in 1991 invited experts on Quebec cuisine to discuss tourtière. The audience heard that the dish derives from a custom of seasoning meat with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice that dates back to the Middle Ages.[79]

The development of the internet has provided many new opportunities for media to distribute information about culinary matters. Canada Eats[80] features a calendar of events, recipes, and links to education, culinary organizations, and other food media. Various food sites have been created in Canada,[81] although only a few—like Gremolata, Marty and Avrum, and Wine & Dine BC News—are explicitly devoted to Canadian food. Advances in web technology have also facilitated the appearance of a growing number of Canadian food blogs.[82] And CuiZine: The Journal of Canadian Food Cultures/Revue des cultures culinaires au Canada approaches the notion of Canadian cuisine through an interdisciplinary conversation, providing a bilingual, peer-reviewed, and freely accessible platform for the exploration of Canadian foodways.[83]

The growing fascination with gastronomy in general has led to the creation of a great many television programs dealing with food and cooking, and even the establishment of a cable network dealing exclusively with these subjects: Food TV Canada. Inevitably, such programs have been responsible for the establishment of the Canadian food celebrity.


According to a Roman writer by the name of Livy, the anointment of chefs with some measure of importance signifies that society has begun to decay.[84] There can be little doubt, however, that chefs and others who cook, teach, entertain, and write about food have a measurable impact on how and why different foods are valued. While Canada's most distinguished food figures may not receive the same level of recognition that their counterparts in other countries enjoy, they have nonetheless advanced the profile of Canadian cuisine through book, newspaper, and magazine publications, as well as appearances on radio and television programs—sometimes their own. Mme Jehane Benoît, for example, was a pioneer and Canadian archetype who effectively used a variety of media to promote her cooking. Restaurateurs like Michael Smith, Michael Bonacini and Rob Feenie have followed in her footsteps, with their own series and cookbooks. Others—such as Robert Clark and Vikram Vij in Vancouver; Jamie Kennedy, Anthony Walsh, Lynn Crawford, and Chris MacDonald in Toronto; and James McGuire and Normand Laprise in Montreal—make occasional appearances on television, or like Mark McEwan even have their own shows.

Canadian Food Literature

A rich and lengthy literature documents Canadian foods, often with a focus on what has been prepared at home.[85] Pauline Morel provides a succinct summary of typical Canadian dishes in an article entitled “From Pemmican to Poutine: Eating in Canada.”[86] Her review contains important historical sources, photographs, and brief biographies of prominent individuals who influenced what Canadians ate throughout history. Several books address the nature of Canadian food, such as The Foodlover’s Guide to Canada[87] and Northern Bounty, whose subtitle, A Celebration of Canadian Cuisine, describes its theme.[88]What’s to Eat? Entrées in Canadian Food History brings together a variety of essays on topics such as tourtière and Red Fife wheat in an effort to define a singular Canadian cuisine.[89]

The breadth of literature about Canadian food is elaborated in the coverage provided by scholarly periodicals, cookbooks, newspaper columns, reviews and features, popular magazines, trade journals, and personal accounts of dining experiences in books. Practical access to such foods is facilitated by various guides to Canadian restaurants, including the reliable Where to Eat in Canada,[90] provincial travel publications of the Canadian Automobile Association, and Zagat’s restaurant guide, which is based on private-diner rather than professional-reviewer experience.

However, a frequently overlooked source of insight about Canadian food is found in cookbooks, which often demonstrate a scope well beyond the mere recounting of recipes. The best delve into the cultural and geographical context of those recipes which have been chosen. Indeed, Brownlie, Hewer, and Horne have argued that cookbooks are cultural instruments that can provide insight into modern culture.[91] For that reason, the publication Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949 represents an important resource for the investigation of food in understanding Canadian identity.[92] In it, Elizabeth Driver has compiled 2,276 Canadian cookbook titles, many of which are only held in private collections and small regional museums and libraries.[93] A bibliography with more recent publications has been compiled by the Culinary Historians of Ontario.[94]

Typical foods of the late 19th century are revealed in the Home Cook Book, published in 1877.[95] Although largely derived from a Chicago cookbook of the same name, it was part of a new genre of cookbook in Canada whose purpose was fundraising for communities and charitable (often Protestant) organizations. The version of the Home Cook Book conceived to benefit the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto—which included a recipe for “Toronto Pie”—sold more than 100,000 copies nationally, making it the best-selling Canadian cookbook of the 19th century.[96] Since then, numerous religious and community organizations have used cookbooks to raise money for their parochial causes.[97] Typically, such cookbooks contain the favourite dishes of the organization’s female members, with the result that recipes may be highly eclectic, repetitive, and unreliable. One prominent group that has successfully transitioned to broader commercial distribution is the Company’s Coming series, featuring popular food themes.[98]

Numerous Canadian cookbooks focus on recipes featuring a particular Canadian ingredient. Titles such as A Cookbook Plus,[99]Wild Rice in Canada,[100] and Wild & Wonderful Goose & Game[101] draw on native traditions; hunting and gathering culture is expressed in Gathering What the Great Nature Provided: Food Traditions of the Gitksan,[102]The Qikiqtamiut Cookbook,[103]Canadian cuisine: native foods and some mouth-watering ways to prepare them,[104]Old Time Recipes of Manitoba Indians,[105]Remarkable Recipes for Sweet-Grass Buffalo,[106]The Rural and Native Heritage Cookbook,[107] and Recettes typiques des Indiens.[108]

While such publications tend to be esoteric, other cookbooks advance a consciously ideological notion of a coherent Canadian cuisine. In print for generations, several have become classics. The first Canadian cookbooks, one in French and another in English, appeared in 1840.[109]The Frugal Housewife's Manual[110] contains 100 numbered items and provides directions in the English tradition as to how various ingredients can be cultivated. The unknown author of La cuisinière canadienne provided a collection of recipes based on local ingredients, including commonly available passenger pigeons and whitefish. Also included are country-style dishes such as Ragout de pattes de cochon, and a number of English puddings from the English community in Montreal. Intended for the professional and the home cook, La cuisinière canadienne is regarded as the first publication to articulate a distinct French-Canadian cuisine.[111]

The publication in 1854 of Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide [112] introduced a truly Canadian cookbook with a unique and authentic perspective. Focusing on backwoods cookery, it also observed that “Canada is the land of cakes.”[113] Nellie Lyle Pattinson’s Canadian Cook Book[114] was first printed in 1923, and Kate Aitken’s Canadian Cookbook initially appeared in 1945.[115] Other early cookbooks which have endured are The All New Purity Cookbook: A Complete Book of Canadian Cooking[116] and Ogilvies Book for a Cook: Old Canadian Recipes.[117] A historical perspective on Canadian cuisine can also be found in Nothing More Comforting: Canada's Heritage Food,[118]Heritage Stew,[119] Macdonald Was Late for Dinner: a Slice of Culinary Life in Early Canada,[120] and Mme Jehane Benoit’s Complete Heritage of Canadian Cooking.[121]

What may be the best overviews of Canadian food are A Century of Canadian Home Cooking [122] and The Laura Secord Canadian Cook Book.[123] More recent publications which encompass food across the nation are The Flavours of Canada: A Celebration of the Finest Regional Foods,[124]The Best of Canada,[125]Classic Canadian Cooking,[126]Across the Table,[127] Elizabeth Baird’s Favourites,[128]The Complete Canadian Living Cookbook,[129]Rise and Dine Canada: Savoury Secrets from Canada’s Bed and Breakfast Inns,[130]Cooking Collections,[131]Canadian Cuisine,[132] A Little Canadian Cookbook,[133]A Taste of Canada: A Culinary Journey,[134] and Anita Stewart’s Canada.[135] Despite their titles, many of the recipes that have been selected merely signify where their contributors originated without necessarily providing a clear connection to the Canadian context.

Various books examine the regional aspects of Canadian food, such as The Canadian Living Cookbook, which contains chapters focusing on regionalism. Others concentrate on major regions or specific provinces.[136] Quebec examples include A Taste of History: Gastronomy,[137]A Taste of Quebec,[138]Anne Desjardins Cooks at L’eau, The Seasonal Cuisine of Quebec,[139]La Cuisine Traditionelle de Charlevoix,[140] and Traditional Quebec Cooking and Eastern Townships Traditional Cooking.[141] In eastern Canada, regional cooking is the subject of La Cuisine traditionelle en Acadie,[142]Out ofOld Nova Scotia Kitchens,[143] the Maritime Flavours Guidebook & Cookbook,[144]The Taste of Nova Scotia Cookbook,[145] and Simple Pleasures from Our Maritime Kitchens: Anecdotes, History, and Recipes.[146]High Plains: The Joy of Alberta Cuisine examines the food of a western province.[147]

Cookbooks that celebrate foods on a regional scale include The Copper Bay Cookbook: Recipes from the Queen Charlotte Islands,[148]Muskoka Flavours Guidebook & Cookbook[149] and A Taste of Muskoka.[150] Often, books with a local emphasis concentrate on Canada’s wine regions, such as A Year in Niagara: The People and Food of Wine Country,[151]Recipes from Wine Country,[152] Canada’s Wine Country Cookbook,[153] and The Niagara Estate Winery Cookbook.[154]

Many cookbooks also feature the food of particular Canadian cities. Examples are Five Star Food[155] from Vancouver, Dining in Toronto,[156] and even the fictional Mariposa Cookbook.[157] Market cookbooks are also popular, such as Chefs in the Market Cookbook: Fresh Tastes and Flavours from Granville Island Public Market,[158] The Granville Island Cookbook,[159] and The St. Lawrence Market Cookbook.[160]

At the smallest geographical scale are cookbooks reflecting cooking in restaurants that feature Canadian food. Among these are Jamie Kennedy's Seasons,[161]Lumière[162] and Lumière Light: Recipes from the Tasting Bar,[163] as well as On the Twenty Cookbook,[164]Open Kitchen: A Chef's Day at the Inn at Bay Fortune,[165]Tide's Table: Maritime Cooking from Inn on the Cove,[166] and Flavours of Cooper’s Cove Guesthouse.[167]

Geographical scale provides a framework demonstrating how cookbooks reflect the connection between places and the foods they offer. The best contain not only recipes with characteristic ingredients and techniques, but also narratives that account for their origins. Indeed, Canadian cookbooks, like those elsewhere, increasingly emphasize the importance of terroir, which makes all cuisine distinctive. Recent publications reveal a growing emphasis on the importance of local ingredients whose integrity and provenance can be assured.


Cuisine is a crucial component in the national pride of all nations. The challenge in defining a Canadian cuisine arises from the country’s immense size, which is further complicated by an aboriginal ancestry, a long history of immigration, and a multicultural population whose distinctions are celebrated rather than assimilated. The resulting diversity makes it very difficult to articulate a distinctly Canadian food identity. This study merely considers the degree to which a national Canadian cuisine can be said to exist, and identifies the elements that frame it by examining the way indigenous ingredients have been used by the diverse peoples who have used them. Ultimately, the answer to the conundrum of how a nation whose institutions protect diversity can claim a coherent national cuisine lies less in the determination of whether it actually exists than in the relative importance of the need to assert it.

While Canadian cuisine has seldom been trumpeted in the past, the heightened interest in the broad subject of food has led to the search for a distinct culinary identity. There is an overall story about the nature of the foods that Canadians eat which has not yet been written. An important resource for defining that narrative lies in the nation’s cookbooks, whose recipes and accounts provide insight into the geography of Canada at every level in the hierarchy of geographical scale.