“How have we made the journey from boiled buffalo hump to supermarket sushi?” asks Rose Murray in her introduction to a book that takes readers across Canada and into our culinary history. Along the way, we see photos of breathtakingly beautiful scenery and close shots of fresh local produce, and find recipes that are contemporary twists on classic Canadian dishes, often signalling international influences. Her butter tarts are made with phyllo (190); tourtière is no longer a pie but a turnover made with puff pastry (16). Grilled cheese sandwiches become Grilled Tomato and Cheese Quesadillas (9), Nanaimo Bars are flavoured with raspberry (236-7), and cucumbers become Cucumber Raita (160), Rice Noodle Cucumber Salad (182), or Summer Tossed Sushi Salad (181).
Murray is the ideal travel companion for this journey, both as an English teacher who tells a good story and as a chef who trained at the best culinary academies in France as well as in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Costa Rica. A constant presence in the book, she is incredibly knowledgeable but never pedantic, as friendly as the grandmother next door but with her finger precisely on the pulse, generous with information but also quick to acknowledge others’ insights. She also has an unfaltering sense of which details fascinate. Did you know that the Mason jar was patented in 1858, an innovation that would revolutionize preservation techniques? That Wild Rice is a member of the grass family and our only native cereal? That pork from heritage breeds like Tamworth and Berkshire is much harder to ruin by overcooking? That December 25th became the day on which one celebrated Christmas only in the 1800s?
Murray seems particularly intrigued with holiday customs, such that Christmas practices become a leitmotif linking different sections of the book. Christmas plays a supporting role in the sections on cakes (fruitcake, 209), desserts (Cape Breton pork pies, 239), and poultry (goose, 89), for example, and takes centre stage in vignette sections on Christmas Dainties (240) and Ukrainian Christmas Eve (247). The book closes with menus for holiday dinners, which may seem a far cry from its opening question about boiled buffalo hump. What is the link between Christmas and buffalo meat? Murray quotes artist Paul Kane in detail as he describes an 1847 Christmas dinner at Fort Edmonton—one that included “boiled buffalo hump and calf, dried moose nose, white fish, buffalo tongue, beavers’ tails, roast wild goose, potatoes, turnips and bread, but no pies or dessert” (59).
This is a fabulous cookbook—there are large pages that lie flat on the counter, flaps to mark a page, and recipes that make sense and really work. You would be well advised to try each and every recipe in the soup section, and the yoghurt hollandaise is watershed for Eggs Benedict lovers with a conscience for calories and cholesterol. If Whitecap Books has printed A Taste of Canada with the kitchen cook in mind, they have also given Murray scope to tell the story of Canada’s tastes of place in a way that lets readers pause to savour them. Interspersed among the sections on different food categories (Starters, then Soup, then Breads, and so on) are feature vignettes devoted to particular food items (Plums, Wild Rice, Fiddleheads) or iconic dishes (Pies, Tourtière), as well as sections devoted to describing the distinctive foods and culinary histories of Canada’s regions. Despite such attention to the local and regional, however, the book’s vision is squarely a national and inclusive one, and its tone uniformly positive. The last stop on this culinary journey? Menus, including one for “A Cross-Canada Thanksgiving” and another for “Canada’s Birthday Party.” Mind you, with the days of boiled buffalo hump and dessert-free Christmas dinner behind us, and before us a wealth of food and taste options and a keen sense of our need to preserve biodiversity so fewer species face the threat of diminishing numbers (as did the buffalo), there is surely cause to celebrate the many tastes of Canada.