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Anita Stewart, self-proclaimed “Culinary Activist,” with several books on Canadian cuisine already under her belt, takes a sweeping view of food in Canada in her latest work, Anita Stewart’s Canada: The Food | The Recipes | The Stories.
This time, Stewart presents a scrapbook of her personal encounters with chefs, farmers, agronomists, researchers, and homemakers who share with her their passions for Canadian agriculture and cuisine. But just what constitutes Canadian cuisine anyway? Stewart chooses not to define what counts (or not) as our national dishes. Instead she takes a broad and generous approach encompassing the raw ingredients native to the land, and the thousands of ways our aboriginal and immigrant communities have transformed these ingredients into an eclectic array of recipes. Indeed, one might more appropriately speak of “Canadian cuisines” in the plural rather than restrict oneself to any one fixed or traditional concept of a national cuisine. This ecumenical definition, writes Stewart, came as an “‘A-ha!’ moment...So this is it! Canadian ingredients + the spices/flavourings/techniques of one’s homeland=Canadian cuisine” (163).
Her book remains true to this sentiment. It is organized into chapters based on one or more of the key ingredients found in the diverse recipes. In the chapter “Grain,” a Portuguese sweet bread recipe from British Columbia and an Icelandic soda bread recipe from Halifax are sandwiched between two Finnish recipes also from British Columbia and a Latvian bagel discovered in Stewart’s childhood home of Mount Forest, Ontario. In this way, the book dashes back and forth across the country and around the world to declare all this bounty Canadian.
Personal and historical anecdotes about the food and the farmers are sprinkled throughout and are complemented by Stewart’s own charming photographs. The chapter on “Maple, Honey, and Molasses” kicks off with memories of her grandfather slathering maple syrup on homemade bread. In the pages that follow she weaves in stories of First Nations people teaching the early settlers to tap maple trees, modern day Quebeckers visiting cabanes à sucres, and visitors attending a pancake flipping contest at the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival in Central Ontario. Besides these more expected references, there are also some surprises. Russian-Jewish cabbage rolls prepared by a chef at a northern Ontario eco-lodge are included in this same syrup chapter because the recipe calls for both maple syrup and honey cake.
Stewart carefully attributes the recipes to the chefs who invented them, but she does not source the facts and figures she provides throughout the book. Readers may want to know where she learned that one may predict the colour of a hen’s eggs by the colour of her earlobes (209), or the source of the fact that honeybees only arrived in Canada in the 19th century (12). This is especially frustrating when taunting questions are left unanswered without leaving the reader clues for further reading on the subject. For example, she devotes a page to a recipe for “Fat Archies” with no indication of how these cookies got their name. Furthermore, the book’s index is almost useless. The towns of Elora, Fergus, and Guelph figure prominently in the book but have no entry in the index. Only one entry for Jewish culture and cuisine exists in the index, yet I found two references in the text. Bentwood Boxes, Yukon Gold potatoes, and several references to indigenous cuisine are similarly missing from the index. But these are minor quibbles.Although nearly every corner and immigrant community of Canada receives mention in this book, Canada’s Far North and its Inuit peoples are poorly represented. Stewart makes no claim to be comprehensive or representative, however. As it should be clear by now, this book is truly Anita Stewart’s Canada, not an impartial text or systematic guide to Canadian cuisine. Stewart skips lightly through the country and its cuisines and the effect is a smorgasbord of interesting facts and personal stories.
The reader might be relieved to discover that Stewart makes no heavy-handed, politically correct demands on the readers’ food shopping and consumption habits, though a more forceful message or a greater degree of critical insight might have been welcome. Still, as a festive toast to the diverse individuals who play a role in our food “from farm to fork” in Anita Stewart’s Canada, this book is worthwhile. The tone is sanguine and celebratory, and certainly there is a place for such a work amidst a plethora of recent publications that utter dire warnings about the state of our food system.
Due diligence required this reviewer to sample at least one recipe from Stewart’s collection. In the spirit of the book, fresh, local ingredients were procured at the Guelph Farmer’s Market to cook up Nettie Stanoyev’s Fabulous Fresh Bean Soup (34). True to its name, this recipe stirred up not only a fabulous, rich soup, but also a quiet (in a most Canadian fashion) sense of national pride in our country’s bounty.
Robin Bergart is a librarian at the University of Guelph.