Canadian food traditions - article.

centralcacyclistJanuary 18, 2012

What's the Most Canadian Dish? You're Probably Eating It Right Now

Canadian food owes everything to history.

BY SILE CLEARY : January 18, 2012

According to food historian Dorothy Duncan, many of today’s Canadian culinary traditions can be directly attributed to our ancestors. In her book, Canadians at Table: A Culinary History of Canada, she documents Canada’s culinary journey from Indigenous cuisine to early western settlers to today’s comfort foods.

We talk to Duncan about maple syrup, oranges and some of the other weird and wonderful cooking rituals that have shaped our culinary history.

What kind of culinary traditions have we inherited from our ancestors?

Our ancestors influence our culinary traditions to a great extent

in Canada, particularly when we celebrate special events, like birthdays, anniversaries, marriages and holy days. We still have birthday cake for our birthdays and we continue with the tradition of blowing out the candles and making a wish.

Many foods and ingredients are still believed to ward off evil, bring good luck or foretell the future. The ritual of throwing salt over one’s left shoulder after having spilt it, is just one example. It’s based on the idea that the devil approaches from the left, so if you throw it over your left shoulder you will get the salt straight into the eyes of the devil. Another example comes from Chinese immigrants. They will often have oranges at their weddings as a sign of good luck.

The arrival of new settlers to Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries had a profound effect on Canada’s food culture. How did these newcomers adapt to their new environment? Did they introduce any new ingredients to Canada?

They brought their memories of ingredients and foods with them, but found that they needed to find substitutes for many of their recipes. Great Britons were used to drinking tea and coffee. They boiled various wild herbs to make tea and they used dried dandelion roots as a substitute for coffee. It may not have tasted the same for them but it was the best a substitute they could find. They used First Nations foods, such as pemmican (a highly nourishing blend of dried and powdered buffalo, elk, or deer meat that is mixed with dried berries and then sealed with grease), on a regular basis.

Maple syrup is a Canadian staple. How was it discovered and how did it become such an important ingredient for our country?

First Nations peoples have been tapping trees and using maple syrup for a long time. They believe that the syrup is a gift from the Sacred Mother and hold ceremonies of thanksgiving in the spring when it starts to flow.

For centuries before the arrival of newcomers Indigenous peoples were not only using it as a food and beverage, but using maple sugar as a barter item with other clans and nations. First Nations peoples taught the newcomers how to tap the trees and boil down the sap into syrup and eventually into sugar. For newcomers from Great Britain and Europe this would have been a great gift because they loved sugar and they would never have seen a sugar maple in their homelands. I think it has continued in popularity because of its flavour and versatility.

Did you come across any particularly unusual culinary traditions in your research for this book?

As I researched this book, I was impressed by the versatility of our ancestors, whether First Nation or newcomer, to survive in a landscape with a short growing season and a wildly fluctuating climate, and to find native plants that could not only be used for food and beverages, but for medicines as well.

What, for you, is a distinctly Canadian dish and why?

Bread is a Canadian dish - for Indigenous peoples it would have been made of ground corn and water and baked over a fire and for the newcomers it was made of wheat, which was ground in a hand turned quern or at the local mill. It could be the whole meal; it could be used to stretch a meal; it could be used in puddings, dressing and a whole host of other recipes. If you had a wound or a sore, you could make a poultice of bread and warm water or milk to relieve the pain and help it heal. If you were prosperous and could afford wallpaper for your home, it could be used to clean your wallpaper.

How do you see Canadian cuisine evolving in the next 10 to 20 years?

I believe that chefs and cooks will continue to explore new and exciting dishes, and combinations of ingredients and foods, but I also believe that many of our traditional foods, that define each of our cultural groups, will never go out of fashion, and we will still be enjoying them well into the next century.

Here is a link that might be useful: Link to article.

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Not Canadian, bu my Grandmother would make something she called "Canadian Stew"... ALWAYS had home-made bread (still warm) to go with. Have NO idea if it's even remotely Canadian?

Not stew-y... no gravy or thickener.

She'd start with a big hunk beef... thinking like a pot roast cut. Browned really well in big soup pot. Then veggies... WHOLE or in BIG chunks... carrots, onions, celery. Potatoes held till end so they didn't turn to mush. Can of some kinda tomato product... sauce, puree, crushed, whole. Bay leaf and enough water to fill the pot. When meat was fork-tender, everything got strained out. We'd have the cooked to DEATH meat and veggies on a plate with a bowl of the yummy broth for dipping the bread into.

    Bookmark   January 18, 2012 at 4:08PM
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"What, for you, is a distinctly Canadian dish and why?

Bread is a Canadian dish..."

Who knew?!?!?!?!!!

What about Nanaimo bars and poutine?


    Bookmark   January 18, 2012 at 5:08PM
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I get pretty excited about maple syrup.

    Bookmark   January 18, 2012 at 5:22PM
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"I get pretty excited about maple syrup."

Me too. My grandfather had a sugar bush (woodland populated with sugar maples) and a sugar house (building with a big wood fired syrup boiler). We were always well supplied with syrup. We consumed it in many ways -- straight from the boiler in the sugar house, on pancakes, made into maple sugar candy, as maple wax (boiled to soft ball stage and drizzled on snow), etc.

The maple sugar candy was made by boiling the syrup to soft ball stage. Then everyone was given their own bowl of it which they stirred until it became sugar. It was an evening entertainment like making fudge or popcorn.


    Bookmark   January 18, 2012 at 5:52PM
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I find it to be a very regional thing - Canadian cuisine. I am from the prairies (Winnipeg) and I so I would call smoked Goldeye and wild rice Canadian, and yeah Quebec type foods when we have our local Festival Du Voyageur, so maple syrup pops, tortiere, beans, personally, I don't care for Quebec food myself, not even maple syrup (hides). There is also a very large Ukrainian population so things like cabbage rolls, perogies are very common and popular. My dad is First Nations so we had a lot of wild game and bannock when I was younger. I am in Ottawa now so it's mostly Quebec foods except for beaver tails (a pastry I think most cities have in forms of other animal parts) considered Canadian cuisine.

    Bookmark   January 18, 2012 at 6:06PM
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Pudge 2b

I would agree with it being very regional. I grew up in Saskatchewan and not until I lived in Ottawa many years later did I know about maple syrup, poutine, tourtiere or beaver tails. Living back home again, they are still not dishes normally prepared or available for purchase (well, I suppose maple syrup is available in many grocery stores).

When I lived in Calgary it seemed that amazing Alberta beef of many forms was the most 'Canadian' food.

The most Canadian food that I can think of is anything made out of Saskatoons - pie, syrup, jam. Also I believe the Butter Tart is considered a classic Canadian dessert.

    Bookmark   January 18, 2012 at 6:40PM
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Saskatoons? I had to look them up! Very Canadian, it seems. Are they blueberry-like?

I first had real maple syrup when I was ten or so. I grew up in AZ where it was scarce and probably expensive. I thought it was a wonderful flavor, also very sweet.

    Bookmark   January 18, 2012 at 7:43PM
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My mother was born/raised in the bush country of Northern Ontario on a self-sufficient farm where they produced nearly everything they consumed (including milling their grain in their own stone grain mill). My dad moved from Kansas to Saskatchewan when he was 4-years old when his patents homesteaded there in the early 1920's, along with my grandfather's two older brothers and their families. My parents moved back to Kansas (where my father was born and still had family) after WWII (1951).

There was never any food we distinctly thought of as "Canadian" unless it was toffee in a red and black plaid box and the hard Scotch mints my grandfather brought with him from Vancouver, BC when he would visit us. What they ate in Canada wasn't any different from what they ate in Kansas. If anything, they were quickly Americanized with mid-century miracles like frozen dinners and pot pies.


    Bookmark   January 18, 2012 at 8:10PM
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"Bread is a Canadian dish"- what a singularly silly statement. Bread is a universal dish. Pretty well all cultures have some kind of bread substitute unless there is no suitable local grain. Even the Chinese do steamed bread.

    Bookmark   January 18, 2012 at 8:48PM
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Harveys and Tim Hortons

    Bookmark   January 18, 2012 at 9:17PM
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Ack, how could we forget Timmies.

    Bookmark   January 18, 2012 at 9:35PM
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I've always wondered how maple leaves and syrup became such iconic symbols of Canada, since that tree won't grow in most of the country, certainly not here on the prairies. Oh well, we do have lots of beavers, even in the city, although I've never eaten one....

As a country of immigrants (or the descendants of immigrants), I'd say we tend to eat what is familiar, or failing that, what is available. My parents grew up here in Calgary in the '20s and '30s, when the only veggies eaten in the winter were potatoes, carrots, onions, and cabbage. Being mostly of UK descent, there was NEVER garlic in the house. No olive oil either. The fats of choice were butter, lard, and bacon grease. Mashed potatoes with every meal. I had never heard of, let alone eaten a bagel until I visited Montreal as a college student.

But times change. Nowadays, pasta and rice are staples, not ethnic food. Hey, curries are pretty mainstream, as are perogies. I'm surprised how many folks I encounter don't know how to make mashed potatoes, although I think it was the New Brunswick bros McCain who invented oven fries, and everyone knows those.

Tim Horton's has been much more successful than any political party in uniting the country as a national institution. I still remember when he was a hockey player...

    Bookmark   January 18, 2012 at 10:45PM
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Posted by pudge "------When I lived in Calgary it seemed that amazing Alberta beef of many forms was the most 'Canadian' food.--------"

I have many friends and relatives in Canada. Calgary is one of my favorite cities. Yes, nice beef. I will be there again in another couple of months. I hope it will be warmer.

When were you there? When Al Duerr was the Mayor?


    Bookmark   January 18, 2012 at 10:51PM
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Pudge 2b

I left Calgary the year Duerr became mayor, the infamous 'eastern bums and creeps' Ralph Klein had just been elected mayor when I arrived.

Barnmom, saskatoons have their own distinct flavour. I don't care much for blueberries but love saskatoons while other people are just the opposite.

    Bookmark   January 19, 2012 at 4:02AM
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Posted by pudge "I left Calgary the year Duerr became mayor, the infamous 'eastern bums and creeps' Ralph Klein had just been elected mayor when I arrived. ------"

Al Duerr's wife is a great cook, her name is, Kit Chen. Get it? KitChen!

Duerr decided not to be a Mayor any more to make more money in business.


    Bookmark   January 19, 2012 at 8:44AM
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