And if “home” is only where you’re born, then I guess I offer this observation as person who has been homeless more years than at home. The irony is that in having lived so many places, having packed so many suitcases, unpacked so many boxes that I now have a pathological aversion to cardboard, sold more property than Trump, and have left my toe print on 3 continents, 3 countries, 3 provinces … and 1 territory … the irony is that in leaving home, I found my identity and now know what it is to belong.
I have died more times than I can count: each time I moved, each time I packed my things, left my friends, and left my home; each time it felt like something ended. And each time I have been born anew.
What is it to born into a place? It is not to cling to a past or embrace things from away. It is to belong, to find yourself with roots, attachments … and a new identity. It is to at once let go … and open up.
In a few months, I will be 11 years in Ottawa, 11 years into my rebirth, 11 years of letting go, 11 years of embracing this amazing new place, 11 years making it my home.
There are so many things that I acquired when I came here, not the least of which is my love of winter, a transformation that happened in January 2009 … yes, only 5 years ago. Before that winter I was like so many Canadians, hating winter, hating the cold, hating the snow ….
For 40 years, I hated winter.
Then I discovered cross-country skiing and I went from a person who hated to a person who loved … from a person who rued the cold to a person who waited for that first snow and mourned spring’s arrival. Don’t get me wrong, once I get my road bike out of the garage, my cycling quickly dries my tears away … but if I had to pick one over the other, it would be cross-country hands down. My longest trek that first year was around 5km. The next year I managed 9km. The year after 14km … and then I made the jump to the Gatineau Hills where I fell madly, head over hills in love with the Gats, winter and all they created together … and I embraced distance, speed, and the cold. I soon found myself skiing at -18ºC and hitting 15km, then 18km … at which point I discovered “My Nemesis” which chewed me up and spat me out and taught me humility and fear and courage. By my fourth year, I had worn out my starter skis and by my fifth, I wore out my boots and with that I hit almost 30km, a record until Monday when, with temperatures below -20ºC (nearly -30 with the windchill), I raced to 33km while I endured ice, a bad fall and pain, and the cold for almost 3½ hours whilst I hit a top speed on My Nemesis of 40km/h. Breath-taking … and yes, at times even a bit insane.
The fact is, no Olympics are my goal (though I’m total awe of those athletes); no trophy; no records; no acclaim. I impress myself and love how I feel on these journeys … but more than anything, on these runs I feel connected to the world around me, to nature, to this season, to my country, and to my home. I am one with it all … and I belong.
And so, what, pray tell, does this have to do with food, you ask … and this month’s challenge for the Canadian Food Experience Project (a regional food)? Well, while the segue may be weak, the connection is with the other first that came with my move to Ottawa … and, with no disrespect to the world famous Rideau Canal and its beavertails, I’m talking about poutine: the perfect après-ski feast if ever there was one, especially after completing a ski marathon.
I’d never had poutine before moving to Ottawa and I don’t think I’d even heard about it before my relocation. During my French-exhange trip to Quebec when I was 16, I was more enamoured with genuine French kisses and underage drinking than with food. So when poutine was first explained to me as the the local dish I had to try, I was hesitant: fries, gravy, and cheese curds? Really? Fries and gravy? Really? And what the hell was a cheese curd anyway? I remember saying something to the effect that if it is like cottage cheese, you can count me out before we even start this adventure and I not so secretly disavowed that if poutine was Canadian cuisine, it’s no wonder we haven’t been discovered.
Well, 11 years later, not only do I now know what a cheese curd is, I know I love ‘em. I know that these delicate little balls of fresh fresh cheese should “squeak” when you bite into them, like rubbing a styrofoam peanut between your fingers. I know that not all poutine is equal — far from it. And I know that poutine comes in many different forms that can transform it from near perfect peasant food to the aristocratic — from greasy truck-stop slop to the best foodgasm of your life — from reconstituted gravy and frozen french fries to lobster and gorgonzola cream; some of it even boasts foie gras … and some, like that which I created on birthday, has fillet mignon with a sauce of maple-cranberry wine.
Ok, so if my skiing at -20ºC and 30-plus kilometre runs didn’t have you convinced I was nuttier than a squirrel with three testicles, I know some of you will now think I’ve finally lost it. While my full recipe is provided here, here’s a quick recap of the backstory. The inspiration for this came from my attendance a year ago at Le festibière d’hiver (Winter Beer Fest) where I tasted an amazing poutine create by Le St-Estèphe Restaurant: fries covered in port sauce and topped with filet mignon and brie.
At first my intention was to recreate that dish but then I thought “No, the challenge is to stay local” and there is nothing local about porto (no matter how much I might love it). I considered many different substitutes and then I saw it, my would-be inspiration: Red Maple Dessert Wine, a wine produced from the marriage of cranberry wine and maple syrup. If you’ve tasted my maple-apple jelly, you’ll know how psyched I am the synergy of anything with maple. It was fate and it was the perfect ingredient for my poutine, a dish inspired to feed the hunger from a day of skiing the maple-filled Gatineau Hills or my cycle treks that pass by the cranberry bogs to the south of me.
There only remained the question of the cheese curds and truly, if you’re from the area, you’ll know there really was no question at all: they had to be from the St-Albert Cheese Factory, a co-op that was founded in 1894, 120 years ago … and which tragically burnt to the ground last summer; tragic not just because of its storied history but because the co-op practically employed the entire town in which it ran for 5 generations. Though I may have lost (to purists) a few “local” points with my choice of the Red Maple wine (400km from me), I think I made up for it with St-Albert which is 50km, door to door. Truly the perfect topping for my creation — perfect because this factory that has survived mechanization and factory farming and now even a fire to continue to produce its cheese … and perfect because it is synonymous with the spirit that nourishes the Ottawa Valley, the same spirit of the Okanagan Valley whence I was born 46 years ago. Perfect because its curds belong to poutine like I belong to winter, like poutine belongs to this country.
* * *
On the 7th of each month, participants in the year-long Canadian Food Experience Project share their collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences. As I personally think Canadians do have a food identity, the hope of the project is that we will bring clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. I strongly encourage you to participate by visiting the many other great voices and websites out there.