A few weeks ago, I jumped into the Canadian Food Experience Project in medias res when I wrote about my Canadian Food Hero. Now, circling back to the beginning, I’m being challenged to write about an authentic Canadian food experience.
I was a bit stumped by this challenge and I understand in retrospect why this is a good place to start. There are so many ways to interpret this challenge, whether it be my first food experience, my first authentic memory with food, or my first memory with something ‘typically’ Canadian. My struggle is in part owing to the fact that my childhood memories don’t generally revolve around food and those that do weren’t always good memories. Being told to eat the mushrooms on a pizza surely isn’t the kind of memory we’re going for here, right?
I’m also challenged by this because when I do recall foods from my childhood that are laden with sentiment and meaning, there isn’t a particular memory associated with the “first time” I ate or tasted these foods.
Finally, I’m challenged by the question as to what defines a Canadian food experience for a person growing up in this country? Can it be assumed that any experience of a person born or raised in this country will de facto be authentically Canadian?
As I shared previously, I didn’t grow up affluent and I didn’t grow up in a family that was very experimental when it came to food. The food on both sides of my family tree was authentically working-class and informed by the frugality of rural life … and how to stretch a pound of hamburger to feed eight or how to fill the hole with whatever was on hand and available. One side of my family was influenced by some mishmash of central-European (German?) farming roots. The other side was largely shaped by British food with a bit of Danish thrown in here and there. Really, it was the kind of food you’d read about in so many recipe compilations that defined Canadian food for so many of us growing up. I don’t think this was particularly Canadian as much as it was the way Canadians cooked with foods available in Canada and which tied us back to our respective roots. And it is typical of a multicultural country such as our own. But much like Canadian literature pre-Margaret Atwood or Robertson Davies, Canadian food was – and still was during my childhood – living in the shadows of the countries from which our ancestors had immigrated – and whose cuisine largely filled the pages of publications like Five Roses’ A Guide to Good Cooking or my Grandmother’s The Boston Cooking School Cook Book.
Having said all that, I don’t think “mile high strawberry pie” will qualify as authentic, though I loved this as a child and would gobble it out of the unguarded freezer; similarly, friendship cakes my mother and everyone in my neighbourhood were making for the better part of a year probably don’t count either, even though I ate a small pantry worth of candied fruit that year. Pinwheels, a recipe passed along from my grandmother, probably isn’t a good bet either since it is fundamentally British with “mince” (aka “ground beef”) wrapped in a biscuit dough: its comfort food for me and I’ll make at least one batch every winter, but it’s not distinctly Canadian. I’ll also dismiss the varenyky (a Ukrainian/Mennonite version of the more ubiquitous pierogi) as being “ethnic” no matter the fact that my maternal grandmother couldn’t really explain from where the recipe came – it’s also one of those dishes with mixed memories as I hated her varenyky filled with cottage cheese (blah!) but loved those filled with berries (Mmm).
While the recipes themselves may not be authentically Canadian, this mishmash of influences is nevertheless very Canadian and certainly very authentic … but, still, it is a mishmash. I’m sure I could make a good argument for writing about any one of the above foods and recipes (most of which can easily be found online as I’ve indicated above) but for me the real question of “authenticity” is based on the question that is begged by the challenge and project itself … and why this challenge is a good place to start. I suspect that over the twelve months of the project, we, as a mishmash of bloggers and Canadians, will come closer to answering that question: what is “authentic” Canadian food? And what the heck does it even mean to be Canadian?
As easy as it might be to end with the ambiguity of this opening, I do actually have a personal answer to this challenge, an authentic memory to share: one which takes me back to BC, back to my roots, back to the mountains and lakes which gave me life … to the very same landscape I visited just a month ago.
During the summers of my childhood, it seemed that every other weekend was spent camping or heading into the mountains that surrounded the Okanagan Valley. It started with tents, then a camper on the back of a truck, and finally we arrived in style towing a third-hand, 16 foot trailer behind my father’s truck upon which he also carried an aluminum boat. Off we’d fly, up the steep winding forestry roads to faraway places, skidding the trailer along behind us to campsites whose only amenity was an outhouse … and sometimes to little lakes no one but him and the logger he spoke to knew about and where even the outhouse didn’t exist.
I was probably 8 years old, maybe 10. My uncle had come back from Australia where he had met and married his wife and then stayed to live. Having moved back to Canada for a short stint, he and his wife came for a visit to our home and together, with my parents, sister and I, we all went camping and fishing up to Doreen Lake, a lake I had come to dozens of times over my childhood. I still remember that cool damp summer day, the mist low on the water as it rained lightly and us all wrapped up in thick jackets.
We’d been fishing all morning and had perhaps, between the six of us, caught as many fish. It was nearing noon when I got a tug on my rod and I knew at once that I had a fish on the other end. I set the hook with the practiced jerk of a boy who’d done this a hundred times or more and prepared to bring in the fish as my father gave the same instructions he’d given me a hundred times or more. I won’t make this a fish tale, but after about 15 minutes, I had a large trout in the net. I remember that at over three pounds this was a large fish for that mountain lake; and I also remember the fish had just started to change colour as it prepared to spawn and that this had my father debating what kind of trout it was exactly. As my father unhooked it and gave it to me to hold, there was much cheering and congratulations before he took it back to add it to the fish chain that held the rest of our catch and which trailed in the water beside the boat.
“How about a shore lunch?” said my Dad, as much as he asked.
“Oh yeah,” shouted my uncle in his adopted Australian accent, “I could eat a horse.” My uncle, a logger, is a lanky but strong man and he always had the greatest capacity to eat. In my mind, he was a Paul Bunyan of a man and if anyone could eat a horse, it was surely him. I loved him dearly and at my young age, all I ever remember hearing was that I was going to grow up to be like my Uncle Larry … and tall like him. In the end, things didn’t turn out as predicted, but at the age of 8 or 10, I wanted nothing more than to be like him.
My father spotted a small break in the shore that opened inland and he turned the boat towards it with speed and I listened to the shore scrape against the bottom of the boat as we landed.
We jumped ashore and set about gathering dry wood for a fire — not an easy task in this weather. I scampered through the brush and loaded up armfuls of wood that I brought back to the clearing where my uncle and I set about to build the fire. My father spent much of his life hunting and fishing and traipsing over these mountains: he was a survivor … but he was never one for the subtle art of being a woodsman. Out came the gas tank from the boat motor and he turned it over to liberally douse the wood and after lighting the end of gas covered stick, he tossed it into the mounded firepit we’d created and with a “va-voosh” the gas caught fire and so soon did the wet wood.
“Go clean the fish,” my father instructed and he handed me his hunting knife and my just caught fish plus two others.
And so I carried the fish down to the lake where, with practiced skill, I gutted and beheaded them, turning their offal into the waters of the shore where leeches and other life forms would eventually devour all the bits.
I returned with the cleaned fish and my Mom took out a roll of aluminum foil from the cooler along with the other necessary ingredients. I don’t know when exactly the shore lunch tradition started; it wasn’t long I don’t think, but over the year or two we’d been doing it, the ingredient list had grown a bit to become a nuanced fishing pantry … and a recipe: foil, butter, onions, fresh lemon slices, and salt and pepper mixed together.
And so my father laid out three sheets of foil on top of the cooler and on each one, he placed a cleaned fish. Inside each was tossed a tablespoon of butter, a few slices of onion, a slice of lemon, before he liberally sprinkled the whole fish, inside and out, with salt and pepper and then tightly wrapped them in the foil … and then he wrapped them with a second layer for extra protection.
My father then stirred the fire to create a bed of charred wood and embers away from the flames and then tucked in these mummified fish that looked more like little torpedoes than like dinner. There they cooked and bubbled away in the butter and their own juices for maybe 10 minutes on one side before he turned them and continued to cook them for another 7-10 minutes. He then reached into the fire with a branch or two and pulled them out, the shiny foil having now faded to pewter. Using the hunting knife, he carefully opened the foil pouches while I hovered closely and inhaled the sweet and savoury steam that rushed out. A few practiced pokes told him they were ready.
Stuff a tablespoon or two of butter, slices of onion, a few fresh lemon slices into a whole trout and liberally season with salt and pepper. Wrap tightly in foil and grill in the embers of a campfire for 15-20 minutes.
He then opened up the rest of the foil before scoring the fish along its spine with his knife. Then with knife and fork he carefully pulled the flesh from one side of the fish … leaving behind the fishbones still attached to the spine and tale. He then grabbed the tail and carefully levered the bones from the underside of the fish and, voila, he tossed the fish tale into the fire.
If you think I was waiting patiently for him to be done, you can be sure I wasn’t … I’ve never been a patient lad. Childish fingers would then dive in and snatch away scalding hot pieces of trout which I juggled in my hands as it cooled … and sucking down the cooling pieces into my mouth. I can still taste it now, the taste of the freshest trout, the freshest fish, I’ve ever eaten … the best fish I’ve ever eaten.
Those shore lunches set a bar against which I’ve measured almost all other fish since. And yes, that moment as much as any moment, made me into a fish snob. I don’t apologise. And, yes, that is why I roll my eyes with disdain when those here in my adopted home regale me with the splendor of pickerel and it’s why, worse, I make retching sounds when people talk about farmed trout. I admit, I’ve bought farmed trout a few times myself when I waxed nostalgic for that taste again. And each time I walk towards this mirage of my childhood, each time I arrive thoroughly and utterly disappointed. There will be nothing that will ever match the taste of that fish on that day.
Truly, I can’t imagine a more authentic first Canadian food experience. And, to this day, this remains one of the best meals of my life, eating the freshest fish possible, surrounded by family and the mountains and water that will always be home.
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The Canadian Food Project began the on June 7, 2013. On the 7th of each month, participants 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.