Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

PANCAKES, EH?

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Over on CBC.ca I have a new article about pancakes. I used to be a chef and I do a lot of food writing. Years ago a Vietnamese cook asked me for some examples of Canadian food. Agh! That is such a difficult question. To me, it is another vein of that seemingly unanswerable "What is Canada?" question. That cook could give me all kinds of examples of Vietnamese food and she was really puzzled when I couldn't come up with much of an answer to her question. I think she thought there was something wrong with me, because to her, the idea of "a cuisine" was integral to national identity. What is Canadian food? Lobster? Blueberry pie? Rye whisky? Baked beans? At the time, the best I could come up with was the grilled cheese sandwich. It strikes me now, that the pancake also fits (and I'm talking about the flapjack variety with butter and maple syrup).

But then, cuisines tend to be defined by geography. Try telling someone from the prairies or the north that maple syrup is Canadian. It’s about as Canadian as the maple leaf on our flag, right? Except that a massive expanse of the country doesn’t have any maple trees. To someone from Yellowknife, we may as well have put a lobster on the flag. And pancakes and syrup? Well they are just as popular in, say, Vermont as they are in Quebec. Americans love the grilled cheese as much as Canadians do.

The truth is, food doesn’t understand borders in the same way that language doesn’t. Both are, generally, shared between people with common geographical interests. The food of Southern Ontario, where I live, is amazing. There are individual ingredients that are abundant here, and because of this, certain dishes are extremely popular here. But a lot of those ingredients are just as abundant in Michigan and New York as well, and while preparations may vary slightly, many of the same dishes I love here are cherished south of the border as well.

So I’ll go out on a limb and say it: Canada doesn’t and never will have its own truly national unifying cuisine. We have loads of great food here, thousands of talented chefs and cooks, and an astounding array of ingredients at our fingertips. But the expanse of the country makes it impossible for a national cuisine to evolve.

Think I’m wrong? I’d love to hear about it. What do you think Canadian cuisine is?

And just for fun, below are a few links to some of my recent food articles.

Mennonite pork, an Alsatian chef, and a Toronto Restaurant.

Galicains know what their cuisine is.

Some food is beyond classification.

Is poutine the most Canadian of dishes?

5 comments

"...a Canadian would know exactly what KD is, but an American would not."...very interesting

The location of Smoke's is really terrible. And there isn't enough seating. I can't imagine what it would be like on a Saturday night at 2am.

And after doing some research, I'm wrong about the mac and cheese. Kraft introduced it to Canada and the US at the exact same time, but called it "Kraft Dinner" in Canada and "Kraft Macaroni and Cheese" in the US, so a Canadian would know exactly what KD is, but an American would not.

@calisaurus - btw, mac & cheese is Canadian? really?

@calisaurus - I have not been to Smoke's yet. I walked by it the other day and was mightily tempted, but I was running short on time. Not a great location...unless you're stumbling out of one those night clubs down there at 2am. (Not my scene.)

Thanks for the recipe link. I have made the same pancakes that I posted in the CBC article with bananas instead of blueberries. Not a fan of the banana pancake. I don't know why. Strawberries in them are good, but they have to be good strawberries, in season. Not the frankenberries we see (here in Toronto) in February.

That's an interesting site, peanutbutterboy.com. Hemingway used to eat peanut butter and onion sandwiches. He writes about them in Islands in the Stream. I tried them once and surprisingly they were pretty good. But you have to have a nice, sweet onion.

I read your poutine article in Toronto Life before reading your WIR blogs - very interesting. When I lived in Kingston a restaurant in Kingston called Le Chien Noir had this amazing duck poutine. I see now it's made with veal. Have you been to Smoke's Poutinerie yet in Toronto?

I'm not sure what foods can be defined as Canadian. I too, would say maple syrup. Macaroni and cheese without having to say the "kraft" in front of it? Beaver tails? That's all I've got. I do love a good pancake though, and I make mine with oats and cottage cheese. See here for an AMAZING recipe. :)

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Shaun Smith

Shaun Smith is a novelist and journalist living in Toronto. His young adult novel Snakes & Ladders was published in January 2009 by the Dundurn Group.

Go to Shaun Smith ’s Author Page