Anita Stewart on the history of Canadian cuisine


Anita Stewart is one of Canada's best-known food writers. She's the founder of Food Day, is a member of the Order of Canada and penned the seminal Canadian cookbook The Flavours of Canada and the popular follow-up Anita Stewart's Canada. But what is "Canadian cuisine"? And how has it changed over the years?

CBC's Homestretch decided to find out. They partnered with Anita for a three-part summer series about Canadian food, and CBC Books will showcase all three segments here.

Part One: The first Canadian food:

media clip

Canadian cuisine dates back 18,000 years -- the age of the oldest salmon fossil found in Kamloops, British Columbia. About 10,000 years ago, Canadian cuisine consisted of what could be hunted, gathered and grown. "It was absolutely the focal point of all life," Stewart told Homestretch host Doug Dirks. "It was around food that Canada's early history was actually founded."

Culinary supply lines helped form trade routes and communities were built around the best agricultural lands. At this time, Canada was divided by language and geographical borders, not political ones. Geography and weather dictated food shipments, unlike today, where provincial jurisdictions dictate what can be sent where and when. Stewart says this encouraged Canadian cuisine to develop organically.

Farming was part of Canada's earliest days as well. "Agriculture was a huge part of life," Stewart said. Agriculture was dominated by the "three sisters": beans, corn and squash. These crops were grown all across the country, were versatile, long-lasting and hardy, three characteristics that were essential to surviving the Canadian winters. Other early Canadian staples were fish, seaweed, edible roots and even maple syrup.

The quest to find food was a dominant theme in Canadian culture. Food routes became important trade routes, relationships between the explorers and the aboriginal people were influenced by food. The Basques came for cod, Champlain's Order of Good Cheer "was the first feasting society in North America," and the Acadians built dykes for farming along the coast, transforming the east coast politically and geographically. These are just a few of the examples, Stewart said, of how food, the search for food or the sharing of food, has shaped our country.

"Canada's food stories are woven into our entire culture, right back to day one," Stewart said. "It's amazing."

Part Two: Immigration and food:

media clip

Immigration has also had a big influence on Canadian cuisine. "Food is really on the move," Stewart told Airplay host Dave White in part two of her Flavours of Canada series. "Every nation is a storehouse of ingredients in other places." Stewart points to modern Italian cuisine as a great contemporary example of how food can evolve as it crossed cultures and borders: tomato for sauce is a relatively new development, but one that's strongly associated with Italian cooking and eating these days.

This kind of adaptation has been going on as long as Canada has existed. "Although the first settlers came to what we now call Canada for fish and furs and freedom, they also brought with them some very real food traditions and ingredients that support this tradition," Stewart said. Apples and potatoes both came from elsewhere. But the earliest settlers brought something else required to make Canadian food successful: tenacity and a willingness to work with Canada's difficult growing seasons. "It always strikes me that the men and women and kids who journeyed up the mud road into the wilderness were not a bunch of wusses."

Part Three: Eating out:

media clip

While "eating out" these days brings to mind restauarants and take-out, it's actually always been part of Canadian culture. Eating out in Canada actually began outside because [eating] outside log houses and beside campfires is actually where it happened," Stewart told Dave White in the final part of her Flavours in Canada series. "Our country really is one of pow-wows and potlatches and one with drumming and dancing with great spiritual and even political significance." These feasts often signified important events, such as births, deaths and marriages. "The celebrations all revolved around food...the goal was to make sure guests never leave hungry or empty-handed."

Today, these celebrations look very different, but are still an important part of Canadian culture: turkey dinners at the local church and pancake breakfasts at the local fire hall are huge parts of rural Canadian communities. "The notion was and is of plenty," Stewart said. "Cooking communally brings people together, whether it's the bread ovens of old Quebec or the bread ovens that are built today in cities like Toronto."

Canadians like to eat. And we like to do it together. It's part of our history.