Andrew Coppolino: Canada's food identity is regional, not national

Andrew Coppolino suggests there are very few Canadian foods that represent the whole country - instead, regional specialities are emblems of the country's geographic and cultural diversity.
The peameal bacon sandwich, a Toronto classic.

Canadians don't really have a single unifying food and a catch-all food phrase such as "hot dogs and apple pie" like Americans do.

We're too complex – and too large – a country for that. 

While celebrating a nation requires a toast to its food and the ingredients that go into it, can a diverse country, and one spread out over so many regions coast to coast to coast, claim any one single Canadian food? I don't think so.

Poutine is the too-easy default, and it represents a food that, though delicious, has been as much about savvy product marketing as anything else. There are many defining foods that give Canada a regional, rather than a national, food identity.

Indigenous food traditions

The Mohawk Seed Keepers Facebook group encourages traditional indigenous gardening practices and seed saving. (courtesy Terrylynn Brant/Facebook)

But before sampling different regions, let's state that founding peoples on this continent before it was Canada had sustainable food production and food cultures from settled agriculture to nomadic foraging, according to author and food activist Anita Stewart.

For instance, beans, corn and squash – "The Three Sisters" – were major crops that have been grown here for a very long time.   

 "They had food traditions which in some ways were more fluid than ours. As settlers arrived, they brought their own seeds and had their own ideas of what food was. They saw what they thought was a barren land and no agriculture to speak of particularly. The reality was there was a lot of agriculture happening here," says Stewart.

 Maple syrup is a national treasure – and predominantly a Quebec ingredient with Ontario taking second place – but birch and black walnut trees yield their sap for reduction to a sweet elixir too. That had been done here by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years.

It's the same with the little known Jerusalem artichoke, a tuber that Samuel de Champlain noticed Indigenous peoples eating as long ago as 1600 and which he brought back to France and which became known as the "Canada potato."

Indigenous peoples collected maple sap to turn into syrup long before settlers arrived. (Matthews Maple Syrup / Facebook)

 ​A smorgasbord of Canadian foods 

The Maritimes have cod cheeks and tongues and Jiggs dinners, and the Acadian pork-potato dish rappie pie (or pâté râpé). 

Seal flipper pie has been around for a long time, too. In Montreal, in fact, there are nearly two dozen restaurants that serve seal meat. That is certainly a defining food.

To that list, you could also add the popular Halifax donair which claims a distinct niche in the Canadian food landscape. Otherwise, Quebec boasts both classic tourtière of minced pork, as well as cretons, the rustic and spicy pork spread.

But what do you pick for Ontario? The Hawaiian pizza of Chatham? Wild blueberries and pickerel of northern Ontario? Cheddar cheese or Waterloo County fare like pig tails and smoked pork hocks that really schmeck, as Edna Staebler called it?

What single defining food can be found given the umpteen international flavours and dishes that exist in a teeming metropolis like Toronto?  Changing demographics has meant a significant increase in the number of shawarma restaurants popping up: what has evolved has been the unique hybrid shawarma poutine.

Shawarma poutine gives the Canadian classic a Middle Eastern twist. (Olya Krasavina/La Poutine Week)

 Heading west, there's smoked whitefish, say, and prairie oysters and Saskatoon berries, whose name derives from a Cree word. The famous Caesar cocktail was born in Calgary in the late 1960s, and on the Pacific coast British Columbians enjoy shellfish, salmon, smoked fish, game, berries and mushrooms; for sweets, they have given the country Nanaimo bars. In the north, caribou, Arctic char and seal meat could be called defining dishes.

Nanaimo bars, named for Nanaimo, B.C., are a classic Canadian dessert.

For many of these items, however, only a small percent of the Canadian population have ever, or ever will, eat them. Like poutine, back bacon and butter tarts would make the short list for Canadian foods; the latter, for instance, is the object of tourism initiatives in the form of "butter tart trails" in both Wellington County and the Kawarthas. But does the definitive butter tart have raisins or pecans, or neither? Does it have a more solid centre or runny? These are weighty questions. 

Does local and seasonal define us?

Canadian foods from Waterloo region and Southern Ontario include: Jerusalem artichoke chips, Jerusalem artichoke vegetable - a tuber, butter tart with nuts, runny butter tart with raisins, black walnut tree syrup, butter tart with maple. (Gary Graves/CBC)

Ultimately, we are left with the concept that what is specifically local defines a region's cuisine, rather than anything national like a hotdog, apple pie, or even poutine. What we source locally and seasonally defines a culinary identity, to which we can add that which is foraged from the wild, like Canada's first peoples thousands of years ago. Perhaps that defines us and unites us? 

"We have so much," Stewart says, adding that, in the purest sense, all the regions of Canada are rich in this respect.

"That richness can give us a point of differentiation in our cuisine no matter where we are in Canada that no other nation can emulate. It's ours."


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