Canadian Food History - Part 1
The idea for this post came to me from the fine folks at Synarbor Canada. Synarbor specializes in helping overseas candidates land teaching jobs in the United Kingdom. In order to help their Canadian recruits get settled in London, they recently released this guide to help Canadians find some of their favourite home comforts while abroad. In addition to putting together this handy list of where to find poutine and hockey in downtown London, they've also asked me to write a couple posts about the history of some of Canada's signature foods.
I had a great time researching some of my favourite meals and I feel like I know a little more about my country. So sit back, grab a bottle of Molson and come along for the ride.
It's impossible to write about Canadian food without mentioning Poutine. It's probably our country's most famous dish and in a way its become our culinary signature. The exact origins of poutine are hotly debated, but there is no doubt that it originated in rural Quebec in the late 1950s or early 1960s.
The key thing to remember about poutine is that it is made with french fries, gravy, and cheese curds. This last part is crucial. It isn't real poutine if it doesn't have cheese curds. That's what makes it Canadian; that's what makes it so delicious. In fact, the abundance of fromageries in rural Quebec and the proximity to a never-ending supply of cheese curds is thought to be one of the key factors in the birth of poutine.
Like I said, the exact inventor of poutine is debated, with several rural Quebecois diner owners claiming to have been the first to combine these three ingredients. In Warwick, the owner of Cafe Ideal Fernand Lachance, claims to have first added cheese curds to french fries (as per a customer request) in 1957. The combination took off among his clientele and he says he added the hot brown gravy in 1963 when customers complained that the fries got cold too quickly.
Another diner-owner, Jean-Paul Roy of Drummondville, claims to have been serving fries with gravy since 1958. When he noticed his customers adding cheese curds to the dish he put their new creation on the menu.
If you ask me, simply serving fries and gravy doesn't make poutine. And simply serving fries and cheese curds doesn't cut it either. It's the combination of all three that make it magic. And regardless of who exactly came up with the combination first, it seems to have been a combined effort between restauranteur and customer.
Nowadays poutine has made it around the world and has moved up from his humble diner origins. Now you can find a million variations everywhere from McDonald's to high quality restaurants.
In the UK, people are familiar with "chips, cheese, and gravy" which has been around for decades, perhaps even before the invention of poutine. But this dish is usually served with shredded cheddar or mozzarella instead of curds. This may be delicious, but it is definitely not poutine. Since we live in a global village these days, you can now find the real thing in downtown London. Click here to find out where.
Here in Toronto, it's easy to find bacon poutine, pulled pork poutine, lobster poutine, and countless other variations. But if you ask any Canadian, the best poutine is the simple original.
If you're reading this post from outside Canada, you are probably familiar with peameal bacon, but you probably call it "Canadian bacon". This juicy, thick-cut bacon was invented in 1875 by a British-born Torontonian named William Davies.
Davies was a big player in the pork industry at the time and realized that Canadian pork was of high quality and would sell well in England. In an effort to preserve the pork for its exportation to Europe, Davis experimented with different combinations of salt, brine, and powedered meal until he landed on the bacon we love today. Peameal was a common product at the time, made from crushed dried peas, and that's what Davis used to coat the outside of the cured pork loin to help with preservation. Now we use cornmeal but the name has stuck.
In a way, we Canadians have England to thank for our signature bacon. Sure it's a Canadian product, but it wouldn't have been invented without Davis' desire to share our best foods with England.
You may all be familiar with a Bloody Mary, but here in Canada we drink Bloody Caesars. Apparently Caesars are virtually unheard of outside Canada. This is probably because the ingredients are super-weird, but the rest of the world is missing out because, in this case, super-weird also equals super-delicious.
The Caesar was invented in 1969 by a man named Walter Chell. He was the manager of the Calgary Inn at the time and was asked to create a new signature drink for the hotel's Italian restaurant.
Chell took inspiration from the Italian menu, specifically Spaghetti Vongole or Spaghetti with Clams. Hd combined clam juice, tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, and celery salt in a glass with vodka and called it a cocktail.
At this point you're probably thinking "what kind of crazy person drinks clam juice?" or "what kind of crazy person liquifies pasta and calls it a cocktail?" A Canadian. That's who.
It sounds like a pretty strange combination of ingredients, but I'm pretty sure that Chell drew inspiration from the already popular Bloody Mary. The only real difference between these two drinks is the addition of the clam juice and celery salt. The Bloody Mary had already proven that most of these ingredients could work well together, but Chell took it to the next level and added a depth of flavour that can't be underrated. Later that same year, Mott's launched Clamato juice so now you can buy tomato juice and clam juice conveniently mixed together as one.
This drink is really hard to find outside of Canada, but the American Foodstore in London sells Clamato juice, so if you're in the UK you can mix one of these babies up at home.
OK, that was one long post! I might have gotten a little carried away, but I love history and I love food so I couldn't help myself! Stay tuned for part two, there are a few more Canadian classics I definitely can't leave out. And if you're toying with the idea of teaching abroad, make sure you check out Synarbor.