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A meditation on Canadian foodways


1. The $64 question.

As with most aspects of the national culture other than hockey, Canadians are cheerfully defensive about their cuisine--or presumed lack of one. The Canadian consciousness, it seems, never strays far from questions of identity. Even Suman Roy, who professes to believe that Canada does have its own distinctive foodways, adopts a tentative tone in From Pemmican to Poutine, his recently published “Journey through Canada’s Culinary History.”

“What is Canadian cuisine? Is it really just roasted Arctic animals and boiled backyard critters? I asked many Canadians and everyone had a different answer; each saw this cuisine through their [sic] own eyes. I think that this lack of consensus is the beauty of Canadian cuisine.” (Roy & Ali 7)

The skeptical reader may understandably conclude that Roy’s analysis disproves his thesis. Other sources would reinforce that perspective. In 2008, for example, The Gazette of Montreal ran an article called “Let’s eat Canadian, but is there really a national dish?” It quoted Prime Minister Joe Clark as declaring that “Canada has a cuisine of cuisines, a smorgasbord, not a stewpot.” (Pandi)

The existence or not of a ‘national dish’ hardly determines whether a national cuisine is discernable, however, and even if a single dish is not, distinctive regional foodways may coexist and eventually cross pollinate. That is the case in France, where the most traditional Gascon, Norman and Provencal foodways have little in common. Regional variations may be even greater in the United States. Louisiana, for instance, shares nearly nothing with New England.

2. The quest.

Attempting to track a traditional Canadian cuisine through published sources does not yield much. New France published nothing, and as Marc Lafrance and Yvon Desloges demonstrate in their often fastidious, sometimes disjointed history of Quebecoise foodways, “[u]ntil the middle of the nineteenth century, all the cookbooks sold in Canada came from Europe and all the chefs in the best restaurants and hotels were Europeans.” They should have limited European sources to Britain and France, and should have added the United States. Lafrance and Desloges themselves note as much elsewhere; “all the great works of middle-class cuisine of the period” reached Quebec, including the famed British bestsellers and “the Americans Simmons, Hale and Leslie.” (Lafrance 3, 4)

Elizabeth Driver corroborates these findings in her comprehensive, even intimidating Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949. Although she has found a staggering 2,269 Canadian imprints and seven more on Canadian cooking from Britain and the United States, the search was difficult. (Driver xvii, xix) Before 1950, most “Canadian cookbooks were produced outside of the conventional publishing realm, by food companies, kitchen equipment manufacturers, and women’s groups, not by regular publishers…. ” (Driver xix)

This contrasted with publishing practice in Britain and the United States. Hannah Glasse, for example, sold a lot of cookbooks: Her Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy was the bestseller on any subject during the eighteenth century and the myriad if bowdlerized editions of Mrs. Beeton had similar success in the nineteenth and twentieth. Both books sold well in Canada and the United States as well as in their native Britain.

What Driver did find was fragile. Historically, many Canadian ‘cookbooks’ are not books at all. “Many are physically unimpressive, almost ephemeral: small items of under 100 pages, with paper covers, stapled rather than sewn, and with a hole punched at the top left corner for hanging up in a kitchen, on a nail.” (Driver xix)


Canada_17th_c_kitchen.jpgA restored 17th C. Canadian Kitchen

3. Canadian beginnings.

As Driver’s title implies, the first Canadian cookbook, in French, did not appear until 1825 and it was only a reprint of Menon’s La cuisinière bourgeoise from eighteenth century France. The first Anglophone cookbook actually published in Canada did not reach print until six years later. It was written by an American and was first published in upstate New York, but those facts standing alone are deceptive. The brilliantly entitled volume, Cook Not Mad or Rational Cookery, is more Canadian than meets the proverbial eye. It was first printed in little Watertown on the Canadian border and according to Driver, Cook Not Mad was “likely not known outside its own state.” Furthermore, it “reflected Anglo-American tastes and practices shared on both sides of the border.” (Driver xxi, Plate 17 following 510) In other words it is a record of borderland foodways, more tied to Canadian than to American population centers.

Driver does a superb job of charting the sequence and significance of Canadian cooking publications that is beyond the scope of this review, but it does bear noting that the first cookbook by a Canadian author in English appeared only in 1840 and immediately careened to oblivion. The Frugal Housewife’s Manual by an “A. B., of Grimsby” never saw a second edition and only two copies survive, “despite the fact that it was undoubtedly a useful and carefully chosen collection.” (Driver xxi)

One French language publisher fared somewhat better, but its single cookbook by a Canadian author was the only one that appeared in Canada until 1878 and its print runs were low. This modest Canadian success story, La Cuisinière canadienne by Louis Perrault, coincidentally also first appeared in 1840; later editions would acquire various names. Lafrance and Desloges cite it, and include some of its recipes, but reflect historical Canadian practice in leaning on foreign publications for most of what they consider French Canadian practice before the end of the nineteenth century.

At first it appears that Lafrance and Desloges consider La Cuisinière canadienne groundbreaking despite its relatively limited circulation: “For the first time, a so-called ‘national’ cuisine had emerged.” One of the later editions, La Nouvelle Cuisinière canadienne, even “contained 22 recipes referred to as ‘Canadian-style’ as well as several recipes for game or fish native to Canada.” Even better, the book was aimed at the general public rather than at a smaller pool of professionals, so it would seem that La Cuisinière charted the popular foodways, at least of Quebec if not Canada writ large. (Lafrance 103, 104)


Palais de L’intendant, Quebec


4. English intrusions.

After some bold assertions, however, Lafrance and Desloges retreat to something like the ‘lack of consensus’ and ‘smorgasbord’ models:

“While recipes of regional origin were included in it, La Cuisinière canadienne was not a repertory of what, today, we refer to as traditional Quebec cuisine…. Inspired by the type of cooking practiced in Canada, it also drew on French, English and even American cuisine, recipes of which were circulating in Quebec at this time.” (Lafrance 103)

Elsewhere they state generally that during the mid-nineteenth century a “Canadian cuisine, with its strong roots, was firmly based on the culinary traditions of early eighteenth-century France, as well as English and American culinary practices!” (emphasis in original) (Lafrance 103)

To return to primary sources, La Cuisiniere ‘borrowed’ several preparations straight from French publications and included “some twenty English recipes, twelve of which were for puddings.” An English influence pervades the book: “Certain herbs and spices from traditional English cuisine, such as cayenne pepper, savory and sage were often used. The sauces accompanying dishes, were thickened not with roux but by sprinkling the meat with flour, and in particular, browned flour.” (Lafrance 104)


Despite all this and their own disclaimers, Lafrance and Desloges also cite La Cuisine canadienne and an immediate successor, Les Directions diverses données en 1878 by a Mère Caron, as evidence of the “Canadianization” of cookery in Quebec, but their discussion of the alleged phenomenon is, at least in English translation, garbled.

Oddly enough, these Francophone writers would seem to ascribe the development of a distinctively Canadian cuisine originating in Quebec to the dissemination of English influence there. They ‘explain’ that “the English influence” in La Cuisinière canadienne was “evident in what most differentiates the work from the French middle-class cuisine, that is the ‘Canadianization.’” (Lafrance 104) Then they add that “Caron takes us further and further from the middle-class and professional French cuisine; the ‘Canadianization’ process and English influence are present more than ever in her collection.” (Lafrance 104)

What this evolution to ‘Canadianization’ means is not altogether clear, but appears to reflect a judgment that to become properly Canadian, foodways had to be democratic and, coincidentally, reflect an increasing English, later British, influence. The significance of  ‘English’ foodways never gets any exposition, but it may be fair to infer that the authors credit the wider dissemination of English rather than French cooking manuals throughout the Atlantic world, and the more accessible English publications aimed at a popular rather than elite readership, to their greater influence.

If, however, that is the case, how do Lafrance and Desloges convince us that Canada developed its own cuisine, or at least its distinctive variation on a British model? They do not, so at this point the search for evidence of an authentic Canadian cuisine or cuisines appears more than a little daunting.


5. Atlantic foodways.

The answer lies, as a cultural anthropologist might insist, with a popular and in our case impoverished culture that initially lay outside the precincts of publication. In general, Canadian foodways outside of Quebec have remained British foodways to an extent not found beyond, perhaps not even within, the islands of the North Sea. A Canadian family, for example, is more likely to sit down to a dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding than its counterpart in Britain today.

Atlantic Canadians, however, developed something different. What we consider distinctively Canadian evolved in the less urban parts of Quebec, in the hardscrabble Maritimes and off the coast of eastern Canada and New England. That is where we can discern the origins of chowder, sometimes in Canada called chaud or tchaud; in any dialect a child of the seas off Newfoundland and New England, as John Thorne has argued.

The humble soups, stews, pies and preserved foods of the St. Lawrence gulf and Atlantic coast taste most distinctively Canadian, dishes like chowder, and cipaille, drunkard’s and bread soup, fricot, ploys, pot en pot, rappie pie and tourtiere. Many were what Arnaud Michaud aptly labels ‘survival foods,’ cheap dishes that could be made from hardy foodcrops and preserved ingredients. It is easier, for example, to succeed with buckwheat than with wheat itself in a short, even unpredictable growing season; a taste for ployes grew out of necessity, and the enterprising Bouchard family has revived interest in it, a sort of rustic buckwheat crumpet, turning a sturdy profit in the process.

Nomenclature does not always determine the origin of these recipes; as in Louisiana, many foods of Atlantic Canada bear French names but not French patrimony. Cipaille is simply a phonetic interpolation of the English sea pie; tourtiere, a characteristically Canadian meat pie with obvious English antecedents, is named not for something from France but rather is a derivation of the French term for the extinct carrier pigeon that originally formed its filling. If we substitute potato for mirliton, we can find something similar to tourtiere in eighteenth century Jamaica, also using pork and originally based on pigeon too, from Devonshire. (Sullivan 19, recipe 64; bfia Number 20, the practical: ‘Caribbean mirliton pie’)


Montreal food market

Foods like cipaille or tourtiere have survived the debasing advent of ‘fast’ and ‘convenient’ food because they are good. Martin Picard serves cipaille at Au Pied de Cochon, his celebrated restaurant in Montreal. His version is predictably unpredictable, complex and alone worth a trip to the city.

The Maritime diet may have been monotonous to those who eked their survival from it in the eighteenth and even nineteenth centuries, but if this food is not the only food you eat, then it is most appealing. And like so many dishes derived from familial folkways, these foods have so many variations that they inspire friendly debate among the people who continue to cook them.

6. The great white Maritime north.

These foods were born not just of subsistence but also of the harsh northern climate. In Acadia for example, roughly New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, eastern Quebec and parts of northern Maine,

“there were no more than six or seven varieties of vegetables central to the traditional diet which included turnips, cabbage, beans, corn, peas and onions. In 1708, Diereville wrote in his Relation du voyage du Port Royal de l’Acadie ou de la Nouvelle France about the Acadian love of cabbage and turnips…. Probably born of necessity…. ” (Cormier-Boudreau xiii, 107)


A Canadian apple market

Techniques of preservation dictated what could be eaten during the winter months, and these were vegetables that could be kept in a cellar under sand or hung from the beam of an attic. Preserved foods, whether dried, salt or pickled, also aided survival, and through the end of the twentieth century Acadians retained a taste for those herbes salées and for salt pork in particular, which finds a way into all manner of foods both savory and sweet. Sometimes the climate cooperated; before the advent of refrigeration Acadians even froze meat in sheds or underground during the reliably cold winters. (Cormier-Boudreau xv)

In the nineteenth century, potatoes would become “so central to the diet that they were seen as a food group in and of themselves.” By then they would appear at every meal. In contrast, carrots, cucumbers and lettuce “were never part of the traditional Acadian diet.” (Cormier-Boudreau 107-08)

The variety of fruit available to early Acadians was similarly constrained. Wild berries--blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, gooseberries and strawberries--thrived in the region, but “[t]he only fruit trees which grew with any degree of success were apple trees…. ” Sugar was both expensive and scarce, so Acadians did not make much jam. Instead they wrapped and stored their apples in paper, or dried them along with blueberries (these on a string), and kept cranberries in brine. (Cormier-Boudreau xiii, xiv, xv) If dearth may help to define a cuisine, then these facts point to a distinctive one in Maritime Canada.

So at least in Acadia, a characteristic Canadian cuisine has indeed existed. Preparations include those hearty stews (fricot and pot en pot) and pies (cipaille, tourtière and more) as well as other combinations. While the region has evolved distinctive dishes, it is hard not to think that the genesis of this food may be found in Britain. Cipaille and tourtière are not alone; the austere dumplings beloved of earlier Acadians look a lot like the earlier English versions absent their expensive shortening, and a traditional sweet pie filled with molasses but also flavored with the characteristically Acadian addition of salt pork appears to be a direct (if more interesting) descendant of treacle pie.

For all but the elites, the New World in North America was a better world in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The poorer and middling sort ate better, or at least more, and lived longer than their cousins in Europe. The Acadian diet was healthy; these tough, appealing people worked hard all their lives and their longevity was celebrated. Like the tough rural Yankees to the south, their distinctive if circumscribed foodways reflected both Old World tradition and New World conditions, and suited them. We could do a lot worse than honor their foodways too.



Marielle Cormier-Boudreau & Melvin Gallant, A Taste of Acadie (Fredericton, New Brunswick 1991)

Elizabeth Driver, Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949 (Toronto 2008)

Marc Lafrance & Yvon Desoges, A Taste of History: The Origins of Quebec’s Gastronomy (Westmount, Quebec 1989)

George Pandi, “Let’s eat Canadian, but is there really a national dish?” The Gazette [Montreal] (5 April 2008)

Martin Picard, Jean-Francois Boily et al., Au pied de Cochon--The Album (Montreal 2006)

Suman Roy & Brooke Ali, From Pemmican to Poutine: a Journey through Canada’s        Culinary History (Toronto 2010)

Caroline Sullivan, A Collection of 19th Century Jamaican Cookery and Herbal Recipes ‘Reproduced as they were written and given to John Kenneth McKenzie Pringle, C.B.E…. ’ (Kingston, Jamaica 1990)