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Anita Stewart's Canada

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By Malcolm Jolley


I'm not sure where to begin with Anita Stewart: her life or her book? Or maybe both since the latter covers a lot of the former, hence the title Anita Stewart's Canada. On its most basic level it's a cookbook with recipes culled from Canadians from all over the country. But it's different. For instance, it's the only cookbook I've ever seen with a full page photo of a cold blustery windswept farm field. The photo is such a stark relief from the Tuscan or Provencal Cypress tree imagery I am used to seeing between recipes in the imports that come ceaselessly across my desk. That picture makes it very clear, very quickly that the comes from somewhere. It's easy enough to put the word "Canada" in the title of a book, bring out a few regional classic recipes, but this is different. The farm belongs to a friend of Anita's (I'll use her first name because I consider myself a friend too) and was taken by the author. In fact all the photos of Canadian life, mostly rural, scattered throughout the pages, were taken by her. The close-up pictures of the food were taken by Robert Wigington*. Of course, he's a friend too. Anita knows a lot of people, and it's a good thing because her beautiful book is full of their recipes and stories. I spent an hour reading the book, when first got it, and didn't study a single recipe. I was too caught up in the history and geography and people of the country. On the second pass, when I started to think about what to cook, the recipes made beautiful sense. I didn't just want to cook the tagine from Temiskaming, I wanted to go to the local food festival and meet the Moroccan émigré who cooked it for Anita and became her friend.

Anita Stewart's Canada travels all around and offers the recipes Anita has culled from more than a quarter century of writing about food in Canada. But there are few celebrity chefs. "Of course not!" she laughs when I said I was surprised, "that would be obvious. And, besides, this is about what people actually cook!" What a revolutionary idea: a Canadian cookbook based on what people (um, you know, "Canadians") cook at home, with locally sourced ingredients. Not that Anita doesn't like chefs: she works with them all the time in her capacity as a consultant (helping create menus that reflect local foods) and as a founder/member of Cuisine Canada. That's why when we have lunch at the Royal York Chef David Garcelon comes by to say hello, and why later at Anita's book launch at Canoe, Chef Anthony Walsh is right there passing out canapés. As pioneering 'culinary activist' understands that the real understanding of foodways, traditions - of just eating well - must happen at home.

"It's the story of survival, isn't it? That's Canadian cuisine!" The simplicity of the food in the book reflects this. She tells me she understands what it's like to turn flour, eggs, butter, sugar and fruit in season into big family treat and not just from reading Susanna Moodie. As a single mum, Anita fed "four kids under five" and often was not sure how she'd pay for the next day's groceries. But she did it, none of her sons starved and she created a job for herself as a food writer, communicator and educator before there were any. This theme of survival seems there from the beginning. One of her early books, The Lighthouse Cookbook, seemed like a lark to me. I wondered, jokingly, if lighthouse keepers were somehow better than average cooks? "Of course! It's the isolation! You can't keep bread for a month. You half to learn to cook everything from scratch." There's that element too in the recipes from Anita's friends who chose, as opposed to being born, here. Not just the struggle of the immigrant, but the survival of the tradition of the old country and its reinvention as Canadian.

The book is divided into chapters based on ingredients, which lends itself to seasonality and geography. One of my favourite chapters is devoted to salmon, not just because I learned from it how the history of Canada is bound up in the fish from pre-Columbian times on both coasts, but also because it still is. If there's a fish being cooked in a kitchen on your street (my street) tonight, it's probably salmon. For better or for worse, it's a forgiving fish and widely available. It makes sense to separate it from the rest of the fruits of the sea (and lakes and rivers). Not that Anita doesn't address the issue of farmed versus wild. She offers no easy answers, but does make the interesting  note that all but one of the salmon farms in Canadian waters are foreign owned. We both agreed, while devouring a plate of Brian Fanning's smoked Atlantic, it was a shame that Central Canadians didn't eat more freshwater fish. Why pay $30 a pound for something from a factory boat when pickerel has been scientifically proven to be the most delicious fish ever, I ventured. (See page 83 for Anita's 'Pickerel with Salt and Chili', adapted from Stephen Wong's crab recipe and accompanied with a quick explanation of the despicable Head Tax.)

Like so much about our country, our culinary traditions seem strange to us: that is to say we might know more about pasta than dumplings. What I love most about Anita Stewart's Canada is that is ultimately familiar. I've never been to Campbell River, but the stunning imagery from there taps into visions of our country that used to be in greater circulation - like the fishing boat there that was on the five dollar bill. Do I really care if Gordon Ramsay opens his 55th restaurant in Toronto? Not as much as reading about the illustrious history of the Yukon Gold potato. I am not closed to the great world of food, I edit a website named after a Piedmontese garnish. But it's really nice to read and cook home. I know Anita isn't closed either, but she's too busy learning and teaching about Canada to worry about anything else. And I'm glad.

* The food styling is credited to the team of Olga Truchan and Wendy Bowen.


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