When we think of a Canadian meal, we think of beef, pork, lamb, chicken, milk, and all the fixings.
Spring is here and the BBQ has likely been dusted off to welcome these old flames to our weary winter palate. As Canadians, we set the table with favourites such as lasagna, burgers of every description, the fried dough named beaver tails, and other regional goodies that just seem so Canadian.
How does peanut butter and the California roll fit into our identity as Canadians?
Although we do not grow much in the way of peanuts nor do we harvest white rice, these are Canadian inventions.
Marcellus Gilmore Edson was born in Bedford, Que. in 1849 and became a pharmacist in Montreal. Concerned about those who could not chew food, he created peanut butter by milling peanuts between heated plates and added sugar to give it consistency. In 1884, he patented the spread and Canada’s favourite snack, the peanut, became a household staple in the form of peanut butter.
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What happens when you turn sushi inside out? According to Chef Hidekazu Tojo, you get a California Roll. The Vancouver chef introduced the roll in 1971 and it was so popular with the American customers that it earned the name California Roll.
In 1952, a chocolate square was featured in the ladies hospital auxiliary cookbook in Nanaimo but it was a year later before Edith Adams called it a Nanaimo Bar in her self-titled cookbook. There is no actual proof that the Nanaimo Bar had its origin in that city on Vancouver Island, but Nanaimo has claimed it for decades — and no one seems to argue or care as long as the little dessert is at every party and can be purchased in the grocery or bakery.
On the plate beside the Nanaimo Bar, you are likely to see another Canadian dessert: the butter tart. It has a fascinating history.
From 1663 to 1673, at least 770 young women were sent to Quebec by King Louis XIV to contribute to colonization. Known as the King’s Daughters (Filles du roi), these single women faced hardships and had to make do with what was around them. So they made little sugar pies which became known as butter tarts and to this day, they are greatly celebrated, especially in Ontario where there are annual butter tart events. (At this point, I would like to thank American Joseph Shivers for inventing Spandex.)
In the 1950s when a client asked the restaurant owner for cheese curds on their fries, the owner responded by saying, ‘That will make a dreadful mess.’ Perhaps so, but since that day in Warwick, Que., Canadians have identified with poutine. When I travel to stay in Montreal, there is a shop on the corner with pails of gravy and pails of curds that they pile on mounds of limp fries. It is a cholesterol climb for sure, but that does not deter the lineup at the door.
During the same period of time, a scientist at Agriculture Canada looked at the potato differently and the end result was flaked instant mashed potatoes. Chemist Edward Anton Asselbergs created flakes from dried potatoes and (despite on-again, off-again popularity) instant potatoes have been a mainstay on dinner tables ever since.
The deepest roots in our history are Indigenous and these good folks made bannock from camas root (blue lily) that was dried and ground. The introduction of grain-based flour changed the recipe and bannock remains flour based today. This is a personal favourite of mine when baked in a cast iron pan on an open fire or fried.
What is so interesting about these great Canadian foods is that some of them were created from a need to fill a humanitarian need, such as peanut butter. When folks cannot chew the usual sources of protein, peanut butter is a great option. Others, such as the California Roll, were a fun creation that simply gained traction. Like many interesting food stories from around the world, these two items are made from imported products. Both Edson and Tojo simply added value to the imported product.
And though we don’t know the real history behind the little bar claimed by Nanaimo, the history behind the equally loved butter tart is intriguing. The chocolate square created from abundance, and the other, the little sugar pie, created out of necessity.
The humble potato was jazzed up in Quebec and pared down in the lab resulting in poutine and potato flakes. As for bannock, its history lies deep in the roots of our nation.
The farms, fields, forests, gardens, and kitchens of our country are abundant, creative spaces that not only reflect our culture and historical tapestry, but our economic future in terms of adding value and in being food secure.
Whether born out of curiosity or necessity, the foods and food products of Canada are as diverse and interesting as her people. Welcome to our table.