Not just poutine
Some Canadian foods, and how they got here
There’s more to the food of Canada than poutine (and maple syrup). Since I’ve been spending time in Ontario, it’s this province’s foods that I’ve learned about, such as:
I grew up in a once-British-colonized country, and perhaps that’s why leftover vestiges of the colonial era catch my eye.
These little bits of long ago are like the seashore after the tide has gone out, leaving curious detritus that belong in another habitat.
They take the form of Anglo street names and the symmetrical, two-storey architecture favored by the British, all those extraneous ‘u’s in words…and British or British-inspired foods: Tetley tea, Cadbury chocolates, dry and crumbly digestive biscuits that are cookie-adjacent but try to fool you with their clinical name. All these and more can be found on Canadian grocery store shelves.
And in the bakeries are pies, many variations of pies sweet and savory, the legacy of British pie culture. I love a good pie, and I ate too many sausage rolls and pies the winter we lived here, when the body just wants to fatten up and hibernate.
There’s a bakery in town that does nice sausage rolls, and that winter we’d regularly stop in for a fix.
In general, I would say a routine that regularly involves sausages is probably not wise and I would not recommend it, despite sausages being quite delicious.
Mince pies are also something they do here in winter. Do you ever become fascinated by a food because characters in a book eat it?*
As a child, I read British children’s storybooks in which mince pies were enjoyed; as an adult, I watched British YouTubers taste-testing mince pies during the holidays. From the description of mince pie ingredients—a filling of spiced dried fruit— I knew it was something I would probably not like. Taz also warned me I wouldn’t like them. “You’re not going to like them,” he said.
But, Dear Friends, I had to have a mince pie.
I first had one from a box of Walkers, that well-known supermarket shortbread brand. It was not very good, and I didn’t finish the rest of the box. Then I had one freshly made from a Collingwood bakery, one that looked glistening and pretty and appetizing. Well!
It was…still not very good, but better than one that came in a box. I’m not a big fan of the very sweet mincemeat, which is a major component of a mince pie. I guess I am giving up on mince pies.
*(As an aside, Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” set off my lifelong obsession over fresh lemonade, jellies, and sandwiches with the crusts cut off. They have so many picnics in those books!)
One more pie we should discuss is the Jamaican patty, first brought here in the 1960s and 1970s by Jamaican immigrants who moved up to work in healthcare. These spicy meat patties are very popular and sold in stores and bakeries everywhere. There was a patty kerfuffle in 1985 when the Canadian government tried to ban them from being called “meat patties,” arguing that a patty was seasoned meat used in burgers, not something encased in dough. The patty vendors resisted. In the end, both parties met in a “patty summit” and reached a compromise to call this controversial food a “Jamaican patty.”
Let’s round out this pie talk with one that is unique to Canada—the tourtière. This is a French-Canadian creation from Quebec made from minced meat plus the spices allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves; a Christmas dish with Christmas ingredients. Recipes vary from family to family, but those spices are always included. And the minced meat is now beef or pork, but in olden days it was pheasant, moose, rabbit, or pigeon—whatever game they could hunt.
Tourtière go back to the 1600s, when Québécois laid out a late night feast on Christmas Eve after attending midnight mass. It was a celebration food, to be eaten by a warm fire and in good company. I tried it once, and the one I had was a bit bland, but I was also alone at lunch, so I feel I haven’t given it a fair shake under the correct circumstances.
Now let’s jump, not very far, from pie to tart.
Butter tarts are found at just about every bakery in Ontario. It is an unassuming dessert, with the main filling ingredients being butter and maple syrup (sometimes butter and sugar).
I was not expecting much from my first butter tart—maybe something straightforwardly sweet and heavy—but for such a simple recipe, a good butter tart contains surprisingly deep flavors, perhaps from the caramelization of that maple syrup.
Butter tarts traditionally come plain or with raisins, and the supporters of each are passionate and in opposition. All the tarts I’ve seen around here are without raisins, so perhaps the locals have chosen their side.
The prevailing butter tart origin story is that they are the creation of the King’s Daughters (Filles du Roi), about 800 young women sent to what is now Quebec by King Louis XIV of France between 1663 and 1673. With a serious gender imbalance among the early colonizers, these women came for marriage and to start families. They adapted their traditional French pastry recipes to the limited ingredients they found here in the new world.
However, the first butter tart recipe in print was found in the Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Victoria Hospital Cookbook, published in 1900. Some believe the butter tart wasn’t invented by the ladies from France at all, but somewhere in rural Ontario. Regardless, it’s in Ontario that the butter tart has really taken off and taken root. Every year, they celebrate and judge the best butter tarts at the Ontario Best Butter Tart Festival.
Peameal bacon was invented by a “ham and bacon curer” (an enviable title) William Davies in the 1800s. The name comes from the historic practice of rolling pork loin in ground dried yellow peas to keep it fresh longer. Nowadays the meat is rolled in cornmeal.
Peameal bacon sandwiches are a signature dish of Toronto, especially the sandwiches from Carousel Bakery at St. Lawrence Market, which are served with honey mustard on a soft roll. I had one years ago and I remember it being a solid, non-fussy sandwich.
We buy peameal bacon from a butcher in town, and we make our own breakfast sandwiches at home with Worcestershire sauce and brown sauce—a Canadian bacon butty. I recommend!
Maple- and Apple-based Things
OK, at the top I said there’s more to Canadian food than poutine and maple syrup—which is true—but Canadians do like putting maple in a lot of places where other people do not put maple. There’s maple in everything from baked chicken to salmon poke bowls. Sometimes it works very well, and sometimes it seems a little bit unnecessary.
Ontario also produces many types of apples, and many consumables made from apples. Among these consumables is apple cider, and small batch cider houses dot the Ontario countryside. The ciders are crisp, clean, and not too sweet. My favorites are Spy and Duntroon, both located just a short drive from where we live.
In autumn, the apple orchards are heavy with beautiful red apples of all shades, and you can stop by to pick a few bags of your favorite varieties, as we did a few years ago.
The first I’d ever heard of chicken balls was when my husband spoke rapturously of a Chinese restaurant in Collingwood that served this delicacy—deep fried balls of chicken meat, with a gooey side of mostly-sweet-and-a little-bit-sour sauce. The restaurant is sadly no more, but chicken balls live on in Collingwood and other Chinese restaurants across this country.
Chinese-Canadian food overlaps greatly with Chinese-American food, but I think these particular chicken balls might be a Canadian innovation (I’ve never seen it on an American menu, but please let me know if you have!), and they are a common item in Chinese-Canadian restaurants.
Like other ostensibly Chinese foods that were created for western tastes in Canada and the United States, chicken balls are not to be found in China. There are Chinese dishes of fried chicken and sauce, but…they are not ball-shaped, nor enveloped in thick, doughy batter, nor smothered in sweet-and-sour sauce.
The Chinese men who came over to build the railways criss-crossing this continent were discriminated against, and after the rail projects were done, they couldn’t find—and were in fact barred from—employment elsewhere.
Left without other options, they worked as cooks in hotels or opened their own small eateries. These were not trained chefs, and the food they made was not refined cuisine. It was home cooking by former laborers, using inexpensive ingredients. That is the food that’s historically Chinese food in North America.
The early Chinese restaurants here had to be nimble and adaptive, to recreate the foods of their homeland with new and often unfamiliar ingredients. These pioneering restaurateurs also had to learn to tailor dishes to the tastes of their Western customers, who had never eaten anything like it before.
(The first Chinese restaurant owners in Newfoundland had to get especially creative. Newfoundland, a large island off the Canadian east coast, was a difficult place to get to back in 1895, when the first two Chinese immigrants arrived. Even in the 1950s, when the first restaurants serving Chinese food opened, it was only accessible by boat from the mainland.
Chinese ingredients—even staples like noodles—were impossible to come by, but “chow mein” is one of the most popular dishes at Western Chinese restaurants. So some ingenious Chinese chef decided to slice cabbage—thinly and at an angle—to substitute for noodles and call it Newfoundland chow mein. “Chow mein”means “fried noodles’” in Chinese. To take out the chow mein out of “chow mein” and still call it “chow mein”…that’s pretty gutsy.
Newfoundland chow mein is still sold in some Newfoundland Chinese restaurants to this day.)
As a Chinese-American, chicken balls and the like are not dishes I grew up eating, and the restaurants that served them were not the kind our family would patronize, pooh-poohing them as not “real” Chinese. It’s taken a while for me to recognize North American Chinese restaurant food as a cuisine unto itself, rather than a bastardization of authentic Chinese food. Now I’ve come to realize that, like any other cuisine, there are regional differences and local specialties. The dishes reflect survival and invention, and a time and place that are as much a part of the history of“real” Chinese people as anything in Asia.
Wow, I wanted to cover more of the food I’ve come across in Ontario—bannock, for one—but it seems I’ve managed to write a whole lot of words about pies, so I will stop here. Perhaps we’ll continue this food conversation another time, because I find the history of food fascinating, and so intertwined with the history of a peoples.
Pretty Good Things
Small town Canada, still standing
In “Still Standing,” Canadian comedian Jonny Harris travels to small and struggling Canadian towns to meet the people and explore what makes these places special. At the end of each episode, he does a stand-up set that involves all the people we’ve just gotten to know. The humor is corny, but in a good way, and it will make you want to take a road trip through Canada. The show is on Amazon Prime and Youtube.
Small town Canada, fireworks
It was Canada Day on July 1st, and we took Beanie to see fireworks for the first time. She was excited, as much by staying up late as by the fireworks themselves. We were excited to see her excited, and we were also excited that in this small town, parking was easy, getting a prime spot was easy, leaving was easy—no traffic jams, no muss, no fuss. Taz kept crowing about how the whole trip took less than an hour from beginning to end. That was probably the best part of the night for us. (We are old.)
P.S. If you read my previous post, you know how Toronto should be pronounced (“Toeronoh”). Kevin Hart and Woody Harrelson didn’t. It would be an understandable mistake, if the movie they were starring in wasn’t literally called “The Man from Toronto,” and if the characters didn’t say “Toron-toh” about 100 times.