If you were entertaining friends this weekend - old friends from overseas, let's say - and you wanted to really introduce them to your home country, where would you take them?
That's a tough call. Not so hard, perhaps, if you were Mexican - you'd take them to a palm-thatched restaurant with guttering candles, mariachi balladeers and waves unloading on the nearby beach. If you were Italian, you'd take them to some romantic Neapolitan café with checkered tablecloths, cobblestone streets outside and a moon overhead like a big pizza pie. But since your country seems to pride itself on having no specific cultural identity, you might opt for landscape, and take them for shore lunch in the heart of Shield country. The Canadian Shield covers more than half the country, and it's our own Outback, our Sahara. Spattered with tens of thousands of lakes, most of them unvisited and unnamed, it's arguably Canada's quintessential setting, and a shore lunch of fresh-caught fish is the Shield's trademark meal.
The best way to acquire the main ingredients for shore lunch is to go out and catch the fish and clean them yourself. Don't feel guilty about this. It's a good exercise in the age-old lesson that nothing lives unless something dies. If you don't know how to catch a fish, make a reservation with a local fishing lodge: One of the guides will take you out and teach you how. Failing that, you can just show up and the guide will ferry you to some idyllic spot and put on the whole show while you watch.
The ingredients may be simple, but there's something about being out in the woods that makes eating seem like an adventure. And if you've been fishing all morning, the aroma of wood smoke, coffee, bacon and fish frying will have you ravenous for the payoff. The standard shore lunch consists of two slabs of golden-brown walleye, lots of crispy spuds and onions, kernel corn, a few curls of crisp bacon, steaming hot beans and a cold drink from the cooler. Most islands offer granite that folds itself into a variety of couches and ledges, each with a different view of the water. Sitting with your back against a mossy hump of rock, you prop your plate on your knees and gaze out at the real reason you're here. There's not a fine restaurant in the country that can compete with this ambience.
While eating lunch at the many places like this in the Shield, any foreign visitor will understand in an intuitive way one of the formative components of this country's elusive personality. Photons dance and sparkle on the lake. The great ship-mast pines creak in the breeze, the cotton-white clouds drift overhead, and Canada becomes a fine, perfect and improbably beautiful place.
Jake MacDonald is the author of Grizzlyville: Adventures in Bear Country.
Special to The Globe and Mail