Have a look around on Canada Day weekend and ask yourself what unites us from coast to coast. It's hard not to stumble on the fact that almost every one of us celebrates the occasion with a backyard barbecue – yet what we grill on them does not tell a story of a people who enjoy a great relationship with their food. Consider what we cook.
“Hamburgers and hot dogs?” says Vancouver chef Rob Feenie, who last weekend coached his brother-in-law through the process of barbecuing a 55-kilogram pig, which, for lack of a more suitable vessel, he first brined overnight in the bathtub.
On the hamburger and hot-dog front, Mr. Feenie is precisely right – for the truly remarkable thing about the Canadian love affair with barbecue is that we have contributed so shockingly little to the art. When Canadians are pressed to name their favourite barbecue item, 90 per cent name the hamburger. Hot dogs and chicken pieces follow closely. Steaks are well back in the field of preference, and even basic pork ribs a distant back marker.
If you were from the U.S. South, you would very likely insist that these aforementioned meats and near-meats are not barbecue at all, just fast-cooking grill food.
If you come from Texas, you know that barbecue can only mean slow-cooked brisket and beef ribs, and if you are from Missouri, it could only be pork ribs. If you hail from Western Kentucky, barbecue must mean mutton, while in the Carolinas it would have to be pulled pork. And so on.
Americans tend to dogmatism on the subject, and generally insist at a minimum that barbecue means slow-cooking. I prefer a more inclusive outlook, partly because in the culinary world, as in any other, unflinching arguments over what constitutes authenticity are invariably tedious; and, more to the point, because the best cooking is almost always the result of incorporating a little fresh thinking from elsewhere.
In short, I like the outlook of the unimpeachable, authoritative, barbecue cookbook author Steven Raichlen, who despite being American insists that the type of cooking we call barbecue should include absolutely everything cooked over or near an open flame or a smouldering bit of wood or charcoal.
His inclusive outlook is the crux of what makes his books so good – they feature recipes from everywhere. His recent, indispensable oeuvre Planet Barbecue! features 309 recipes from 60 different countries, including such nifty stuff as Brazilian spit-roasted pineapple and Vietnamese fire-roasted duck.
Alas, Canada's contribution amounts to just four recipes, and you would never have heard of three of them. The fourth, Montreal smoked meat, obviously has great recognition factor – but it wouldn't if you prepared it his way and then tasted it. For in a rare, giggle-inducing gaffe, he describes the dish as “an interesting variation of Texas brisket.”
No matter. This is the thing: For a nation of irrepressible barbecue enthusiasts who rush outdoors to cook before the snow has melted, and often stay there, defiantly planted grill-side until well after the cold weather returns, Canadians have contributed close to nothing to the international oeuvre.
“We just don't have a barbecue culture,” says chef David Lee, co-owner of Toronto restaurant Nota Bene, who likes to cook on his Big Green Egg, makes a habit of visiting great American barbecue shops stateside, and a couple of years ago paid a transforming visit to the famous Basque restaurant Elkano, where grill master Aitor Arregui grills and smokes everything from baby eels to caviar.
His point about barbecue culture is largely obvious: While we did have slavery here, and later, runaway slaves, we did not have enough of either to entrench the great soul-food tradition in which American barbecue has its roots.
If you go back further, to First Nations cooking, and use the all-inclusive Raichlen definition of barbecue, you could make a case for tracing today's ever-popular cedar-planked salmon to the Haida practice of hot-smoking salmon fireside on cedar spikes. The only problem is that the practice was common for First Nations peoples all over the northwest – and on the east coast of what's now the United States, too, with shad. And as it was an American cookery writer who first documented the dish in the 1850s, and American chefs who popularized it in the 1980s, they quite rightly consider the dish to be theirs.
Moving on, if bannock, the bread cooked on hot stones fireside, ever made a comeback, we might make a claim. And while Montreal smoked meat was of course invented by Bessarabian Jews, and not Texan ones, the thinking was, as with soul food, inspired by poverty. So all it has in common with Texas barbecue is a cheap cut of meat (brisket) cooked long and slowly in what once was, but has long ceased to be, a smoky, charcoal-fired oven: a tenuous link. All the same, our lack of a barbecue past does not translate as the lack of a barbecue future.