Anita Stewart would have been happy with the lunch I’m nibbling at my desk as I write about her: leftover roasted root vegetables from the farmers' market piled on toasted locally baked sourdough that I’ve brushed with garlicky canola oil and spread with soft chèvre that came from goats raised an hour away in Acme, Alta. It was an accidental choice, distractedly rummaged from my fridge, but unquestionably influenced by her life’s work.
Canadian food champion Anita Stewart passed away on Oct. 29 as a result of complications arising from chemotherapy. The next night, Niagara Falls was lit up in red and white to honour a woman dedicated to shining a spotlight on Canadian cuisine.
Stewart’s death was, of course, devastating for her family and loved ones, and heartbreak rippled through Canada’s culinary and agricultural communities as hundreds of chefs, restaurateurs, farmers, writers and educators called and texted each other, sharing the unfathomable news of the loss of a woman so intricately connected with our food system that she was more trunk than pillar, extending strong networks of roots and branches that connected, supported and nourished all they reached.
Stewart called herself an activist and disruptor in the food world, and all her efforts and projects had a common goal: to educate not only Canadians, but people around the world about all we grow, forage, fish and raise here, and about everyone involved in its preparation. She travelled by dogsled and snowmobile to Cree hunt camps in Northern Quebec, and sailed on icebreakers in the North Pacific. In British Columbia she scuba dived for sea cucumbers and urchin in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and fly-fished in Campbell River with one of her four sons. Her mantra: Canada is food, and the world is richer for it.
In 2011, Stewart was recognized as a member of the Order of Canada for her vast contributions to our culinary community. She was a journalist, a food historian and a Food Laureate at the University of Guelph – the first person to hold the title, acting as honorary food ambassador, providing advocacy and leadership and promoting culinary initiatives. Construction of the Anita Stewart Alumni Food Laboratory, a hands-on teaching facility with recording and broadcasting capabilities, recently began in the university’s Macdonald Institute. (The project, announced last year, is among the first of its kind in Canada, funded by a $1.33-million gift provided by U of G graduate and philanthropist Michel Eric Fournelle.) Last week, the university established an Anita Stewart Tribute Fund to support initiatives that pay respect to her life and legacy.
Stewart founded the national culinary organization Cuisine Canada in 1994, and in 2003 she launched Food Day Canada, an annual nationwide celebration. She has authored 11 books focused on our culinary and agricultural heritage, and co-authored many more.
“Anita’s community she created was life changing for so many people,” Calgary chef and restaurateur Paul Rogalski texted me when I told him I was staring at my laptop, searching for the right descriptors. “She was thoughtful, kind, patient, generous, caring, compassionate.” Though it’s easy to default to listing her many awards and accolades, these are the qualities that best define her.
A steady stream of loving tributes fills Stewart’s personal Facebook page and photos and memories continue to flood social media feeds, including my own. “The first time we met in real life, she turned to me and said, ‘One day you will win this.,” wrote Kelowna chef Aman Dosanj, a two-time winner of Stewart’s annual Good Food Innovation Award, on Instagram. “[She] showed empathy and compassion and celebrated vulnerability to make me feel less alone by sharing similar stories.”
Anita Stewart was my friend, one I’ve travelled with, shared meals with, commiserated with, and drank gin and tonics overlooking the Pacific ocean with.
She was a good friend, as she had been all her life to Canadian cuisine – relentlessly cheering on the industry while helping it do and be better, and creating opportunities for it to shine on a global stage. Generations have benefitted from her dedication to all who have played a role in our food system, which is, of course, all of us.
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