On Nov. 3, writer Chris Johns and chef Derek Dammann released True North ($40, HarperCollins), a cross-country look at Canadian food. In it, the two celebrate what Canadians eat, but Johns is adamant that they are not trying to define Canadian cuisine. "It's a fool's errand," he says. So, Maryam Siddiqi asked him to join cookbook author Laura Calder, as well as Michael Hunter and Jody Shapiro, the men behind Toronto's Antler Kitchen & Bar, to discuss how Canadians eat instead.
How much of what we eat dictates how we eat?
Laura Calder: I think soccer impacts a lot of how people eat. A lot of people just don't eat in the evenings properly because of soccer.
Chris Johns: A million things. Violin lessons, karate...
Calder: That's why we get this...
Michael Hunter: Busy culture, eating on the go.
Jody Shapiro: I remember being in Lisbon 10 years ago, and nobody had coffee cups to go. You would sit and take your time and have your coffee or you would at least go in and have your little tart and coffee shot. You had it there and you took the time. We definitely have a go-go-go food culture here, although I think that's changing – at least in this city. Over the last few years there's been a real push for dining experiences.
Johns: I sure hope that's changing. In our book we've tried to celebrate that idea of sitting at the table with friends and family and enjoying that. And as people learn that there's real value in having dinner with your kids every night rather than going through the drive-through and running around, those things will help us learn to appreciate and value the ritual of eating together as a family, which ultimately will do so much to define the cuisine because you can't have a defined cuisine when it's just preparation and drive-through window.
Shapiro: If people understood the joy of making something from scratch, I think they would do it more. Calder: I think one reason people maybe don't entertain at home all that much is because it's a big deal. Like, you haven't cooked, you haven't cooked, you haven't cooked, you haven't cooked and then oh my god, I have to make roasted turkey. But if you make roasted chicken once a week anyway, turkey just takes a little longer.
Shapiro: That's a great point.
Hunter: And the funny thing is, it only takes about half an hour to roast a chicken anyway. Four hundred and twenty-five degrees and it's done.
Calder: I think it's a question of habit. Like you don't think. "Oh god, I've got to brush my teeth again," you just do it. And I think when you get into a habit of cooking and you just do it, then it's not a big deal. Somehow we've made it a big deal. But I wonder if the industry wants us to think it's a big deal, because then you think, "It's too big a deal, I better buy pancake mix."
What are the influences on our dining and entertaining traditions?
Calder: We have only started drinking wine maybe in the past 25 years, and that's being generous. We don't have a wine culture, and often food and wine go so much together. I wonder how much wine is changing how we eat.
Hunter: I think also immigration. What makes Toronto unique for the food scene is Little Italy, Little Portugal, Chinatown. It's all these influences that have come to Canada, and now people are starting to draw on them at home. If there wasn't this Chinese population here, would we have started cooking like that at home? Probably not.
Johns: I think sometimes about comfort food. As a Canadian, I would think that my comfort food would be chicken rice or something Asian, right? I'm curious about my daughter. She's only one. She eats foreign food all the time, so I'd be very interested to see what her comfort will be, because it won't be Kraft macaroni.
Calder: I would've thought wine would make people linger more, slow people down more. I don't know if it's working or not.
Johns: Obviously not every great cuisine is built around a wine culture, but many of them are, and here in North America and Canada, as our wine industry has become more mature and more recognized and sophisticated, there's a natural pull there. Inevitably that is going to raise people's inclination for better quality ingredients and better prepared food.
Calder: It's definitely more sophisticated than it used to be. People used to eat the same things over and over again. The cuisine was very small, basically meat and potatoes.
Where do you think these changes are coming from? TV? Cookbooks? Travel?
Johns: I wonder where food media plays a role there because there's just so much of it now between bloggers, YouTube channels, and proper newspapers and magazines and everybody's chasing the next trend. I think that probably is overwhelming to people trying to keep up with what the next kale will be.
Calder: And I think it's a social status, the sophistication factor that everyone, including supermodels, now wants to be shown cooking. Whereas before it would've been sort of a slavish thing to do, now it's considered sophisticated.
Hunter: Just the way homes were designed, the way kitchens were always behind closed doors and even the kitchen entrance through the dining room had a door, and now people are knocking down those walls and everyone's dining around the island and whoever's hosting a party can also be cooking and entertaining at the same time. I remember my grandmother's house and the way she grew up – the kitchen was for the help. It's like airing your dirty laundry if your guests are in the kitchen.
Cookbooks now are almost more coffee-table books than recipe collections. What do you think about the evolution of the cookbook?
Johns: One of the most prolific online cookbook writers right now is a guy named Kenji López-Alt, and he's just published his first book, The Food Lab, and it's massive. It's not a coffee-table book, it's more back to basics, how to do everything. A lot of his recipes are super intensive and involved, so I'm encouraged by the future of the cookbook.
Calder: Cookbooks, at least in the English tradition, usually came from someone who'd been cooking a long time, so now we get chef cookbooks but you also get a bunch of cookbooks from 22-year-old bloggers, who...
Hunter: Know nothing.
Calder: Quite frankly, what's the palate? Do they know how to write a recipe? Now that every blogger's got a book I think, where's the authority? I think we're missing a sense of authority right now because everybody's an expert. Everyone's a photographer, everyone's a writer, everyone's a curator.
Shapiro: The under-appreciated value of cookbooks is that they also turn into diaries of the time. I just got some of my grandmother's cookbooks and some of my mother's cookbooks and there are notes inside there, there are changes to the recipes, who came to dinner for dinner parties. I actually read through them. I think cookbooks tell stories.
This interview has been edited and condensed.