We are what we ate: Canada's history in cuisines
Canada is a country of provinces and regions and peoples and even nations that don't always share the same culinary traditions, but it's the stories and the food that make up our collective history
Last December, I found myself standing in a long lineup at an east Toronto storage locker complex, waiting to pick up a frozen meat pie from the back of a truck. We had all prepurchased a tourtière from Montreal restaurant Au Pied De Cochon, where celebrity chef/owner Martin Picard's (often literal) tongue-in-cheek takes on classic Québécois dishes have made him one of the most important names in the Canadian food world.
All of us in line were hungry – not just for a buttery, rich, clove-and-cinnamon-spiced pork pie, but for a taste of "authenticity." Some might even have been hoping for that elusive (and perhaps entirely fictional) cultural phenomenon: "Canadian cuisine."
It's no coincidence that tourtière is often first on a list of Canadian foods. It's a dish that, in many ways, uniquely symbolizes the history and mythology of Quebec and its place within Canada. It's not just a hearty dish that rural habitants have eaten after midnight mass on Christmas Eve for much of Quebec's history. It's also a dish that's survived military conquest by the British, centuries of attempts at cultural assimilation by English-speaking politicians, as well as a long history of political and economic domination by Anglophone elites.
It's a humble meat pie, in other words, that speaks to the resilience of and, in the post-Quiet Revolution period, resurgence of Québécois culture and identity.
Although many Quebec nationalists would likely cringe at tourtière being used as a symbol of Canadian (as opposed to Canadien) cuisine, it highlights the ways in which food can tell us something about how Canada became what it is today. Sure, Canada is a country of provinces and regions and peoples and even nations that don't always share the same culinary traditions or experiences. But it's the stories of these different peoples and their food that make up our collective history.
These aren't always inspiring stories and the foods, themselves, aren't always particularly good. On Canada's 150th birthday, however, it's worth asking how what we ate in the past made us into who we are today.
In 1870, an American visitor to Red River, Man., remarked that pemmican was "the national dish so to speak, of a population composed of many nationalities; and like everything else in this peculiar country, it is a wonderful mixture." That "wonderful mixture" of dried, pounded bison meat mixed with bison fat (and occasionally dried berries) had long been a staple of Indigenous diets on the prairies. Pemmican was portable, lasted almost indefinitely and had become the densely caloric fuel that made the Hudson Bay Company's highly profitable fur trading operations possible.
But by 1870, the Indigenous nations who supplied the HBC with pemmican and bison hides could see the herds were thinning and the bison economy was coming to an end.
After the Métis took up arms against Canada in 1869 to protect their future along the Red River, many Cree, Blackfoot, Assiniboine and other prairie First Nations took a different route. They instead negotiated a series of numbered treaties with the Crown in the hopes of guaranteeing a peaceful and prosperous postbison future. But the pemmican economy disappeared quicker than anyone had predicted: bison were virtually extinct by the early 1880s.
Canada quickly reneged on its sworn treaty promises to provide relief to First Nations in times of famine. In just a few short years, thousands of Indigenous men, women and children died of starvation throughout the prairies while, in many cases, unused food rotted away in government storehouses.
1876: Red Fife wheat
This is the year that the Steele Briggs Co. of Toronto received the first shipment of wheat exported from the recently created province of Manitoba: 857 bushels of Red Fife, a strain of hard spring wheat first stumbled upon by accident by farmer David Fife in 1842.
By the 1870s, Red Fife had become the dominant wheat variety used by millers and bakers throughout Canada, defining the taste of bread in the decades after Confederation. Its adaptability to the unique climate of Western Canada meant that Red Fife would play a key role in facilitating the colonization of the prairies by Canadian settlers before 1900.
Sitting atop a fork that extends more than two storeys into the air, the world's largest pierogi lords over the town of Glendon, Alta. Although the artistic value of this fibreglass dumpling colossus is questionable, few would question this Ukrainian culinary staple's status as a symbol of prairie food culture. After all, between 1891 and 1914 alone, nearly 170,000 Ukrainians immigrated to Canada, settling mostly in what are now the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.
1913: Five Roses flour
There were nearly 650,000 copies of the first Five Roses Cookbook in circulation just two years after its 1913 publishing date. In other words, at least half of Canadian households had a copy. Given that ubiquity, it's likely that the most important single factor in ordinary Canadians' culinary sensibilities in the early decades of the 20th century was the rise of national brands such as Five Roses and their cheap, popular corporate cookbooks.
1928: Schwartz's smoked meat sandwich
The Boul. St-Laurent stalwart is the most famous – and long-standing – purveyor of what is now known as Montreal smoked meat. Founded by Jewish and Romanian immigrant Reuben Schwartz in 1928, the deli was part of a wave that opened during this period, catering to the tastes and Kosher dietary restrictions of a growing population of Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms and persecution in Eastern Europe.
This bland, mushy and nutritionally fortified infant food was the brainchild of a group of pediatricians at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. It would revolutionize infant feeding on a global scale during the middle decades of the 20th century and helped bankroll SickKids' emergence as a leading international research institution.
1937: Kraft Dinner
First released as a meal-in-a-box solution for the time-pressed homemaker, Kraft Dinner became an unlikely and fluorescent orange symbol of Canadiana. For reasons that remain elusive, Canadians continue to consume more KD per capita than anyone else in the world.
1941: Canada War Cake
In January 1941, a Globe and Mail reader named Nancy wrote in to share a recipe "for a war cake that we used in the last war" and that she'd just purchased for five cents from a neighbour fundraising for the Red Cross. War Cake – or Canada War Cake, as it was more commonly known – was a simple eggless, milkless, butterless and sugar-stretching dessert that appeared in newspapers and cookbooks across the country during both wars. It was a potent, if not slightly chewy, symbol of the mobilization of the entire home front for total war.
If you ever doubted the power of Canada's dairy lobby, you don't know the story of margarine. Although it has been around since the early 19th century, this butter substitute was legally banned in Canada until 1948 and faced many indignities even after it was legalized. These included a Quebec law which prohibited margarine from being sold as any colour besides white, a law which was only lifted in 2008.
1949: Hawkins Cheezies
Although its Tweed, Ont., factory was started as a branch plant of the Chicago-based company, Confections Inc., the bankruptcy of the American side of the business meant that, by 1960, Hawkins Cheezies had become a uniquely Canadian product. And aside from moving its factory to Belleville, Ont., in 1956 following a fire, little seems to have changed. A nearly identical recipe – and the same extruder used to create the original Cheezies – continues to be used to this day by Hawkins, allowing a whole new generation of Canadian snack-food enthusiasts to ruin their parents' white sofas with authentic bright-orange Cheezie dust.
1950s: Fish sticks
Canadian fish sticks will always be associated with the slightly menacing Captain Highliner and his friend Billy, but they're also a symbol of the industrialization of the cod fishery. Created in part through the work of Canadian scientist William John Dyer, fish sticks solved a major problem posed by the giant, frozen blocks of fish produced aboard the massive factory trawlers that took to the seas in the 1950s. Rather than separating out individual fillets, it turned out, workers could simply cut the blocks into bite-size pieces, which could then be breaded and fried. Convenient, perhaps, but also an early warning sign of the cod collapse that would devastate the Atlantic economy in the 1990s.
The true origins of this near-perfect combination of fries, gravy and cheese curds are murky and contested, though most agree that it came into being in rural Quebec chip shacks. It has since become the most successful of Quebec's cultural ambassadors to the rest of Canada (sorry, Céline) and can be found everywhere from Canada's best restaurants to, well, KFC and Pizza Pizza.
1960s: Halifax donair
Greek immigrant and restaurateur Peter Gamoulakos made a few significant changes to his beloved gyro in order to sell them to the Nova Scotian public. Though the pita remained, lamb was replaced with beef and tzatziki was rejected in favour of a sticky-sweet sauce made with, of all things, evaporated milk. Served with tomatoes and onions, these uniquely East Coast creations have developed a cult following in the Maritime provinces and continue to baffle gyro fans the world over.
1964: Tim Hortons doughnuts
It's safe to assume that when the first Tim Hortons opened in Hamilton, Ont., few predicted that this purveyor of doughnuts and coffee would become a central plank of Canada's national mythology. This is truly a triumph of marketing over quality – especially given that the doughnuts haven't been made in-store since 2002 and are now shipped frozen from a central packing facility in Brantford, Ont.
1970s: California Roll
Trying to convince Vancouverites to eat raw fish and seaweed proved to be an uphill battle for chef and Japanese immigrant Hidekazu Tojo. One strategy he adopted around 1971 – namely, putting the rice on the outside rather than the inside of the maki roll – helped give birth to the now-iconic California Roll. This proved a gateway drug of sorts for sushi-wary Canadians and, by the 1990s, you could throw a rock down any given street in Vancouver and hit a hole-in-the-wall sushi restaurant.
1970s: Ginger Beef
The Canadian Prairies' answer to General Tso's chicken, this sweet-and-savoury classic of Chinese-Canadian cuisine, was first developed by chef George Wong at Calgary's Silver Inn. In many ways, it's a perfect example of the hybrid Chinese-Canadian "Chop Suey" cuisine that, by the 1970s, was being served in hundreds of Canadian cities and towns.
The spread and popularization of this cuisine began in the late 19th century and is somewhat remarkable given the barriers placed before Chinese restaurateurs. There were, of course, discriminatory head taxes and an outright ban on Chinese immigration between 1924 and 1947, but also lesser-known injustices: a Saskatchewan law preventing Chinese restaurateurs from hiring white women was on the books from 1912 to 1969.
1975: McCain Superfries
Canadians of a certain age are almost universally thankful that McCain stopped running those ads of a bespectacled kid loudly munching on his fries, but Superfries are, without a doubt, one of those products that have helped McCain to corner nearly a third of the global French fry market. Started in 1957 in New Brunswick – and helped along through numerous and generous taxpayer-funded subsidies – McCain now boasts global sales of $8.5-billion.
1980: Yukon Gold Potatoes
Originally the brainchild of University of Guelph researcher Gary Johnson, the Yukon Gold remains one of the few potato varieties that shoppers actually look for by name. Johnson had originally sought to develop a potato that would appeal to recently arrived Eastern European immigrants' preference for yellow-fleshed varieties of potatoes, but the Yukon Gold proved to be a surprise mainstream hit – adding a little colour and flavour to what, in the 1980s, was a palette of almost exclusively white-fleshed potato varieties.
1985: Jamaican Patty
In February, 1985, federal inspectors raided Jamaican restaurants and bakeries around Toronto. Their goal: to crack down on the sale of false beef patties. "Beef patties," as it turned out, were supposed to be defined – according to the Meat Inspection Act and inspectors with the federal department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs – as burger patties, and these flaky, meat filled-pastries were not burgers at all. The raids sparked outrage within the Jamaican community and the authorities eventually backed down, so long as Jamaican restaurateurs and bakers specified that they were selling "Jamaican Beef Patties" and not "Beef Patties."
This sandwich was first unveiled at the Amherst McDonalds in Nova Scotia and remains, to this day, unique to the Maritimes. But it's also a perfect representation of lobster's dual Canadian identity. While for most Canadians, it's an expensive luxury associated with fine dining, Atlantic Canadians have long viewed lobster as a much more humble food. Children, many Maritimers insist, used to be embarrassed to bring lobster sandwiches to school because it was a sure sign of poverty; some Maritime farmers even tell stories of fertilizing their fields with these once over-abundant crustaceans.
2015: Minomiin/Wild Rice
Minomiin – or Wild Rice, as it's more commonly known – is central to the culture, foodways and history of the Mississauga Nishnaabeg First Nations living in Southern Ontario. So when cottagers around Pigeon Lake near Peterborough began using machines to destroy the rice beds planted by Curve Lake First Nation member James Whetung, it became a flashpoint for settler unease with Indigenous resurgence.
It's a question for the reconciliation age: Are settlers willing to give up their wild-rice-free, jet-ski-able lake? That's what it would take for Pigeon Lake to return to a preIndian Act, preresidential school and precolonial status as a place where minomiin is grown, harvested and celebrated. But for many, interfering with a summer cottage getaway is a step too far.