The term “Canadian cuisine” probably doesn’t invoke vivid memories of your favourite Canadian restaurant. For most of you, there isn’t even such a thing as a Canadian restaurant.
Think I’m wrong? Close your eyes and see what images are conjured up by these words. (Okay, open your eyes to read the words, and then close them again real fast.) Italian food. Mediterranean. Thai. French cooking. Indian. Canadian.
I’ll bet you were going along great until you got to “Canadian.”
We may be short on cuisine, but we’re definitely not short on stereotypes. Mooseburgers, bear on a bun, whale blubber smothered in maple syrup, all washed down with copious quantities of Molson’s. Right? Wrong!
Canadian food is a lot like American food. We love burgers and pizza and chicken and steak and sandwiches and potatoes and salads, just like our southern neighbours. Do some scratching, though, and you’ll discover a few differences that’ll make you shake your head.
(About that head: Put a toque on it.)
In recent years, poutine has forced its way to the forefront of Canadian culinary delights. In fact, it’s become so popular that it’s even made its way into the good old USA. (Editor’s note: It’s all over Chicago, among other places.)
If you’re unfamiliar with poutine, it’s french fries with a big mess of cheese curds heaped on top, all slathered in brown gravy. Mmmmm-mmmmm! Imagine a lump of that sitting in your stomach.
Poutine first became popular in Quebec. French-Canadians embraced it like nobody’s business, and after several years of Quebecker love, poutine become a staple throughout Canada.
I remember going through a cafeteria in Quebec City back in the early 1990s. Everybody ahead of me was ordering poutine. The cashier was barking out orders in a loud monotone: “Poutine, poutine, poutine, poutine …”
Then came my turn.
“French fries, please.” The orderly procession ground to a screeching halt. All eyes were on me. The cashier looked at me incredulously and said, “No poutine?” I shook my head and repeated my order. The cashier shook his head and said, “French fries.” I moved my tray down the line. Behind me, the monotony continued. “Poutine, poutine, poutine, poutine …”
That’s when I realized poutine was going to be huge.
Now, all kinds of restaurants in Canada offer the dish, and cooks are getting creative. Not long ago, I took my daughter to the neighbourhood poutinery. (Yes, we’re at the point where we actually have poutineries.) She needed a late-night meal and decided to go all-out, ordering poutine with meat on top – and not one meat but six: steak, chicken, ground beef, bacon, pulled pork, and sausage. The name for this steaming pile of magnificence? The Slaughterhouse! They don’t sell it with a stomach pump, but they could.
Canada is not entirely obsessed with poutine; there are other uniquely Canadian culinary delights. We French-fry loyalists commonly add salt and ketchup, though we also frequently add vinegar – and sometimes even malt vinegar – to jazz things up Canuck-style.
I’ve also had American friends raise the whole Canadian-bacon issue, like it’s the only bacon we know. Au contraire, mes amis! What you call “Canadian bacon” (and what we often call “back bacon” or “peameal bacon”) is the stuff we send to the States simply so we can keep more of the real thing for ourselves. Rest assured we’re as crazy about smoke-cured porkbelly as any other self-respecting North American.
Comfort food is snack food, and Canada doesn’t lack for unique snacks. We love potato chips, but we gravitate toward flavours that aren’t exactly common south of the border. Ketchup-flavoured chips, for instance. They’ve been a staple up here for decades, and it sort of makes sense. If French fries get gravy, the ketchup has to go somewhere. Why not on a potato chip? And then there’s the ultimate, the chip we call “All Dressed,” with a bit of every flavour mixed together. Have a few of these and you’ll notice a party in your mouth, with everyone invited. Just don’t exhale.
If you like snack cakes, Ding Dongs and Ho-Hos, we have our own national favourite, the Jos. Louis. They’re made in Quebec and pronounced “Zho Loo-wee.” They have been a staple in kids’ school lunches – and maybe a few adult lunches, too – for decades.
And of course, no story about Canadian comfort food is complete without a mention of Canadian comfort drink. Perhaps our most unique-yet-popular drink is the Caesar, a Bloody Mary made with Clamato juice, a combination of tomato juice and clam juice. That’s right: clam juice. And we don’t have an issue with that.
Hey, it’s summer. It’s hot in the States, but it’s nice and cool up here. It’s time to head north of the border, order some poutine, and really get to know your Canadian friends through the different foods we love. I’ll be over in the corner with my ketchup-flavored chips. And a Caesar, of course. Can’t get enough of that Clamato.
Baron Bedesky is a father, a hockey, baseball and music junkie, and a writer who has traipsed through life looking for fun, adventure, and a good story to tell. He resides in St. Catharines, Ontario, home of the first large-scale North American zipper factory.