Eating Beaver in Search of Canadian Cuisine
For his new cookbook True North, chef Derek Dammann met the farmers, winemakers, and suppliers who are pushing Canadian cuisine beyond the delicious but narrow confines of poutine and doughnuts.
From True North by Derek Dammann and Chris Johns. Food photography by Farah Khan; scenic photography by Farah Khan and Alison Slattery.
In an 1878 poem pledging allegiance to our Majesty the Queen, British poet laureate Lord Tennyson described Canada as "that true North, whereof we lately heard."
It's a simple, sweeping line that eventually made its way into our national anthem, and more than a century later, Lord Tennyson's immortal phrase has found its way into yet another culturally important document—a cookbook, oddly enough.
For the last three years, chef Derek Dammann and writer Chris Johns have been making trips across Canada, from its easternmost point in Newfoundland to Dammann's childhood home on the opposite end of the country on Vancouver Island (here is a map for American readers). The culmination of those travels is True North: Canadian Cooking from Coast to Coast.
It's no national anthem, but Dammann and Johns' book, much like O Canada, is a heartfelt ode to a very young, very large, and very beautiful country. Unlike a lot of Canadian cookbooks, it refrains from armchair historical analysis and allows a picture of Canadian cuisine to emerge on its own, relying instead on rich photography and good old-fashioned storytelling.
I sat down with Derek at Maison Publique, the Montreal restaurant that he co-owns with Jamie Oliver, to discuss his book and what common threads (if any) emerged during his culinary expedition through Canada.
A few minutes into our conversation, it becomes clear that I was reading a lot into the title of True North. "The working title of the book was 'How to Eat Beaver,'" he says. "It was just a working title, but it had a really sexual connotation so we were really doubting whether HarperCollins was going to fly with that one."
Despite the beaver's famous resilience and symbolic importance in Canada, Dammann and Johns ultimately settled on True North as a title. "We wanted a title that was patriotic, and eventually we said 'True North' and we both liked it immediately. Also, it's in the national anthem so it's perfect."
Three years ago, the authors began visiting the farmers, winemakers, and suppliers who are pushing Canadian cuisine beyond the delicious but narrow confines of poutine and doughnuts. "There is a lot of history to Canadian food and a lot of stereotype," Dammann says. "What people think of as Canadian food is all of the foods from Strange Brew like back-bacon, beaver tail, maple syrup, and beer. But we wanted to visit suppliers, cook, and tell stories. This is about what's happening now and we're telling a story."
"The book was more about understanding and learning," Dammann says. "We always immersed ourselves. We went spot-prawn fishing for three days on a boat, hauling traps and stuff. It helped me understand how hard these guys work, and gives a story to write, so it's not just 'These assholes show up on a boat for two hours and act like they're a part of it.' After three days, we realized how intense it is.'"
A cultural and geographical landscape as vast as Canada's presents a lot of challenges if one is seeking a unifying thread, but this vastness is also a strength. "We're a very multicultural country, so we're actually at an advantage to draw from so many different influences to create cuisine. The book is way more about showcasing these ingredients than it is diving into the history. We have all the resources and the tools to eat, cook, and drink regionally like they do in Spain, France, and Italy."
With the exception of balmier pockets like Dammann's hometown Vancouver island, winters in Canada are really cold, pretty much across the board. So it's not exactly surprising that the most prevalent dish, or method, rather, that emerged is intimately related to our brutal cold season.
"There is such a long winter and a short growing season that when stuff comes up, ingredients are really celebrated. So I think the common thread that emerged throughout the country was canning and preserving. It's something that's deep-rooted in family tradition."
"You can have a beacon of hope in March when you open up a can of asparagus from Quebec or Ontario. It's not as much for survival now as it used to be, but everyone's grandma did it and now even mustachioed hipsters are getting into it."
One food that is still a matter of survival in many parts of Canada is seal meat. "Whether it's in the North, in Newfoundland, or the Magdalene islands, hunting seal is another tradition." But the image of cute seals being bludgeoned over the head or shot is a powerful one and has led to a lot of controversy, not to mention headaches for local seal hunters.
"The problem is misinformation. It gets a bad reputation because Paul McCartney has a very charming voice but people don't understand. Seals just keep fucking. It's such a sustainable meat source. All of the controversy is rooted in old media and propaganda—not what's happening now.
"But for a lot of people it's a matter of survival. If you go up to Iqaluit or Nunavut, a head of iceberg lettuce is $12 at the store, and it's like an apocalypse on the shelves, there's nothing left. So hunting is still very much part of their traditions."
But seal hunting isn't just a tradition in Northern Canada. "In Newfoundland, when the boats come in from a seal hunt, there were lines of people waiting in line to get flipper, to make flipper pie, because that's an Eastern thing. It's still a tradition there, too." And for those willing to experiment, there is even a recipe for seal mortadella in True North. "I chose to make the mortadella with seal because I had it on hand and I felt that it directly reflects where I was at the time which was in Newfoundland during the season."
The seal hunting issue is a glimpse into the intense regional differences within Canada, differences which presented True North's authors with some structural issues. "If I wanted to do something about chanterelles in the book, where do I put it? BC? Saskatchewan? Quebec? Manitoba? It grows in every province," Dammann says. "Newfoundland was the first stop, and the book reads chronologically on how the book went and ends in my parents' house on Vancouver Island. The last chapter is called 'Home.'"
Which brings us to the taco kit. A big part of home cooking for Derek, and many other Canadians of a certain generation, is the grocery store taco kit that comes with ready-to-go tortillas, salsa, and a magical alchemy of sodium flavouring.
"The taco kit is a quintessential Canadian dish. Anyone who's between 30 and 45, their parents made the taco kit when they were growing up. You walk in the house as a kid and it's unmistakeable what is cooking, it's [the] Old El Paso taco kit. And it was like, 'Holy fuck! It's taco night tonight!'''
By exploring his own love of the yellow box, Dammann unexpectedly stumbled upon another one of the Canada's elusive unifying food threads.
"The spice mix that comes in the kit is really delicious, so in the book I give a recipe for how to make the taco seasoning and everything. But that's another thing that everyone had in common."
"With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!"
- O Canada
At hockey games, Canadians tend to emphasize the "true North, strong and free" lyric when they sing O Canada, but it's easy to forget the "With glowing hearts we see thee rise" part which immediately precedes it, and a book like True North is a reminder of why that line is important.
Somewhere between taco kits, seal hunting, winemakers, and spot prawn fishing, a picture of Canada begins to surface in True North. Delineating "Canadian cuisine" may be forever elusive, maybe even impossible, but thanks to glowing hearts like Dammann and Johns, we can see thee rise.