Beyond Poutine: What Americans Don’t Understand About Canadian Food

NYC’s Québécois invasion isn’t the only Canadian food worth talking about—and it's about damn time we figure out what else is up there.

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Not long ago, I was talking to someone who needed to make “Canadian” food for a project. He’d done some googling and wanted to run his menu by me: poutine, pea soup, maple candy. All foods from Quebec, just one of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories. His Franco-centric reduction of my country’s culinary heritage made me furious—he was no better than the Europeans who believe the U.S. is nothing but McDonald’s and Budweiser. But I realize now it wasn’t his fault.

As far as the international food media is concerned, Québécois food is Canadian food. In New York, French-Canadian chefs are the only vocal Canadians to be found: From Martin Picard’s famed Au Pied de Cochon came M. WellsHugue Dufour and Fedora’s Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly, both of whom practice a distinct brand of psychotic, whimsical gluttony. Mile End’s Noah and Rae Bernamoff devoted themselves to the suicidal task of bringing Montreal’s Jewish deli tradition to New York City, and they succeeded; now, their Black Seed Bagels has us actively caring about bagels for the first time in decades. Joe Beef’s David McMillan and Fred Morin have built a lifestyle empire out of being Québécois, from their David Chang-endorsed book The Art of Living According to Joe Beef to the Joe Beef hotel suite, complete with professionally outfitted kitchen and a view straight into the restaurant’s garden.
canada blackseed Beyond Poutine: What Americans Dont Understand About Canadian Food

Ain’t nothing wrong with Black Seed Bagels—but there’s more to Canadian food than Québécois cooking. (Photo: Liz Barclay) 

Because the population is only 10% of the United States’, it’s easy to assume that Canada is comprises one homogenous group—sort of like an overextended, whiter Los Angeles. And yes, population-wise, we’re just a little smaller than California. But what we lack in people we make up for in space (we’re the second-largest country in the world, after Russia), and that’s what makes for cultural differences. Just as the Deep South is not the Midwest is not New England, Canadian identity changes drastically as you move from one edge of the country to the other.

Québec’s chefs are undeniably talented. And I’d agree that Québec is where the country’s most exciting food movement is happening right now—there’s a groundswell of new ideas and young talents coming up together, raising the game for everyone as a result. I’ve been on Team Dufour since before he opened M. Wells 1.0 (he’s on round three now), and I’d sleep on a bed of Black Seed bagels if they let me. But theirs is not the only Canadian food out there.

As far as the international food media is concerned, Québécois food is Canadian food.

But Quebec is just part of the story. if our massively connected global food media beast allows us to shine a light on great food anywhere in the world, why is no one talking about Toronto’s Jamie Kennedy, who was awarded the Order of Canada for his dedication to Canadian cuisine? Or Vikram Vij, who was doing upscale Indian food in Vancouver four years before Floyd Cardoz and Danny Meyer opened Tabla? Or even Rob Feenie, a fine-dining star from British Columbia who went full celebu-chef and became a food-TV fixture, consulting for chain restaurants on the side?

There are two answers. Not only are Québécois chefs the most vocal about their cultural heritage—they spent a good part of the 20th century fighting for it, after all, while the rest of the country only got around to politely asking the queen of England to take a step back in 1982—but they are, for the most part, identifiably foreign. The Anglo-Canadian chefs who make it in the U.S. don’t broadcast their backgrounds, and—except for the occasional “sore-ry”—you’d never be able to peg where they’re from just by talking to them. Luksus’ Daniel Burns, Dirt Candy’s Amanda Cohen—it’s the food-world equivalent of the legions of Canadian actors and comedians who have made it in the States: “He’s Canadian?!”

As I write this, a Tim Hortons mug sits on my desk. The coffee-and-doughnuts chain, by far the most beloved institution in Canada, has been building some inroads in the American Northeast, and even made a major play for the brass ring of NYC a few years ago. It’s still holding on in a crowded marketplace, but only by camouflaging its maple-stained heritage. “We did try the Canadian angle, and it failed, because Americans showed zero interest in what Canadians like,” a spokeswoman for the company told the New Yorker last month.

Fine. I can take a hint. Anglo-Canadians—and, by extension, our food—are boring. As Mike Myers (Canadian) put it in a classic bit, “Canada is the essence of not being. Not British, not American…we’re more like celery as a flavor.” But is that enough to make an entire cuisine irrelevant to the rest of the world? After all, the British have been able to claw their way back from a reputation for leaden, tasteless nursery food, thanks to the godfather Fergus Henderson and his faith in simple preparations, local ingredients, and a good dose of offal. Now, April Bloomfield owns Manhattan (as well as San Francisco), and her acolytes are taking over Williamsburg, slowly but surely turning pig’s trotters and steak-and-kidney pie into style-section regulars.

Just as the Deep South is not the Midwest, Canadian identity changes drastically as you move from one edge of the country to the other.

Even in Canada, there’s no consensus on what Canadian food is. There are flavors that have transcended mere popularity, sailed past stereotype, and become facts of life: Maple, dill pickle (seriously, dill pickle potato chips will change your damn life), peameal bacon (that’s Canadian bacon to you, son). But just as Worcestershire sauce and Spotted Dick don’t add up to British cuisine, these Canadian flavors don’t represent who we really are.

So here’s my take: Canadian food is intensely local and seasonal to a certain extent, with plenty of preservation on display (those long winters and all). Indigenous ingredients get pride of place, but most of all, it’s multicultural in a way that isn’t about melting-pot fusion or snobbish authenticity. The prairies are just as much Ukrainian as they are Canadian; British Columbia is more Asian than anything else. The northern territories are intensely First Nations-flavored, and the Maritimes are still Scottish and Gaelic. And we’re cool with all of it.

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Obama’s gastro-diplomacy needs to go beyond BeaverTails. (Photo: Pete Souza/Wikipedia)

Just like our accents, Canadian cuisine is so subtle you barely notice anything’s different. So what would happen if we stopped treating it as foreign and folded into the regionalism of the U.S.? Even though Canadians loathe the joke that Canada is the 51st state, giving in to it might help us get our food the credit it deserves. Treat our cuisine the way you treat your own regional foodways within the country—with dignity and respect for tradition—and I’ll happily vote that we add Canada to the list of American regions. You won’t be able to tell we’ve made it, but I’ll know when Nanaimo bars show up on the menu at Dominique Ansel Bakery.

RELATED: How to Make Mile End Smoked Meat Poutine-Reuben Nachos

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