Mediaplanet sat down with Anita Stewart — the activist, educator, and food writer behind Food Day Canada — to discuss Canada’s rich culinary history and where our agriculture and food industry is headed.
Mediaplanet: What sparked your interest in advocating for Canadian food and cuisine?
Anita Stewart: Growing up, we ate from our gardens, our neighbourhood — our foodshed. If there was a spark, it was the realization that those commonplace ingredients and the growers who produced them were, in the terminology of the day, absolutely “world class.” Yet, as Canadians, we had been too busy founding this incredible nation of ours to pay attention to just how lucky we are. With the research that formed the foundation of my first cookbooks on the farmers’ markets of Ontario and the country inns of Canada, I realized how incredible our food traditions are and also how very fragile they are. They need to be protected, nurtured, and, above all, shared.
How has Food Day Canada grown and evolved since its debut in 2010?
Those chefs who walked the local talk in 2010 have become our often-strident brand advocates and, over the years, have created menus that could stand on absolutely any world stage. We added a menu competition — the Good Food Innovation Awards — under the auspices of Canada’s food university, the University of Guelph, and annually the Gold Award winners head to Manhattan to create a feast at the James Beard House, arguably the home of American gastronomy.
This year (2019) was another first for Canada. We illuminated 25 iconic structures in red and white from coast to coast to coast in honour of Canadian cuisine. I had the extraordinary privilege of lighting Niagara Falls. Even the CN Tower and BC Place got involved! And believe me, this was only the dress rehearsal for 2020, when we’ll be fully shining a light on our spectacular northern bounty.
What makes the Canadian food system unique?
With a landmass of roughly 9,976,128 square kilometres and the longest coastline on earth bordering on three oceans and measuring 243,000 kilometres, Canada is a land of ultimate culinary possibilities. We have more fresh water than any other nation on earth.
The richness and biodiversity of the indigenous harvest — our original palate — is the foundation of it all. Built solidly upon that base are our iconic ingredients — wheat, beef, apples — enriching and embroidering the culinary traditions of a multitude of immigrant groups who have gathered together from the four corners of the globe — men and women with a passion for this land which they now call home.
There isn’t one Canadian cuisine — there are hundreds, depending upon ethnicity, climate, and history. It’s ultimately based in the land and the sea. It’s defined by a mindset, a philosophy, and an attitude, and it uses ingredients that speak volumes of the glorious culinary history of Canada.
Why is it important for Canadians to support our domestic food system?
Canadian cuisine is about celebrating our magnificent differences, our roots, and our ethnicity. By supporting our domestic food system, we’re creating capacity for our producers to compete globally while maintaining the ability to feed ourselves. We’re creating the best from our local ingredients — then selling them to the world. It’s about branding ourselves “Canadian” and giving our producers an unmistakable edge that no other nation can emulate. It’s about culinary sovereignty.
How do you see Canada’s culinary identity evolving?
As a nation, our identity is one of inclusion and diversity. From Nootka Sound to Cape Spear, our story is one of great culinary wealth. The evolution we’re seeing today is simply one of educated pride… of place, of production, of culinary excellence… and of course, of celebration.
What advice can you give to Canadians hoping to better their culinary knowledge?
Travel, taste, explore. Do your research in libraries where you can find original sources, sometimes even original manuscripts. Pay only moderate attention to online “experts,” where so much information is a mile wide and an inch deep. Ask questions informed by your own experiences and realize that your food voice is as valid as anyone else’s. Then head to your kitchen and COOK!