Thinking regionally - Shawn Loughlin editorial
Anyone who has been to my house or my office in recent years (though that list is admittedly a lot shorter since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic) knows that I’m a bit of a cookbook collector. It’s not that I necessarily cook from them - though I do sometimes - it’s more about learning about different regions, restaurants and food. I prefer restaurant cookbooks, to be honest, over practical, how-to cookbooks. To me, it almost feels like travel writing, where it’s the pretty, exotic scenes that get you turning pages.
Renowned southern U.S. chef Sean Brock recently wrote South, an ode to the food of the south, in which he, in a way, laments that the food of the southern United States has been lumped together as one kind of food. He compares the American south to continental Europe, saying they are of a similar size and, it goes without saying, the range of cuisine and food styles of Europe are incredibly diverse from country to country and region to region.
He then uses the very southern dish of shrimp and grits to illustrate the differences between the south’s microregions and the different types of shrimp, grits and vegetables that would be used in each different region.
I’ve kept that in the back of my mind ever since I first read it. Every time I hear about a country’s type of food, I think back to Brock’s writing about the southern regions and further regions within those regions.
For my birthday one year, a dear friend treated me to dinner at Buca in Toronto which, at the time, was one of the top 10 restaurants in Canada. It’s an Italian restaurant with pizzas and pasta, but many of the dishes focused on coastal Italian food, so there was a lot of seafood, squid and more. So, instead of spaghetti and meatballs, we were having branzino crudo (a huge fish, carved tableside and served raw with olive oil, lemon and flaky sea salt) and a squid ink cake with olive oil for dessert. That dinner, in itself, was educational.
Again, as an avid cookbook reader, it’s been nice to see Canadian cookbooks follow suit.
Denny wrote a column a while back about an episode of The Bachelor that should have marked the show’s first-ever “hometown” date that crossed the border into Canada. However, it was filmed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and was produced in a “bubble” so the producers sought to replicate the Canadian experience in California, complete with Canadian food and parking lot hockey.
The food, predictably, was terrible. Poutine, of course, peameal bacon, Nanaimo bars and beaver tails were all on the menu. It led to some pretty heavy criticism from Canadians and some alternate suggestions like Smarties, all-dressed chips, butter tarts and more.
Back to the cookbooks. Newfoundland chef Jeremy Charles perhaps started the ball rolling when he published Wildness, focused entirely on the ingredients, cuisine and traditions of his beloved home island. Full of moose, cod, seal and cloudberries, the recipes don’t exactly translate to other parts of the province, but that’s not the point. Other cookbooks have followed in his footsteps, highlighting the unique ingredients, dishes and traditions of Canada’s west coast, the prairies, Ontario, the Maritimes and, of course, Quebec. Some have even tackled the whole country, but focused on regions. Caesar Country, a book entirely about our beloved clam and tomato cocktail, fills over 300 pages with regional recipes for the same drink, proving that there are many shades of grey when it comes to regional food and how two very different dishes, drinks or ingredients can both be very Canadian.