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Posts tagged ‘Quebec’

Fugitive Knowledge

I never expected to receive an email from the Wayne County Airport Police. I had been so disoriented by the unpleasantness of immigration, crossing from Canada to the United States, that I’d dropped my travel notebook in Detroit airport. I’d only discovered its absence when unpacking in Ann Arbor and, as with most deep, unhappy losses, had only begun to realise how much I missed my small, black Moleskine diary a day or two later. But it was found, and a policewoman emailed to ask if it was mine. It arrived in a Fedex box six times its size within the week.

The diary would mean very little to anyone, I think. It contains addresses and phone numbers; lists of places to visit, things to buy, books to read, what to pack. It also includes recipes and descriptions of food I’ve eaten in Australia, Europe, Canada, and the US. It was these that I was particularly sorry to lose. In Kingston—a few days before arriving in Michigan—I’d written down the recipe for apple pie made by Elva McGaughey, my friend Jane’s mother, and an encyclopaedia of information on the home cooking of Ontario families.

That it was apple pie was significant. A week previously, Jane and Jennifer and Jennifer’s small son Stephen and I had picked apples in Québec’s Eastern Townships. We drove from Montréal, through bright green, softly rolling countryside. The sky was low and it drizzled. At the orchard, as Stephen snored gently in his sling, we filled deep paper bags with McIntosh and Cortland apples.

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Several people pointed out to me that the saying should be, really, ‘as Canadian as apple pie’ because—in their view—the best pie is made with Macs, a popular variety developed by John McIntosh, who discovered these tart, crunchy apples on his farm in Ontario in 1811. The Mac now constitutes 28% of the Canadian apple crop, and two thirds of all the apples grown in New England. It is—as I discovered—excellent for eating straight off the tree, and cooks down into a slightly sour, thick mush in pie.

Today, the Mac is one of only a handful of apples grown commercially. Industrialised food chains demand hardy, uniform, easily grown varieties which can withstand long periods of storage and transport without going off or developing bruises. Until comparatively recently, there were thousands of apple varieties to choose from. Writing about the United States, Rowan Jacobsen explains:

By the 1800s, America possessed more varieties of apples than any other country in the world, each adapted to the local climate and needs. Some came ripe in July, some in November. Some could last six months in the root cellar. Some were best for baking or sauce, and many were too tannic to eat fresh but made exceptional hard cider, the default buzz of agrarian America.

Nomenclature of the Apple: A Catalogue of the Known Varieties Referred to in American Publications from 1804 to 1904 by the pomologist WH Ragan, lists 17,000 apple names. I wonder if a small part of the enthusiasm fueling the current rediscovery of old varieties—even neglected apple trees will continue bearing fruit for decades—is due to the multiple meanings we’ve attached to apples over many, many centuries. They feature prominently in classical and Norse mythology, where they are symbols of fertility, love, youth, and immortality, but also of discord. They are fruit with doubled meanings. The apple in fairytales represents both the victory of the evil stepmother, as well as the beginning of our heroine’s salvation: her prince will kiss her out of the coma induced by the poisoned apple. In her novel The Biographer’s Tale, AS Byatt represents the two wives—one in England, the other Turkish—of the bigamist Victorian explorer Sir Elmer Bole with green and red apples. The fruit in the Garden of Eden—since at least the first century CE described as an apple—bestowed both knowledge and banishment.

If the name McIntosh seemed oddly familiar, then it may be because of a now-ubiquitous Californian brand: the Apple Macintosh, launched in 1984, was named ‘Apple’ by Steve Jobs—apparently then on a fruitarian diet—and after the Mac apple, a favourite of one of the company’s top engineers. It is appropriate that these sophisticated machines which offer access to so much knowledge—licit, illicit, open, secret—should be named for apples.

In Berlin Childhood around 1900, Walter Benjamin describes being woken early—at half past six—on winter mornings before school. His nursemaid would light the fire in a small stove by his bed:

When it was ready, she would put an apple in the little oven to bake. Before long, the grating of the burner door was outlined in a red flickering on the floor. And it seemed, to my weariness, that this image was enough for one day. It was always so at this hour; only the voice of my nursemaid disturbed the solemnity with which the winter morning used to give me up into the keeping of the things in my room. The shutters were not yet open as I slid aside the bolt of the oven door for the first time, to examine the apple cooking inside. Sometimes, its aroma would scarcely have changed. And then I would wait patiently until I thought I could detect the fine bubbly fragrance that came from a deeper and more secretive cell of the winter’s day than even the fragrance of the fir tree on Christmas eve. There lay the apple, the dark, warm fruit that—familiar and yet transformed, like a good friend back from a journey—now awaited me. It was the journey through the dark land of the oven’s heat, from which it had extracted the aromas of all the things the day held in store for me. So it was not surprising that, whenever I warmed my hands on its shining cheeks, I would always hesitate to bite in. I sensed that the fugitive knowledge conveyed in its smell could all too easily escape me on the way to my tongue. That knowledge which sometimes was so heartening that it stayed to comfort me on my trek to school.

The baked apple—Proust’s madeleine for twenty-first-century theorists—both opens up Benjamin’s memories of childhood during a period of acute homesickness, but, as a child, it contained the ‘fugitive knowledge’ of what lay ahead. It could fortify—sustain—him on the journey to school, between the dark warmth of home and the noise and brightness of school.

Notebooks contain the same fugitive knowledge: they are both guides for future action, and repositories of information, memory, fact gathered over time and place. They travel in pockets and backpacks and book bags from Drawn and Quarterly, accruing meaning, emotional and intellectual. They belong to time present, as well as time future and past.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Sweet Talk

The language of maple syrup production is remarkably similar to that of drug dealing. Buyers try to make contact with dealers – who manufacture the syrup in deep, rural Ontario and Quebec – in search of the purest, most refined version of the product. I imagine the white middle-classes descending on isolated outposts of the countryside, in search of the good shit.

I spent most of May in Canada: mainly in Montreal, but also in Kingston for a wedding, and fleetingly in Toronto. I had a most fantastic and excellent time. (Except for the bit where I threw up every two hours on the trip from Toronto to Montreal. I could not recommend Via Rail’s bathrooms more highly.) Until this visit, my main exposure to Canadian cuisine had been in the form of Kraft dinner and poutine. A few years ago, a friend and I were locked in a basement kitchen and made to cook poutine for fifty homesick Canadians. If needs be, I may claim Canadian citizenship on the grounds of this experience. So with expectations suitably adjusted, I was curious about the food I would encounter.

In Toronto's Kensington Market.

In Toronto’s Kensington Market.

I ate exceptionally well and at such a range of cafes and restaurants, which is not surprising considering how multicultural some parts of Canada are. I was interested in the number of distinctly Canadian dishes I encountered: turtles, Nanaimo bars, and butter tarts. I would have tried a sugar pie in Quebec were I not concerned about early-onset diabetes.

A turtle at Olive & Gourmando.

A turtle at Olive & Gourmando in Montreal.

And while staying with my friend Jane’s parents in Kingston, I learned a great deal about maple syrup. (Not least via the medium of her mum Elva’s amazingly delicious maple syrup muffins.) I discovered:

–       It’s possible to freeze maple syrup.

–       Maple syrup is best stored in empty, but unrinsed, rum, whisky, or brandy bottles.

–       The syrup ages as it keeps.

–       Each vintage is unique.

–       A collection of maple trees tapped for resin is called a sugar bush.

Subsequently, my friend Theo mentioned the Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve. This really does exist and is not, as I first suspected, the basis of Canada’s counter-terrorism strategy (neutralising enemies with extreme sweetness). Theo explains:

Cartel logic. The reserve is there to maintain the ‘right’ balance of sales and prices year to year, maintaining predictability for the many, many small producers of maple syrup. They sell off the reserve if there are new markets or a bad frost reducing the supply, and they build up the reserve in years with good production. OPEC does the same thing with petrol.

Maple syrup is so important to the Canadian economy – Quebec alone produces three quarters of the world’s supply – that the reserve is essential for protecting both the nation’s income and individual suppliers’ livelihoods. This is why the 2012 heist, during which thieves made off with around $30 million worth of maple syrup, was such a calamity.

In Mile End, Montreal.

In Mile End, Montreal.

But maple syrup means more than money. One of my favourite accounts of a first visit to the motherland is an essay by Margaret Atwood. In ‘Tour-de-Farce’ she describes how this 1964 trip to Britain and ‘a dauntingly ambitious quest for cultural trophies,’ which was supposed to ‘improve’ both her and her writing, helped her to understand her own Canadian-ness. Or, rather, that the people she encountered abroad could not position her within a cultural context:

For the Europeans, there was a flag-shaped blank where my nationality should have been. What was visible to me was invisible to them; nor could I help them out by falling back on any internationally-famous architectural constructs. About all I had to offer as a referent was a troop of horsey policemen, which hardly seemed enough.

Canadian food historians have begun to do excellent work on how Canadian identities have been constructed around food, cooking, and eating – around Tim Horton’s, immigrant cuisines, vegetarianism – and have thought about the position of maple syrup within this national identity- and mythmaking. (In what other country is it possible to consume a national emblem at breakfast?)

Its origins are in the wilderness, it was produced first by First Nations people and then by settlers, particularly dairy farmers in need of income during long, freezing winters. It was the virtuous substitute for sugar among nineteenth-century abolitionists, and figured prominently in the country’s commitment to an imperial war effort during the Second World War. Maple syrup’s usefulness is that because it’s a product that is linked to Canada’s landscape – it is ‘natural’ and, thus, somehow pure – it is able to by-pass a range of concerns that upset ideas of a Canadian-ness constructed around goodness and sweetness. Like wild salmon, maple syrup can be sold as a kind of pure, depoliticised embodiment of all that is ‘Canadian.’

Further Reading

Atsuko Hashimoto and David J. Telfer, ‘Selling Canadian Culinary Tourism: Branding the Global and the Regional Product,’ Tourism Geographies: An International Journal of Tourism Space, Place and Environment, vol. 8, no. 1 (2006), pp. 31-55.

Franca Iacovetta, Valerie J. Korinek, and Marlene Epp (eds.), Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012).

Carol I. Mason, ‘A Sweet Small Something: Maple Sugaring in the New World,’ in The Invented Indian: Cultural Fictions and Government Policies, ed. James A. Clifton (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2007), pp. 91-106.

Ian Mosby, Food will Win the War: The Politics, Culture, and Science of Food on Canada’s Home Front (Vermont: University of British Columbia Press, 2014).

Steve Penfold, The Donut: A Canadian History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).

Creative Commons License
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 08.05.2013

More Britons than ever before are dependent on food banks.

The $1 McDonald’s meal has failed to lift sales.

Bananas and oil in Ecuador.

How safe is American meat?

Tesco pulls out of the US.

A history of United Farm Workers.

A fat-fuelled power station.

Cheddar cheese is to be used as security for a pension fund.

David Chan, who has eaten at 6,297 Chinese restaurants.

Rogue sugar shacks in Quebec had best be on their guard.

The Ghanaian food revolution.

Cook it Raw.

Cooked is only half-cooked, at best.’

Where to have afternoon tea in Cape Town.

Has the cupcake boom gone bust?

The 1961 Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook.

Lessons from a month of being vegan.

The new wave of London street food.

The day coffee stopped working.

A scratch-and-sniff food magazine.

Romain Jimenez, toasted cheese seller.

Tea and flies with Kermit the Frog.

Pantone for chocolate lovers.

A 15,000 year-old pot for making fish soup.

How do you pronounce ‘scone‘?

A beer drinker’s guide to Bratislava.

Almond pudding.

Rediscovering Russian food and produce.

A cafe built out of recycled cardboard.

Literary beers.

The man who invented the thermos flask.

Book cakes.

Elaborate latte art.

A brief history of sausage rolls.

Hipster Meals.

New York Times‘s correspondents describe their favourite watering holes.

The cake that looks like a Mondrian painting.

Eighteenth-century sugar cakes.

Avocado buttercream.

How to make a sweet souffle.

Skeleton sushi.

Twenty strange things to eat.

A Russian TV chef has apologised for comparing chopping herbs to the slaughter of Ukrainian villagers. As you do.