On Your Tables: Ginger Beef, Caesars and Butter Tarts

Canada Letter readers offer their views about the foods that define the nation’s communities and regions.

Readers of The Canada Letter were keen to highlight the contributions by their communities and provinces to Canadian cuisine after I presented my inadequate and incomplete list a couple of weeks ago.

ImageTom Pham of Ottawa with a BeaverTail pastry in the city’s ByWard Market area.
Tom Pham of Ottawa with a BeaverTail pastry in the city’s ByWard Market area.Credit...Ian Austen/The New York Times

Among your many emails, one came from Jacqueline Fobes, a reader from Pebble Beach, Calf., alerting me to a terrific book about this very topic: “Speaking in Cod Tongues.” After giving it a read, I called Lenore Newman, its author and the Canada research chairwoman in food security and environment at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia.

Professor Newman told me she was inspired to cross the country looking for sources of local food pride by a student “who became obsessed” with Nanaimo bars. She found some research money that, among other things, allowed the student to research whether the bars were actually from Nanaimo (they are).

“That got me into the bigger story and of the role of women in the 1950s, their lives in mill towns and the cuisine they created,” Professor Newman told me.

She defines Canadian cuisine in part by what it isn’t.

“We don’t have a lot of recipes, and that’s a function of the nature of our cuisine,” she said. “It doesn’t mean it’s less developed. There’s lots of cuisines around the world that aren’t recipes.

Instead, in Professor Newman’s view, Canadian cooking is “all about properties of seasonality, of incorporating wild foods, of multicultural incorporation and ingredients.”

Several of you, too many to name, noted the absence of butter tarts from my list. That was a result of doubt and cowardice on my part. I planned to include butter tarts as one of Ontario’s contributions until I came across other provinces making claims on them. Professor Newman, however, assured me that they are indeed from Ontario.

[Read: The Passions of the Butter Tart]

Marc LaPlante from Kingston, Ontario, and six other readers pointed out another missing item from Ontario. “Great Canucks, how can you not list the delight of the fried sweet BeaverTail from the Ottawa Valley?” Mr. LaPlante wrote.

Most commonly associated with skating on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, the BeaverTail is essentially flattened out doughnut pastry made with whole wheat flour and deep fried. The company that owns the name claims they were first sold by its founder, Grant Hooker, in Killaloe, Ontario, in 1978. Speaking for many parents, I’m sure, I have less than fond memories of trying to convince young children that not every skating excursion on the canal involved buying them.

Ten readers brought up Calgary’s very important contribution: ginger beef. In her book, Professor Newman describes it as “deep fried strips of beef in a sweet sauce with fresh ginger, garlic, and hot pepper, usually with a few carrots and onions.”

While it’s now a staple of most Chinese restaurants in Canada, Bill Corbett attributes its origins to the Silver Inn Restaurant.

He was also among several readers who raised Calgary’s creation of the Caesar. While that’s veering into beverage territory, it is an opportunity to bring up Robert Simonson’s article about how Canadians define the cocktail.

[Read: It Came, It Quenched, It Conquered Canada: The Caesar]

My mention of Vancouver and its Indian pizza prompted emails about two other variations on pizza. Cara Stewart reported that pirogi pizza can be found in Saskatchewan. I won’t render judgment until I’ve tried it next time I’m there.

Bill Weaver pointed out that Hawaiian pizza — topped with ham and tinned pineapple — came out of Chatham, Ontario. “Although the topping creates some polarized views, I believe the addition of pineapple has advanced the taste of pizzas,” he wrote.

Finally, several readers, including some of my friends, suggested that the peameal bacon sandwiches found at two stands in the St. Lawrence Market are the defining food of Toronto. But it seems a stretch to claim that they are to Toronto what bagels and smoked meat are to Montreal.

Professor Newman suggested it might be impossible to find a defining food for Toronto, a city of many foods.

“I don’t think there’s ever going be a quintessential Toronto dish,” she told me, adding that the city is “just too global and multicultural.”

  • Boris Johnson won a resounding victory in Britain this week in an election that, like Canada’s, left the country divided politically along regional lines. The photographer Andrew Testa made a photographic portrait of the nation as it now faces Brexit.

  • Like their Canadian counterparts, natural gas producers in the United States are hoping that exports of liquefied natural gas might reverse falling prices caused by a global glut of gas. Clifford Krauss’s reporting suggests that they both may be disappointed.

  • Terry de Havilland, the British maker of psychedelic shoes for stars, has died at the age of 81. “I designed most of my shoes on acid, and the opening party for my shop in the King’s Road was famous for the three Cs — champagne, cocaine and caviar,” Mr. de Havilland once wrote. “God knows who was there — everybody.”

  • Paintings on an Indonesian island that are at least 43,900 years old may be the oldest known art depicting scenes from the imagination.

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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