Anita Stewart, a culinary activist and gastronome, has long been a friend of Slow Food and a regular contributor to the movement’s publications. She has been described as ‘Canada’s coolest food intellectual’ and ‘the patron saint of Canadian Food’. Her mission is to actively promote the growth and study of her country’s food culture in all its distinctive facets.
She recently published her fourteenth book, Anita Stewart’s Canada – The Food The Recipes The Stories, the latest stage on a long journey in search of the true essence of traditional and modern Canadian cuisine and the people behind its recipes and their ingredients.
In this exclusive interview for ‘Sloweek’, Anita reveals her gastronomic loves and hates.
What were your favorite foods as a child?
My mother’s macaroni and cheese casserole, fresh peas from our garden, the first strawberries of the year and my aunt’s potato soup (it’s genetic for anyone with Irish heritage, I think).
You often speak of your family in your book. Who do you owe your passion for food and cooking to?
There are a couple of influences. Mom’s family, the grandparents I was closest to, and their own ancestors were pioneers. The way our food culture is heading it seems that their work is being largely devalued. They cleared the fields of trees and built great farms. I don’t want to see their work go for naught.
Why is it so important for you to understand the origins or the stories behind Canadian recipes?
To help Canadians understand that we as a people have a food culture largely unlike any other on earth.
What’s your favorite table?
Anywhere my sons are cooking, whether it’s on a beach or in a restaurant.
What would you have for your last supper?
Great bread and fine wine and likely foie gras, but I’d rather like to think I’ll have lots of such meals in years to come.
If you were stranded on a desert island, what three ingredients would you like to have there with you?
Salt, pepper and butter … is WINE an ingredient?
Is there a dish or an ingredient that you detest?
I can’t eat dog or cat. I’ve tried horsemeat and honestly don’t see much merit in it.
What’s your dream dinner party line-up?
I’d like to call a few people back from the past … Brillat-Savarin, MFK Fisher, Alan Davidson, Julia Child, James Beard. Plus living people like Nancy Turner, Barbara Santich, my friend Jo Marie Powers, Carol Ferguson and my sons!
What was your most memorable meal?
Maybe it was the lunch I had at Rideau Hall in Ottawa with His Excellency Jean Daniel Lafond.
What’s the worst meal you’ve ever had?
Oh, I’ve had way too many to list. They tend to revolve around lousy service and a cook who is careless and is in the business for the wrong reasons.
Who’s your food hero?
I have quite a few. People like Gary Johnston, who created Yukon Gold potatoes, or researchers who literally spend lifetimes working to create a single ingredient.
What do you hope people take away from your book?
That Canada’s food smacks of huge possibilities (from our wild, as yet unidentified plant foods) and that we have the capability (and the responsibility) to keep our producers in business so that in the future we can feed the world.
How did you shortlist the final recipes for the book?
They all had stories attached that smacked of our amazing ethnic diversity and they happened to taste pretty darn good.
Make a food wish.
I wish for love! No great food is ever created without it.
Anita Stewart’s Canada
The Food The Recipes The Stories
Photographs by Robert Wigington and Anita Stewart
Toronto, Canada 2008
Victoria Blackshaw works at the Slow Food Press Office