Recently there was a TIME photo series being shared on Facebook that showed different families around the world and what their food consumption for one week looked like. One of the pictures was of a Canadian family from Iqaluit who had a table spread with veggies and meat and potatoes and some packaged foods but when asked listed narwhal and polar bear as some of their favorite food. The aim of the photo series was not to represent what families in each country ate but to “raise awareness about how environments and cultures influence the cost and calories of the world’s dinners.” And yet the comments section was full of people complaining that they didn’t like the picture, that it didn’t represent them or Canadians and that most Canadians weren’t “weirdos” that ate that strange food and that they were Canadian and they ate a “typical” “normal” diet. As well as missing the point of the photo series, these commentators also had a rather city-centric assumption that all Canadians eat the same thing and that there is such a thing as a typical Canadian diet. And honestly I’m kind of pretty disappointed that some Canadians think our diet is so boring and want it to be represented as such. Having traveled all across Canada I’ve seen a lot of variety in diet across and up and down our great big country so I’m not really sure what the typical Canadian diet they are referring to is. C’mon fellow Canadians let’s embrace our exciting dietary uniqueness!
I’ve been to all the provinces and territories except the North West Territories, Nunavut and PEI ( Someone please send me there and help complete my goal to see all the provinces and territories?) including big cities and more remote areas and I have discovered that Canada is full of unique eating habits that vary just as much as it’s landscape varies across the great big country that it is.
I discovered a different way of living life and a different way of eating when I moved to the subarctic, “La Grand Nord” of Quebec 3 years ago. I’m not quite in the arctic where the family in the photo series lived but more in the middle, on the border of Labrador and Quebec. There are no roads leading to the community so the food that is brought in once a week is expensive. But the native families that live here have managed to hold onto some of their traditions and supplement the food bought at the grocery store by fishing and hunting. Their diet regularly contains fish from the local lakes, blueberries picked in the summer time, Ptarmigan ( a partridge like northern bird that is considered like chicken here – if you feel a cold coming on, you will be urged to have some ptarmigan to help ward of your cold along with some Labrador tea also locally harvested), caribou, and geese (in fact everything in the community shuts down in May for the goose hunt). I wouldn’t have thought of myself as someone who supported hunting or would actually try to hunt myself until I accompanied a friend on a hunting trip and saw the honorable way the hunters treated the animal. Everything that was hunted was shared with others in the community and in particular with the elders. Compared to meat purchased in a grocery store, these animals lived in freedom, were killed with respect and as little suffering as possible and every part was used for food or to make something.
Native Canadians are not the only ones that still live off the land to some degree. I met a lot of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians while working in Labrador who also hunt and fish and even grow their own food. I asked the central Newfoundland guy I was dating once what his favorite food was and he said, moose and salmon. He meant, of course, fresh and caught or hunted by himself, not frozen and bought from a grocery store. While I was visiting Newfoundland myself, I was invited to a dinner of local rabbit and root vegetables that was delicious and hardy. No wonder most of the Newfoundlanders I’ve met are such warm, comfortable, welcoming, hardy people. Newfoundlanders have a unique culture and in my opinion, Newfoundland and Quebec are actually the most alike provinces in that they each have held onto a unique culture, including language, food, and other traditions. I heard this sentiment expressed when I visited Newfoundland and told people I met that I was from Quebec. We understood each other through our differences, and maybe that is why Newfoundland is the province outside of my own home province that feels the most like home.
Newfoundland has many unique food dishes that I had a chance to try while eating at Newfoundlander run work camp while working in Labrador and while visiting the island itself. Some of my favorites: Fisherman’s Brewis, a dish made of hard bread and fish served with molasses (that I for months thought was called fisherman’s bruise), Cod au Gratin, and my most favourite the traditional boiled Jigg’s Dinner consisting of boiled root vegetables, cabbage, salt beef and sometimes even turkey.
Even when growing up in a big city like Montreal, there was no “typical diet” in my own Canadian family. My mother’s family is from the Maritimes and my father’s family is Quebecois. When my mother cooks, she likes to make wholesome stews and soups, and when we talk about food she’ll reminisce about clam digging in New Brunswick. When I traveled on my own through the Maritimes I felt so at home even though I knew no one there that my mother said, “maybe it’s in your genes”. Maybe it is, certainly the food seemed so much like home to me.
When I spend time with my father’s family my grandmere makes tortiere and we always do a fondue with different meats such as beef, elk, deer, partridge, some of which my uncle has often hunted himself. On Christmas Eve, we stay up for a réveillon and have a Cipâte as our Christmas dinner instead of the typical turkey dinner. It’s like a big meat stew baked with a pie like crust over top and usually contains several types of meat such as beef, pork, rabbit, or chicken.
Living in very multicultural Montreal our diet would also often be influenced by the area we lived and the people that lived there. When we lived in Jewish neighborhoods we ate ate onion rolls and karnatzels for lunch.
When we lived in Asian areas, we ate more stir fries and noodles and rice. We weren’t rich and we ate was available locally for cheap. My parents used to make this dish that was made of bean sprouts, green beans, chicken, and mini matzo croutons all stir fried together and seasoned with soy sauce and served with rice. I imagine it came to existence as a throw whatever was in the cupboard together meal but I still have cravings for that strange Asian Jewish accidental fusion food to this day. Of course as a Quebecer I also eat my fair share of poutine!
While traveling out west I’ve had amazing scallops and salmon in Vancouver plus the best Thai food I’ve ever had in Canada. And you can’t beat the freshness of the beef and the juicy bison burgers in Alberta. I haven’t spent as much time getting to know the centre of the country yet but would love to go on future trips to do so.
That’s just a few examples to show some of the uniqueness of what Canadians eat in the places I’ve spent the most in. I’m sure there’s so much more to discover in the provinces and territories that I’ve yet to have the chance to try or haven’t visited yet. Not to mention all the people that come from other cultures and bring their food traditions. I hope this shows just how interesting our diet can be and that there is no one way that Canadians eat.
And really would you want to see a pic of the boring family that eats the so called “regular” diet? I think it’s fitting that they chose an Inuit family, after all their diet is probably the most representative of original Canadian eating habits.