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SimonThibault.com

Journalist. Food Writer. Producer.

Common and Uncommon Apples, Cookbooks, and Seaweed.

After my last post about cookbooks, it appears that would be the logical place to start this post: with the announcement that Pantry and Palate: Remembering and Rediscovering Acadian Food has been nominated for a Taste Canada Award in the Regional/Cultural Cookbook category.

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Taking a look at the nominees, that’s quite the company to keep.

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I’ve written before about being lucky enough to have grown up with an apple orchard in my backyard. My parents have a hobby orchard in my hometown of Pointe-de-l’Église, and so the act of picking an apple directly from a tree is not only familiar, but borderline necessary for me. The snap of biting into an apple is only secondary in pleasure to gentle crack of taking the apple from the branch. 

And so I would argue that Gravenstein apples are - to me - best picked a few days early, when they are almost bracingly acidic, but also at their crispest. That McIntosh isn’t worth buying in a supermarket when you’ve eaten one that was only on the tree within a 24 hour window.  That Russets - of all sorts - are almost apples designed for adults with their tight texture, gentle dryness, and so many ways of using them. It’s what made me want to write this piece for Canadian Living magazine, entitled “The Apples You Should Be Shopping For This Fall.” *

 Old Fashioned Gravensteins

Old Fashioned Gravensteins

Many thanks to Anita Stewart, Canada’s Food Laureate and maven behind Food Day Canada, as well as Rowan Jacobsen, author of “Apples of Uncommon Character” to being available to talk about the beauty of apples, and how diverse that beauty is.

Also, I do have to admit, I do take a small bit of personal joy in having an image of my father’s Old Fashioned Gravensteins take centre stage. Conflict of interest? Maybe. But I am my father’s son.

That piece went live on the very same day that it was reported that the Red Delicious was on its way out as the best selling apple in North America.  Serendipity being what it is, I got a call from a producer at CBC Radio’s As It Happens, asking if I would talk about the Red Delicious, and why it may deserve it’s not-so-gentle tumble from first place. Although it may have been “delicious” at some point in it’s trajectory from one lone tree to the most-grown, success changed the apple, and also changed how we consume them.

Yesterday was also publication day for another story I filed, this time for The Huffington Post, on seaweeds/sea vegetables.

 To be clear: 'Superfood' is put in quotation marks for a reason. *

To be clear: 'Superfood' is put in quotation marks for a reason. *

People are looking at them for all sorts of resources - from nutrition to medicine, from ecological as well as gastronomical - but will it work?  I chatted with a few people to talk about the eating of it, such as Nancy Singleton Hachisu - author of the recent Japan: The Cookbook, as well as Jonathan Kauffman, who’s book Hippie Food: How Back To The Landers, Longhairs and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat is a treat. I also had a great time Skype-ing with Tamar Haspel, who gave me some of the best quotes for the piece. Haspel’s work over at the Washington Post has earned her a James Beard Award, and her Twitter feed is worth checking out for her no-nonsense approach to agricultural/food issues. Agree with her or not, she has a deft turn of the pen/keyboard. 

 Recipe for rose sugar - hang out with your mother on the coast of Saint Mary's Bay, collect wild roses. Place in sugar. 

Recipe for rose sugar - hang out with your mother on the coast of Saint Mary's Bay, collect wild roses. Place in sugar. 

In the meantime, enjoy the summer in whatever way works best for you. I’ll be putting up everything I can get my hands on, probably with the rose sugar I recently put together.  Thanks to my friend Stephen Sherman Wade for the inspiration.  The last of the strawberries have benefited greatly from it, as did my mother and I as we collected the petals...

 

 

* It should be noted that writers and journalists rarely select the titles of their journalistic endeavours, and even less so in a landscape that is powered by searchable results. I don’t blame my editor for any titles, and I don’t envy their position either.

Lost in pages

I can’t decide if the first joy of a cookbook is in purchasing it, reading it, or in cooking the first recipe from it. 

When people ask me about my love for cookbooks, there is a familiar refrain that comes out: I read them like novels.

When I say this, it is to convey the engagement I have with cookbooks:  I read them from cover to cover, pore over the language, and the ideas found therein. I want to convey the love I have for these books: the work that goes into making them, and the work that comes out of from using them. 

People often have bookshelves stationed prominently in their homes. Those shelves can tell you what language they enjoy, what stories, what ideas. Do they prefer a clipped lexicon, direct and forthwith? Are they fans of flowery language, with sentences that run on to the point of droning verbiage? 

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The most visible, accessible, and used bookshelves in my household are filled with cookbooks.  The shelves are organized by (loose) categories: a shelf for baking (this is the most rapidly expanding shelf), a shelf organized by regional cuisines, a shelf for books by cooks/restaurants, a shelf for single subjects, and a shelf for resource materials.  In my bedroom there are shelves for food writing, books to pick at before bed or books to sit in the sun and absorb their information at the same rate as the sun’s rays come down on me. Deliberately. 

The purpose of a cookbook is ostensibly to collate a series of recipes and present them in the best possible manner. Sometimes that manner is direct, with little artifice, and pure information.  Sometimes the manner meanders, wafting through your mind like aromas from warm kitchens. 

What makes a cookbook valuable is more than just the recipe. It is the perfect example of something being greater than the sum of its parts.

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And that brings me to the most common argument I receive when I say that I love and collect cookbooks: I could just look it up online.

Of course you could.

First, let me applaud you. You want to cook, you have a desire to look up a recipe, to try and cook something that is perhaps new to you. Maybe you’ve decided that you want to ameliorate the dish you’ve been making by rote, and are looking for a new way to look at that dish you love. Maybe you are looking at recipes because you need to stretch your dollar as far as it can go. More than anything I applaud the desire to find agency and self reliance, and a respect for the foodstuffs that we have access to, and respect to those who brought them to our tables. 

Online resources abound for the curious cook. There are so many websites that can give you instant, practical, and well-tested recipes. I respect, admire, and even wish to perhaps one day contribute to some of them. (That was a hint, editors.)  But the manner in which we absorb that information - as immediately and as quickly as we plug in our search parameters - ignores the work that brought it to your screen. More importantly, by ignoring that kind of work, we often ignore the work we are about to undertake ourselves.  Or at the very least (or most?) we will view that work as drudgery, a means to an end. 

Search. Find recipe. Execute. Eat. 

Reading a recipe online is like reading an excerpt from a novel - it can be beautiful, it can lead to satisfaction, but it misses so much of the breadth that gives an excerpt heft and gravitas: the words that surround it on both sides of its cut.

It’s a little too utilitarian. It leans towards the gross rather than the subtle.

So allow me to flip the narrative , and give you a gross of subtleties. 

 A glut of rhubarb, roasted with ginger and star anise. 

A glut of rhubarb, roasted with ginger and star anise. 

Think of how you read a novel. You start at the beginning, and allow yourself to follow the story. You will give yourself permission to pause at certain moments, re-read passages that have struck you.  You will follow the narrative flow: Character goes on journey. Character encounters tension. Character resolves issue, completing journey. It is engrossing. 

In a good cookbook, there will be a similar flow. Not all books follow a direct narrative approach, nor do they need to. But they follow a logical order: This is what you are here to learn. Here is the process you can follow. Journey complete. Let’s eat.

Like I said at the start of this piece: I can’t decide if the first joy of a cookbook is in purchasing it, reading it, or in cooking the first recipe from it.  I think the ambiguity and almost Venn Diagram-esque way of measuring this is part of the beauty. Each book is different, each first joy is different, and each brings about their own nuanced manner of introduction.  The recipes don’t stand alone: they stand next to each other, on the pages that precede and proceed. 

It could be the location where you sit and read said book. The book may act as a balm to a busy day, helping you leave the world behind, as deeply as you would fall into a novel.  It can be even more engrossing than fiction, because unlike fiction where you must imagine the reality, with a cookbook you can forge that reality: at your fingertips, at knifepoint, in the well of a spoon. 

There is something to be said for finding that book you’ve been looking for, an author whose name has been repeated to you. For you, it could be an old paperback copy of Elizabeth David, or an out of print tome that you already own, but wish to purchase so that you can give it to someone else.  These are two distinct pleasures on their own. Sometimes that book is one already sitting on your shelf, something you picked up because you feel you should own it, or something someone gave you, because they felt you should own it.

For me, the most recent that book was Nigel Slater’s Tender.* Reading it was like listening to that friend who you call when you’re stuck on what to cook next. The one who gives you all the good ideas, and then you actually feel like you can make them happen.  At the time of this writing,  it’s summer, and I find myself at the edge of a glut: the berries have just begun to appear, and I am at the edge of where I am almost tired of rhubarb.  But I don’t wish to be in the case of the latter, and I wish to be prepared for the former. 

 Yes, it would be easy to type in a few letters and find the most popular recipe for said ingredient.  But an algorithm will not tell me what is already in my home, nor will it be able to predict that I will find much more satisfaction in doing my own digging, than letting someone else do the work for me.  The satisfaction of looking for the book that holds the recipe for the dish you’ve always wanted to make, or the dish you never thought of making.  

This is how you end up with a rhubarb flavoured with amaro. Rhubarb roasted gently with fresh ginger and star anise. Rhubarb baked into various forms of coffee cakes, with various flours to see which works best.  I see possibilities, not culinary doldrums.

 100% whole grain flour coffee cake with rhubarb roasted with ginger and star anise, and an oat and oat flour streusel.

100% whole grain flour coffee cake with rhubarb roasted with ginger and star anise, and an oat and oat flour streusel.

This is how your fridge is emptied. This is how you become emboldened. Like a novel that leaves you with hopes and ideas, a cookbook that has been read from cover to cover can arm you with knowledge and inspiration.

Because you allowed yourself to once again get lost in pages.

 

 

* I could link to an online retailer here, but really, if you care about books as much as I think you do, you could ask your local retailer to order it for you, or at the very least, check it out of your local library.

For the love of libraries

Last year, Halifax Public Libraries asked me to be a part of a series of videos about how the library has impacted people's lives.  As someone who has hosted talks at the library and even done radio stories about using it's massive cookbook collection, I was more than happy to be a part of it.

The video came out a couple weeks ago and has been shared and promoted on social media to a really wonderful response. I invite you to check out the rest of the videos, as well as more about their new campaign called Tastes Like Home. 

I've written about my love of cookbooks before, but this was a wonderful way to talk about how my own career path started with a book I borrowed from the library.  Check it out below, and support your local library. 

Plating it up

In 2010, I came across a rather interesting video. It was produced by Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine, a couple who had left the hustle and bustle of NYC to start chronicling the lives of food producers in their home state of Minnesota. The name of their video series and website: The Perennial Plate

Their first video was a heck of an introduction - Daniel purchases a live turkey from a farmer, and dispatches it himself for Thanksgiving dinner. Mirra would soon become a vegetarian. 

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Daniel and Mirra may have started telling stories from food producers all over Minnesota, but they soon expand to all over the United States, and eventually they started telling food stories from around the world. They learned about everything from  making noodles in Japan, to showcasing snippets of culinary life in Morocco.

They were nominated for, and won, multiple James Beard Awards for their work.  In 2017, they created a Kickstarter campaign called "Resistance Through Storytelling" to use social media - and the algorithms found therein - to tell and highlight the stories of immigrants in the United States.

And then in September of 2017, they came to Nova Scotia to tell stories about this part of the world.

 Daniel and Mirra from The Perennial Plate framing up a shot.

Daniel and Mirra from The Perennial Plate framing up a shot.

While researching ideas for films based in this region, Daniel and Mirra approached me to see if I was interested in being a subject for one of their films. As someone who has a deep appreciation for the kind of work they do, I have to say I was incredibly flattered (and more than a little excited) to be a part of The Perennial Plate. Daniel and Mirra, as well as their friend and Perennial Plater Hunter, shot over three days in Halifax, at the Grand-Pré Historical Site, and down in Clare, where I grew up.  

Since Pantry and Palate has come out, it’s been interesting to be on the other side of the microphone. I’m the one used to asking questions, seeking out details, noticing things that are interesting that the subject of the interview may not notice.  Although Pantry and Palate was a chance to look at my own culture in a new and interesting manner, I’m always surprised as to what sticks out to other people, what speaks to them, and why.  No matter what your culture or your family situation, it’s liberating to see that certain things resonate with others: the feeling of comfort in certain foods, or the love found in family. I must admit that I may have gotten a little misty eyed at the shot where my parents and I get to share the screen.  

Thanks again to Daniel, Mirra, and Hunter for giving me a chance to tell a little bit of the story of Acadie.