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SimonThibault.com

Journalist. Food Writer. Producer.

Filtering by Tag: Acadie

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. 

Filling up the Pantry

It’s one thing to write about food: the making of, the context, the eating. But to capture it in the blink of an eye - or a shutter - is to see it in the way that we experience it. Visceral, pleasurable, and immediate. 

When I saw my blurred hands in the frame, it all strangely came into focus.

Image by Noah Fecks,  Noahfecks.com

Image by Noah Fecks, Noahfecks.com

It was the first day of shooting for my upcoming book, Pantry and Palate. My photographer, Noah Fecks, had arrived the day before from New York, and we were settling in at the location for the shoot. Bags upon bags of fabrics, plates, utensils - and more paper towels than you would ever think you would need - were strewn about the kitchen. 

Noah and I were working on shots of ingredients for the book. I wanted people who may not be familiar with certain ingredients to know what they should look for, and I also wanted them to see a certain kind of beauty in the ingredients themselves. Even the most humble of ingredients can be well packaged, let alone quite striking on its own if you look at it in a new context. 

But we only had a few days to shoot. The list of shots was long, time was short. Today’s last ingredient shot was for salted onions, a condiment/seasoning used in a lot of Acadian cooking in southwestern Nova Scotia. “Tell me how you would make this, and what it would be used for,” said Noah. I explained how it was used to season soups and stews, and even went into the history of salting herbs throughout much of french-speaking Canada. “Yeah, but I want you to show me how it’s made.”

I had tested most of my recipes - and sent them to others for testing - but this was a recipe I had yet to make.  I grew up in a household where every summer, bunches upon bunches of green onions would be collected - either grown in the backyard, or occasionally bought - and the salting of the onions would begin.  When I was a kid, I thought it was a horrible smell, a harsh sulphuric haze that hung in the kitchen. My parents eyes would be slightly misty from the incessant chopping, and the windows would be open to air out the place. 

And then there would be salt. What seemed like an obscene amount of salt would be poured over the onions, covering them in a fine salty snow.  They would sit overnight in that dry brine, their moisture leaching slowly overnight and pooling at the bottom of the big tupperware containers that held them.  The next morning there would be more salt poured over them, and then they would be packed into jars, to be put up for the upcoming winter and fall.  Later in my life, my mother told me a secret that if I were to freeze the jars, that the onions inside would keep their vibrant colour. “It just looks better than the dull green that it turns into,” she would say.

And so here I was, chopping scallions, waiting for Noah to tell me when to stop and go so he could get the perfect shot. I joked that my knife skills are less than stellar, and he kept on clicking.  I grabbed a large wooden bowland scraped the chopped scallions into it. 

I had written down the recipe, as dictated to my father, as it had been told to him. “Add salt, and then more salt. And when you think you have enough, add some more.”  I called him once again, just to make sure. “Yup,” he said, “that’s the way to do it.”

Even though I had never done this, my nose told me what to do.  As he clicked away, Noah noted that I wasn’t joking when I'd said that I would be using almost the whole kilogram of salt for what seemed like a paltry amount of scallions. I repeated what my father and grandfather had said. “When you think you have enough, add some more.”

We started setting up another shot, this one of me tossing the mixture together. Noah stood over me slightly, holding the camera at an odd angle. “I’ll tell you when to start,” he said. My hands hovered over the bowl. I wanted people to see what this looked like. I wanted those who had never done this before to feel confident, and that they too could make this. And cook with it.

“Go.”

Image by Noah Fecks,  noahfecks.com

Image by Noah Fecks, noahfecks.com

When we were done, Noah pulled me aside to look at that day’s shots.  There were shots of  salted fish, molasses, a very large blood sausage, and even a pig’s head. But there was something about the tossing of those scallions. A little life. A little history A little pride. 

 

Pantry And Palate - a centuries old discussion

 

When it comes to food, it’s hard to say that any food culture is completely isolated from those that surround it, no matter how different the surrounding regions and populations may be. This is something which has become drilled into me in my work as a journalist and food writer. There are questions of colonisation, economics, geography, and so much more.

But when you start digging into these topics, you never know how far back in time or how far in terms of geography you will go. This is what I’ve discovered as I work on finishing my book, tentatively titled, Pantry and Palate. It will explore the history and food of my ancestors, the Acadians of Atlantic Canada, and examine those very qualities.

On my kitchen table is a small collection of little black notebooks. Handwritten notes in perfect cursive fill their tan pages. These are recipes written down by my grandmother, and by my great-great-aunt. But they resemble lists of ingredients, rather than what we would call a recipe today.  For example, a recipe for a Molasses Cake asks for :

1 1/2 cups molasses

1 1/2 tsp soda

1/2 cup of grease

1 cup milk

2 cups flour

 

That’s it. That’s all that either of these women needed to be able to make and bake this cake. No notes on how or in what order to add the ingredients. Not to mention temperatures or baking times. There was a hard-earned and encyclopedic knowledge behind these recipes, and it was located at the fingertips of these women. These lists were reminders of the necessary ratios necessary to execute a dish. It’s a confidence that most home bakers rarely possess these days, let alone on the scale that most women would have possessed when these notes were written.

And yet these notes are vital in my search for understanding the cookery of my ancestors.  They give me insight into the kind of knowledge that the people who cooked these meals had in their possession, as well as the necessities of cooking. There are variations on most recipes, with names of people long gone. “Zita’s molasses cookies” could be found next to a recipe for a “Golden Cake.” It didn’t take me long to realize that this cake was referring to the flour company that used to exist and distribute its wares in the first few decades of the 20th century, and not to the colour of the cake. That recipe didn’t make it to the book, but it still told me what and how people were cooking, and sharing cooking knowledge. Even the stuff that doesn’t immediately fit the the mold, has a place, somewhere, somehow. It’s all important.

This recipe for Scalloped Cabbage assumes that the home cook knows how to make a white sauce. Luckily, my grandmother had gone to finishing school and knew how to make one without thinking. Today, however, that white sauce would have its own recipe, written underneath.

This recipe for Scalloped Cabbage assumes that the home cook knows how to make a white sauce. Luckily, my grandmother had gone to finishing school and knew how to make one without thinking. Today, however, that white sauce would have its own recipe, written underneath.

There is a recipe for doughnuts, written directly below a recipe for making boudin, or blood sausage. At first glance, this seemed to be a strange, yet arbitrary placement. It wasn’t until I spoke with a few people did I realize that this was no coincidence. Boudin was often made on the same day that pigs were slaughtered, due to the freshness of the main ingredient, pig’s blood. But there was another abundant and fresh ingredient on days of the boucherie, or slaughter. Fat. Creamy, white, pure back fat, perfect for deep frying. Acadians were fans of salted pork fat, as it was a major part of their pantries in the days before refrigeration and supermarkets filled with shelf-stable fats.  But fresh fat could almost be considered a rarity, since boucheries were often only held in the fall. So why not treat yourself to a hot and tasty treat after all that hard work? 

But this is only the beginning of what I found in digging into my ancestry’s culinary past. One of the recipes I found in those same notebooks was for a molasses and cornmeal bread.  Funny enough, I also found a recipe for the same bread in a community cookbook, published by a nearby church group in a neighbouring english community. This community is also populated by descendants of former Loyalists, both black and white. Many of these loyalists came from parts of the American south, where cornmeal is king. My ancestors spoke mostly french, were catholic, and white. Yet here was an english speaking, protestant, and black community, not far from my own, and our pantries and bellies were filled with the same food. Just goes to show that food is food, and good food is contagious. It travels from mouth to mouth, from community to community. It creates dialogues that last centuries and connect cultures.

The first draft of Pantry and Palate is due at the start of next month, and I am furiously finishing recipes, writing up the last of my interviews, and remembering all the little details I wanted to include. This act of writing may be one of solitude, but the recipes and information found within show that when it comes to food, no one is alone.