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SimonThibault.com

Journalist. Food Writer. Producer.

Filtering by Tag: Food

Trusting your head, your heart, and your hands.


Talking, writing, doing, and dealing with food is all about trust - trusting you have the right story, words, the right seasoning, the right touch.

That trust is what I talked about in a recent Saturday that I spent at the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia, teaching a workshop on food writing. 

Many thanks to  Sara Jewell  for the image.

Many thanks to Sara Jewell for the image.

About a dozen people showed up, and we talked about everything from nostalgia to ethics, culinary history to personal storytelling, and everything in between. I brought up classic examples of food writing from Brillat-Savarin to MFK Fisher, culinary historians and chroniclers like Paula Wolfert, as well as contemporary writers like Julia Turshen and Nik Sharma. I wanted to show that food writing is as varied as it’s authors, and that it’s scope is more than just a recipe that tells you to dump and stir. 

I’d like to thank the WFNS for having me, and for the wonderful group that showed up. If all goes well, I’ll be teaching other workshops like this one later on in the new year.

But back to cooking, and to the seasons: 

A box of fragrant quinces from my parents’ orchard.

A box of fragrant quinces from my parents’ orchard.

I can’t decide if fall is for the heart, or the head.

I’ve closed the windows in my apartment, but the oven door is in a state of constant flux. Open and close, baked goods in and out.  Fall makes us want to settle in, ruffle pillows and blankets to warm us, and seek out sources of heat. The biggest source of heat in my apartment these days is my oven. 

And I think my heart likes it that way.

This isn’t to say that my relationship to my oven is strictly emotional. In fact, these days my head is swimming with ratios, queries, decisions, calculations. 

I’ve been working on a recipe for a whole grain cornmeal skillet cake, something which at first seemed pretty basic. It all started with a recipe from Erin French’s The Lost Kitchen (Sidenote: if you grew up in/near the New England states, or Atlantic Canada, do yourself a favour and read it, as so much of it will sing to you). 

I’ve bastardized her recipe, replacing this with that, trying this ingredient with another. Part of it is hubris: I want to see what I can make. How far can I adapt, what can I learn in playing around? But the other part is an exercise in humility: the cake is not where I want it to be. There is much work to be done, things to tweak, figure, play with. I won’t ignore the original, and when people ask where I got the idea, I make sure they know it started with that recipe. But a really good recipe can give you a bit of agency, a bit of liberty.  And if you really want to see what you can do, and you pay attention while you’re doing it, the head will lead the heart to a place where both can speak.  I fell in love with possibilities, and I enjoy the thought process. I’ll let you know when my head and the heart both enjoy the cake.

I recently had an exercise in letting my heart, or more precisely my hands, lead the way, without thinking too hard. I trusted that I could do it if I just let it be.  

My friend Pat had contacted me a few months ago about a french-language television show he was working on. I won’t get too much into details, but let’s just say it involves hunting, a house that’s off-grid, and a bunch of hungry mouths to feed. Now I knew about the hungry mouths, but I was expecting six, maybe eight. Nope. By the time things got underway, there were over a dozen people to feed.  

Ok then.

I’m used to knowing where the pots and pans are, used to the amount and variety of ingredients I have in the house,  how heavy the cake pan is, how hot my oven runs. But this wasn’t my kitchen. I was making a fricot - a hearty acadian stew - but this time I was making it with partridges they had caught. 

One of the aforementioned partridges - technically a grouse, but we colloquially call them “pardrix” amongst ourselves in french-speaking southwestern Nova Scotia.

One of the aforementioned partridges - technically a grouse, but we colloquially call them “pardrix” amongst ourselves in french-speaking southwestern Nova Scotia.

Have I mentioned I’ve never cooked partridge before?

I mean, I’ve had it, as I grew up in a household where it was present, along with a lot of other forms of wild game. The flavours, the challenges of cooking with game are not uncommon to me, and thankfully not too intimidating. But I was asked to make a fricot with said partidges. And even though I’ve written a book that features fricot, I’ve not made it umpteen times like many of the people who would be sitting at this table would’ve. These were my people - a table of Acadians, not to mention a few extra crew members who had never had the dish before.

So I winged it, no hunting puns intended.

I sautéed onions, more onions than I thought I might need. When making soup, you can never have too many onions.  I seared the meat ever so slightly, to create the beginnings of a fond, that rich meaty base for so many soups. I added the water, a carrot or two for flavour, and let it simmer. Once the partridge was cooked, Pat and I took the meat off the bones - those tiny, tiny bones - and put them aside while the broth simmered away, reducing ever so gently. He and I rasped the potatoes for the potato dumplings, or poutines for our fricot au poutines rapées à la perdrix. While the fricot was cooking, the broth reducing and slowly growing in flavour, I started to work on the pies. And this is where my hesitation was put aside.

Like I said earlier, this wasn’t my kitchen. I didn’t have the comfort of my mixer, let alone a pastry cutter/blender. I’m of a generation that relies on machines to do the work for me in a kitchen. A stand mixer, immersion blender, tools that give you time and ease. I had flour, lard, a couple eggs, a bag of apples, and my hands. And to be honest, I learned to stop using my head, and trust my heart. Or rather the next best thing: my hands.

I have to admit, the capacity to trust my hands has taken time. That agency I mentioned above? It’s not an overnight thing. It takes time. Trust in one’s self. And a gentle push.

At that moment in time, that push was feeding people, and not fucking up in front of cameras. 

My hands knew to cut the lard into small pieces, and that it should feel a certain way when mixed into the flour.  They knew the dough needed just a bit more water to come into it’s shape.  My stand mixer would’ve told me to look, but my hands told me more than I can glean from looking. In fact, this felt way more usable, practical, and doable than any other pie I’ve made.

Before you ask, of course I was nervous. This wasn’t a recipe testing session for just me and myself, or a family gathering where I could pawn it off. This was for an audience, an audience of people in this room, and for the people who would be watching this later on television.

Did I mention that I was doing all this cooking with a camera crew following my every step?

But I’d read the recipe before. Heck, I’d written it. But it was in the doing, not the reading or writing, that it felt right.

The aforementioned pies,  via Pat’s IG feed.

The aforementioned pies, via Pat’s IG feed.

The pies turned out great. In fact, these were some of the flakiest pies I’ve ever made. Because I was gentle with the dough, because I pushed myself, just a little, because my hands, my head, and my heart, told me that I could, and should.











Get out the Gravy

This spring, I had the chance to meet two very lovely people. John T. Edge and Tina Antolini from the Southern Foodways Alliance. The two of them were on cloud nine after having won the James Beard Award for Gravy, their magazine and podcast. 

Tina and started chatting, and soon the idea of telling an Acadian/Cajun story came up.  From that idea came this story, The Cajun Reconnection

The front page of the SFA's website. The photo shown was taken in 1936, of a delegation of Cajuns visiting Nova Scotia. 

The front page of the SFA's website. The photo shown was taken in 1936, of a delegation of Cajuns visiting Nova Scotia. 

Doing the research and interviews for this story has been not only a great experience, but a familial one as well. Talking to the subjects, I kept coming across  more and more intricate Acadian and Cajun connections. This person knew that person, that person was related to this one, and even some of the stories I heard were even connected to Gravy itself.  At one point, Georgette and Rachelle were talking about Tante Sue, a well known patron of Fred's Lounge. 

It's a small world indeed. But this is a big story. Take a listen on the Southern Foodways website, or on iTunes.  You can also listen to it on Gravy's Soundcloud page

 

 

No more sitting down

After ten weeks of running around and finding, recording, and editing stories, Assis Toi, my food series for CBC Radio here in the Maritimes, is done for the summer.

I've been doing this series for about four years now, and every year I find myself discovering new and fascinating little pieces of history, personal stories, and so much more. Food has such a huge impact on our daily lives, and not just in the immediate sense of filling our bellies. Yes, we need food to survive, but the role food plays in our lives is deeper than that. Why does a woman choose to become a cheesemaker after working for the UN? What happens when a woman leaves the old country behind and finds a new country full of people who welcomes her and her food with open hearts? 

These are the stories we can tell through food. And these are the stories I count myself lucky enough to have been able to transmit to others. 

Just because Assis Toi is over for the summer doesn't mean you should go without radio about food. With that in mind, I'd like to point you to some amazing food radio that I can't stop listening to. 

First is Good Food, from KCRW in Los Angeles. Hosted by Evan Kleiman, the show is based in L.A., but looks at food culture throughout the United States, and the rest of the world.  It also includes weekly restaurant reviews by Jonathan Gold, the first food critic to win the Pulitzer Prize.

The second is The Splendid Table, with host Lynn Rosetto Kasper.  I discovered this show thanks to food photographer and stylist Kelly Neill. Kasper has been doing this show for twenty years, and it runs like a well-oiled machine, with interviews from chefs around the world, and even a weekly phone-in with Kasper doling out advice on what to cook, how, and where to learn more about it.

A recent podcast which I have completely become obsessed with telling people about is Gravy, put out by the Southern Foodways Alliance. Produced and hosted by Tina Antolini, this show examines the ways in which food and culture intersect in the American South. One of my favourite pieces is about the last Jews of Natchez, Mississippi by Robin Amer. Listen. Now. 

Last but not least is my favourite, the works of The Kitchen Sisters. Niki Silva and Davia Nelson have been producing Hidden Kitchens with NPR for years, but now have their own podcast called Fugitive Waves. The sisters recently won the 2015 James Beard Award for Best Radio Show. if you love radio, food, and good storytelling, listen to anything and everything these two put their name on. 

This is the kind of image I've been staring at for two months. And I couldn't be happier about it.

This is the kind of image I've been staring at for two months. And I couldn't be happier about it.

I'd like to take thank everyone involved in this year's crop of stories.

- Joy and Malcolm at Fudgelicious

- The Chen family, especially Pay Chen

- Emily Tipton at Boxing Rock Brewing, and the guys from Good Robot Brewing

- David Parks at La Cantina

- Kristina Parlee and Lindsay Cameron Wilson for talking about cookbooks

- Valerie Mansour for chatting about her mom while feeding me a feast of lebanese food. 

- Chef Antonio Park who took the time out of his busy schedule

- Lyndell Findlay for taking me into her man-made "cave" of blue cheese

- Sébastien Dol, who made me look at my old stomping grounds of Church Point in a new way

- and Joshawa Lamkey from Grindhouse Blade Ware & Care.

On the CBC side of things, special thanks go out to Sandy Smith, Jerry West, Don Connelly, Louise Renault, and Christina Harnett at Information Morning here in Halifax, Jonna Brewer at Information Morning Moncton, Hance Coleburn at Information Morning Saint John, Steve Sutherland at Information Morning Cape Breton, Terry Seguin at Information Morning Fredericton,  and last but not least, Matt Rainie at Island Morning in Prince Edward Island. 

And thanks to you, for listening, downloading, tweeting, posting, and sharing these stories. Thank you so much.

Mas Tacos, Por Favor

Sometimes you experience something and you want to share that with as many as possible. That's how David Parks felt about the taco stands and cantinas that dot the streets in in Mexico City.  

La Catrina greets you over at La Cantina.

La Catrina greets you over at La Cantina.

That's why David Parks started La Cantina, a small taco stand that operates on the patio of Pat's Kitchen on Kaye Street in Halifax's Hydrostone district. The menu is small, but mighty, with two specials served every Tuesday and Thursday, weather permitting. 

In the latest episode of Assis Toi, David explains the nature of taco stands and cantina culture in Mexico City, all while doling out tasty tacos to his customers. You can stream the item here, or you can download the podcast here.

In the meantime,  have a listen to David explain the necessity of hand chopping your salsas, and the ubiquitousness of flor de jamaica/sorrel/hibiscus as a drink in Mexico and beyond in Have A Seat.


Talking Culinary History, in both official languages.

Over the past few weeks, I have been repeating two words, over and over: culinary heritage.

One of the reasons for this is because I recently signed a book deal with Nimbus Publishing to write a book on Acadian cookery.   The book will be an exploration of the Acadian pantry and palate, looking at recipes, traditions, methods, and the items found in Acadian kitchens throughout the Atlantic region. 

Because of this research, I was asked to speak at the Festival de Clare-té in Church Point, Nova Scotia, on March 21st. The arts and culture festival is put on by the Fédération régional des arts et du patrimoine de la Baie. This was my second time at the festival, and this year I spoke on and about some of the research I have been doing, looking into the agricultural, economic, cultural, and historical connections that make up the Acadian kitchen.

In the same vein, I was asked to speak on two separate programs on Radio-Canada.  The first was on Le Réveil, Radio-Canada's french-language morning show for Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, talking about the conference, as well as my upcoming book. I also spoke on Tout Un Samedi, their Saturday morning current affairs program broadcast throughout the Atlantic Provinces. 

To top it all off, I was also recently asked to be a guest on CTV Morning Live, where host Heidi Petracek and I talked about the importance of - and interest in - older culinary traditions, methods, and recipes. You can watch the segment here. 

Joining CTV Morning Live's Heidi Petracek and talking about old kitchens and the meals that came out of them.

Joining CTV Morning Live's Heidi Petracek and talking about old kitchens and the meals that came out of them.

In the meantime, I plan on conducting more and more research, interviews, and digging around as much as I can on this topic. If you have any information or tips of any sort on this subject, please don't hesitate to contact me.