Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Chat with Anita Stewart


First things first....I admit that that though I've always loved food...loved to try different ethnic foods...loved to use fresh produce, meat, poultry and fish, I've never given very much thought to how it came to be - meaning, the farm where it was grown or who grew it.

And, although I've always loved going to markets...wherever I've been lucky enough to live and visit, I've never given much thought other than that things looked wonderful. Until I moved to Halifax and went to the local Saturday markets in Halifax and places like Hubbards and Wolfville, just to name two. There's a sense of community spirit and pride in what's brought to market.

Which leads me to an "AHA" moment ....I recently wrote about a fabulous book - Anita Stewart’s Canada which I love to death. There are a number of what I call "National Geographic" cookbooks on my shelves. Books with gorgeous photos of various regions, a history of the people and the culinary wonders they create. In fact I have a collection of Time/Life Series of Foods of the World which is long out of print that I will never part with. Each volume is a terrific journey on a rainy/blizzardy afternoon. I'm ashamed to say that I never thought of Canada in that way until I read Anita's book.

It made me realize how special it is to live in Canada, especially in regards to our abundance of delicious things and the pride that people take in producing them. It gives new meaning to "multicultural mosaic" from the perspective of taking recipes from "the Old Country" to Canada and transforming them using local ingredients.

There are very few cookbooks that I actually choose to curl up with for a good read...Anita Stewart's Canada is such a book and I'm savoring it chapter by chapter. So much so that I really wanted to have a chat with her. One... to tell her how wonderful her book is and, two...to find out what a "Culinary Activist" does.

Let me say right off...Anita is charming and I felt like I was chatting with an old friend. Here's just a bit of what I reaped from our conversation....

Anita lives in Elora, Ontario, north of Guelph, in Mennonite country and probably the most fertile part of Ontario. She has four sons, three of whom are chefs. And she is passionate about food production and distribution. As Cultural Activist, she is a frequent keynote speaker on the challenge of local produce for local enterprise, meaning that it will take about 10-15 years to build the capacity for local restaurants and retailers to be able to actually only offer locally grown food...fruit, vegetables, lamb, poultry, beef, pork...

Growing up in Mennonite country, she saw first hand the link of farm stands at the end of the farm driveway, to how farmers loaded their produce onto buggies and drove to Produce Auctions north of Elmira where local retailers and restauranteurs/chefs could purchase local goods in quantity, giving those of us living in the cities the true benefit from it. Anita saw the challenges farmers face and the need for someone to promote this sense of community and importance of promoting Canadian farms.

We spent much time talking about the book, the remarkable people and the wonderful stories that make Canada so remarkable. The stories of immigrants and the heritage they brought with them...Germans, Scots, French...the list is endless.

The book starts with a chapter called "The Original Palate" and gives us a glimpse of the culinary expertise First Nations, from British Columbia on the west coast to the Maritimes on the east coast and every part in between, shared with the first settlers..a lovely read. In fact, Anita says the recipes in the book are just the "skeleton to hang the stories on" and she does a remarkable job in making us all take a moment to appreciate where the food comes from and how important our stewardship is, and, in her words…

“Our collective challenge is to build and nurture the connection between those produces and consumers, urban and rural”.

The cover of the book is of her Grandmother Rodger's recipe for Blackcurrant Preserve (page 277) and like all the other stunning photos is a wonderful backdrop for stories of how families grew food in their gardens and created simple, wonderful recipes to enjoy them, not just for the season, but for the long cold winters ahead.

I did get to ask her the usual interview questions....
R: When did you start cooking?
A: Well, my mom was widowed when I was 7, so it was just the two of us. She was a school teacher and so until I was about 12 we had a housekeeper. After that, I did the cooking and she did the cleaning up. That was our deal. I taught myself to cook really, and one of my first cookbooks was actually Gourmet Magazine which opened up a whole new world.

R: What were some other cookbooks that influenced you, particularly when you were young?
A: Growing up in the heartland of Ontario, in Mennonite communities, I loved reading Edna Staebler's Food That Really Schmecks; Doris Janzen's More-With-Less Cookbook (World Community Cookbook) ; The New Moosewood Cookbook ; and in school - for home economics, The Canadian Cookbook (Ruth's note: I couldn't find it on line).

R: And so, for all those out there, who love your book and want to grow up to be like you...what does a Culinary Activist do?
A: I write and speak promoting sustainable farming. In fact, I'll be a keynote speaker at the upcoming Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, in Toronto. And I just got back from New York City where I participated in promoting Ontario flavours with Ontario Ministry of Tourism.

R: If you could invite any 4 people to dinner?
A: My four sons...can I invite more? My mother, MFK Fisher (Ruth's note: Actually, the list was quite long and I'm sure conversation would be wonderful)

R: What's your favorite meal of the day?
A: Well, it depends where I am, I guess.

R: What's always in your fridge or pantry?
A: That's too hard to answer...I actually have 2 fridges!

R: What's your favorite ingredient?
A: Salt, tomatoes and anything in season.

R: And last, what's your guilty pleasure?
A: Caramel and cheese.

Reading her book and chatting with her has given me a much deeper appreciation for those who work so hard and so passionately to provide me with the foods I love so much.

Two wonderful recipes from the book that I'll be making over and over:

Roasted Indian Spiced Salmon

Warm Balsamic Lentils

Now, I'm off to enjoy a cup of tea and spend more time with Anita's Canada!

1 comment:

Muse in the Kitchen said...

Thanks for this interview! I was just looking at Anita Stewart's Canada the other day, and wasn't sure whether to buy it. It's on my list for sure now.