Thursday, 14 January 2016

Anglo-Canadian Comfort Food

It is difficult to pin down a "Canadian" cuisine, for when it comes to food Canada is divided into at least four distinct peoples. As Anglo-Canadians are embarrassed to admit to any divisions whatsoever anywhere for any reason, perhaps it would be best to employ those brassily used in Canada's most exciting city, Montréal. Thus, we may say that Canada's four distinct peoples are les Français, les Anglos (the English, Scots and Irish), les Autres (everyone else except:), les Autochtones (the First Nations people).

Les Français have got their own distinct cuisine, which originated in late mediaeval/early renaissance France and got transplanted and developed in the very different climate of what used to be called Nouvelle France. Apples, maple syrup, pork fat and wild blueberries are key. However, so too are such bizarre dishes as páté chinois, which is actually a beef-based shepherd's pie and can be found preassembled in the freezer section of Quebec supermarkets, and poutine, which is french fries with cheese curds and gravy. Those two favourites aside, traditional Québecois cuisine is fantastic, and les Anglos are a bit jealous of the distinctiveness and non-Americanness of it all.

Les Anglos are haunted by the fear that we may be mistaken for Americans, which is why we never leave home without a maple leaf on our backpacks. We were overjoyed when South Park did its best to make us look different from Americans by giving us weird accents and little egg-heads that flap up and down when we speak. South Park also portrayed us as eaters of something called "Kroft Dinner", which no doubt prevented a lawsuit from Kraft Dinner, which is a brand of boxed macaroni and cheese popular among Canadian university students for its cheapness and its simplicity. Not everybody likes it.

That said, an argument can be made that macaroni and cheese, made with proper Canadian cheddar (not instant cheese powder) and served with tomato ketchup, is an Anglo-Canadian comfort food. It is hot, stodgy and squishy. If you boil the noodles long enough, you don't need teeth to eat it.

Another Anglo comfort food is scrambled eggs on buttered toast, for which you need at least baby teeth. And still another is shepherd's pie (really cottage pie, as it is made with minced beef) with nice fluffy mashed potatoes on top. One could also argue that various soups--chicken noodle, tomato and French Canadian pea--count as Anglo comfort cooking (or comfort heating up, as they usually come out of a can), especially when paired with a toasted cheddar cheese sandwich (with tomato ketchup).

American readers will have noticed that these comfort foods, with the possible exception of French Canadian pea soup, are also rather popular in the colder parts of the USA. This is why Anglos like to pretend poutine belongs to all Canadians and not just les Français.

Naturally les Anglos find comfort in various foodstuffs belonging to les Autres. For example, pierogi belong to the Poles and Ukrainians, but the Poles and the Ukrainians have been in Canada (especially western Canada) in very large numbers since before Confederation (1867), and pierogi are so popular among the Anglo majority, you can find them in the frozen section of your average Toronto supermarket. The Anglo-Canadian variation on the proper traditional fillings is cheddar cheese and potato... Perhaps you have begun to see a cheddar cheese trend.

Another time-honoured Anglo-Canadian theft from les Autres is Chinese food, only we rarely make it ourselves: we just call up our local favourite Chinese restaurant and get them to make it. Naturally what they bring us is not usually what the Chinese eat themselves or what Canadian urban sophisticates order when they are downtown. The Chinese food of my 1970s and 1980s childhood consisted of egg rolls, fried rice, stir-fried vegetables including baby corn and bamboo, sliced pork and honey-glazed garlic chicken, followed by almond and fortune cookies.

Naturally les Anglos stole such Italian clichés as pasta-with-tomato-sauce in its various forms and pizza, rendering them barely recognizable to the Italian segment of the Les Autres population. One favourite pasta dish in my Canadian home is called "Baked Cavatelli", and the recipe probably came out of the "Milk" calendar, a popular and colourful calendar distributed free to Canadian households via the national newspapers at the expense of the Milk Marketing Board.

It is probably the doing of the Milk Marketing Board that the use of Canadian cheddar cheese looms so largely in Canadian comfort cooking---that and all the nostalgic 19th-century themed adverts on Canadian TV on Sunday evenings for Kraft Cheese. Well, without further ado, here is my recipe for macaroni and cheese, taken from the very Canadian Let Me in the Kitchen (1982), whose only nods to Les Autres are "Channukah Potato Latkes" and "Fettucini Alfredo", with a lovely illustration of Alfredo himself wearing a pencil-thin moustache.

Real Macaroni and Cheese (Sue Mendelson)

3 cups (750 mL) macaroni (vegetable or whole wheat is best, Sue claims)
1/2 cup (125 mL) butter
6 Tbsp (100 mL) white flour
2 cups (500 mL) milk
1 tsp (5 mL) salt
3 cups (750 mL) grated cheddar cheese

1. Preheat the over to 375F (190 C).
2. Grate the cheddar and divide into two piles: one 2 cups and the other 1 cup.
3. Fill a big pot 2/3 full of water. Add a teaspoon of salt. Bring water to boil and then add macaroni slowly. Lower heat but let boil for ten minutes. Strain macaroni over the sink.
4. In a medium-sized pot, melt the butter over low heat. Add the flour all at once and stir quickly with a whisk. Keep stirring for a count of 60.
5. Gradually add the milk with one hand while stirring the mixture with the other. (Sue doesn't say so, but you are making a white sauce, the most basic thing in Anglo-Saxon cookery). Keep stirring while the sauce becomes thicker ("Don't lose patience. Keep stirring," says Sue. Words to live by.)
6. After about five minutes, stir 2 cups of the cheese into the white sauce. Add 1 tsp of salt.
7. Turn off the heat. Add the drained noodles to the cheese sauce and mix with a spoon. Smear some butter around the inside of a casserole dish. Pour the noodles and sauce into the casserole and sprinkle with the remaining cup of cheese.
8. Bake for 25 minutes. (Sue says this is long enough to clean up the counter and the pots). Remove from oven with oven mitts.

Serve with tomato ketchup. As comfort foods go, Scottish husbands are likely to find this both delicious and sophisticated--ten times nicer than the macaroni pies for sale in Edinburgh pie shops.

Heartwarming Update: One of my musician brother's first compositions was a song called "Cheese." It went along these lines. "Cheese, cheese, I love cheese. "Miracle" sliced. Kraft ched-dar. Cheese. Cheese. Cheese, cheese, cheese!

A Cultural Boast: Canadians love butter tarts. And nobody else has butter tarts. They are impossible to find outside of Canada. Ah, butter tarts. But they are not a comfort food as they are too sweet.


  1. My Canadian friend insists that fast food in Australian is the crummiest, worst thing ever. It probably is.

    Me: Why the flip are you eating fast food???


  2. What makes Australian fast food the crummiest, worst thing ever? I thought the whole point to chain fast food restaurants was to make the food exactly the same, no matter where you are in the world. Or is fast food in Australia kangaroo burgers...?

    1. Apparently the serving sizes in Australia aren't big enough and the beef in the burgers doesn't taste very good. Kangaroo meat is great, but actually isn't used in fast food here.


  3. How does the ketchup go with it? Drizzled on top? Or do you dip your bite into it?

  4. That depends on the ketchup. If you have a big glass bottle with slow-moving sauce, you wallop a big dab on your plate and dip each bite. But if you have a squeezy bottle, you can drizzle. However, with toasted cheese sandwiches--which must always be cut into squares--you always dip, so as not to get ketchup all over your hands.