A moveable feast
Cookbook authors take an epic 34,000-kilometre road trip through the heart of Canadian cuisine
On a lonely northern highway, a tiny white Toyota Yaris bumbles to a stop. A pair of eagles have chosen the road ahead as a battleground. They lock talons, scream, flail, and soon the victor is chasing its rival across the landscape. Inside the car, two adventurers share an amazed laugh. Their mission: to find the heart of Canada. And then eat it.
In this, Canada's 150th year, the country's identity has never been harder to nail down. This vast, patchwork quilt of a nation defies simple summation; it's not a more polite version of America, it's not Australia with frostbite. And what about the food we eat?
If you used a plane to travel the country, you'd probably gain the same view of Canadian cuisine as any tourist. Lobsters in the Maritimes. Sockeye salmon on the West Coast. Maybe maple candy in Quebec. Kraft Dinner everywhere else.
Happily, there is one Canadian tradition to draw upon here: the massive road trip. For more than an incredible 34,000 kilometres, Dana VanVeller and Lindsay Anderson ate and drove their way across the country, through every province and territory to sample delicacies, check out farmer's markets and listen to the locals. Their subsequent cookbook, Feast: Recipes and Stories from a Canadian Road Trip, pulls back the curtain on what Canadian food really is.
The concept of the trip was formed during a camping trip near Squamish, B.C. Both women had past experience blogging about food and both were experienced travellers. Together, they decided that Canadian food culture was an unexplored area that needed some exposure; there had to be unknown dishes out there.
"We knew it had to be more than just smoked salmon and poutine," Anderson says.
It was. From octopus balls in Haida Gwaii, B.C., to tomato wine in Quebec to Acadian-style salt pork dumplings, the pair turned almost 10 million square kilometres of Canada into one big tablecloth. It took nearly half a year of travel and one unlikely and plucky little steed.
"My mechanic says this car takes to the abuse well," VanVeller says of the tiny and determined 2006 Toyota subcompact.
Despite its size and modest horsepower, it faithfully hauled them across windswept prairie highways, through mountain passes and along rutted, empty northern roads. They went as far north as Dawson City, Yukon, heart of the Klondike gold rush, and from Tofino, B.C., across to St. John's. VanVeller describes taking an alarming shortcut along a logging road, with heavily-laden trucks blasting past and 18-hour days to make the crossing east.
"And we didn't even have cruise control!" she says with a laugh.
Chimes in Anderson: "I must have the strongest right leg from all that highway driving."
While the pair set out a few target locations when travelling, their successes came from keeping the schedule fairly open. The trip was intended to take four months, but swelled to five as friendly locals would make a suggestion or because an unplanned stop turned into a unexpected banquet.
"In Nova Scotia, we were invited by a couple of organic farmers to stay for a few days and arrived in the middle of a birthday party," VanVeller says.
Later, the pair would get to make pasta by land with several generations of an Italian family in Mississauga and receive a welcome dinner among First Nations people in Nunavut.
Between these feasts were long gaps and the need to eat while travelling. While stops at Tim Hortons weren't out of the question, the pair mostly hit up grocery stores, munching away on clamshells of spinach to make up for indulgent meals.
And then there was the time they were down to little more than a special kind of Quebec cheese curd and a loaf of bread, and ended up staging an impromptu fondue in a McDonald's parking lot. "The only time we ate at a McDonald's," VanVeller insists, cheerily.
For beauty, VanVeller turns to the Yukon, talking about driving through an area hit by a forest fire that was undergoing rejuvenation, blanketed as it was by a sea of purplish fireweed.
"Driving through the tablelands in Cape Breton," Anderson says, when asked about her favourite spot.
But picking out a single meal as a highlight is trickier. "It's the diversity, we found," VanVeller says.
If you'd like local tips, highlights from Anderson and VanVeller's trip can be found at edibleroadtrip.com, with breakdowns by province and territory. Their book is available online or at your local bookstore.
Pressed to pick one area for intrepid food-lovers to road-trip to, both VanVeller and Anderson selected Quebec. It's in the small towns, they say, stopping to discover what the locals are into.
Much like the country itself, the beauty of Canadian cuisine is in all the little pockets of local specialties. It's the mosaic that defines us, not a single overarching theme, but a thousand pieces that somehow form a whole.
Canada doesn't have a single representative dish. Instead, we are a feast. Grab your keys and your fork. Bon appétit, tout le monde.