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What does ‘Canadian barbecue’ mean?

Have a look around on Canada Day weekend and ask yourself what unites us from coast to coast. It's hard not to stumble on the fact that almost every one of us celebrates the occasion with a backyard barbecue – yet what we grill on them does not tell a story of a people who enjoy a great relationship with their food. Consider what we cook.



"Hamburgers and hot dogs?" says Vancouver chef Rob Feenie, who last weekend coached his brother-in-law through the process of barbecuing a 55-kilogram pig, which, for lack of a more suitable vessel, he first brined overnight in the bathtub.



On the hamburger and hot-dog front, Mr. Feenie is precisely right – for the truly remarkable thing about the Canadian love affair with barbecue is that we have contributed so shockingly little to the art. When Canadians are pressed to name their favourite barbecue item, 90 per cent name the hamburger. Hot dogs and chicken pieces follow closely. Steaks are well back in the field of preference, and even basic pork ribs a distant back marker.

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If you were from the U.S. South, you would very likely insist that these aforementioned meats and near-meats are not barbecue at all, just fast-cooking grill food.

If you come from Texas, you know that barbecue can only mean slow-cooked brisket and beef ribs, and if you are from Missouri, it could only be pork ribs. If you hail from Western Kentucky, barbecue must mean mutton, while in the Carolinas it would have to be pulled pork. And so on.



Americans tend to dogmatism on the subject, and generally insist at a minimum that barbecue means slow-cooking. I prefer a more inclusive outlook, partly because in the culinary world, as in any other, unflinching arguments over what constitutes authenticity are invariably tedious; and, more to the point, because the best cooking is almost always the result of incorporating a little fresh thinking from elsewhere.



In short, I like the outlook of the unimpeachable, authoritative, barbecue cookbook author Steven Raichlen, who despite being American insists that the type of cooking we call barbecue should include absolutely everything cooked over or near an open flame or a smouldering bit of wood or charcoal.



His inclusive outlook is the crux of what makes his books so good – they feature recipes from everywhere. His recent, indispensable oeuvre Planet Barbecue! features 309 recipes from 60 different countries, including such nifty stuff as Brazilian spit-roasted pineapple and Vietnamese fire-roasted duck.



Alas, Canada's contribution amounts to just four recipes, and you would never have heard of three of them. The fourth, Montreal smoked meat, obviously has great recognition factor – but it wouldn't if you prepared it his way and then tasted it. For in a rare, giggle-inducing gaffe, he describes the dish as "an interesting variation of Texas brisket."



No matter. This is the thing: For a nation of irrepressible barbecue enthusiasts who rush outdoors to cook before the snow has melted, and often stay there, defiantly planted grill-side until well after the cold weather returns, Canadians have contributed close to nothing to the international oeuvre.

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"We just don't have a barbecue culture," says chef David Lee, co-owner of Toronto restaurant Nota Bene, who likes to cook on his Big Green Egg, makes a habit of visiting great American barbecue shops stateside, and a couple of years ago paid a transforming visit to the famous Basque restaurant Elkano, where grill master Aitor Arregui grills and smokes everything from baby eels to caviar.



His point about barbecue culture is largely obvious: While we did have slavery here, and later, runaway slaves, we did not have enough of either to entrench the great soul-food tradition in which American barbecue has its roots.



If you go back further, to First Nations cooking, and use the all-inclusive Raichlen definition of barbecue, you could make a case for tracing today's ever-popular cedar-planked salmon to the Haida practice of hot-smoking salmon fireside on cedar spikes. The only problem is that the practice was common for First Nations peoples all over the northwest – and on the east coast of what's now the United States, too, with shad. And as it was an American cookery writer who first documented the dish in the 1850s, and American chefs who popularized it in the 1980s, they quite rightly consider the dish to be theirs.



Moving on, if bannock, the bread cooked on hot stones fireside, ever made a comeback, we might make a claim. And while Montreal smoked meat was of course invented by Bessarabian Jews, and not Texan ones, the thinking was, as with soul food, inspired by poverty. So all it has in common with Texas barbecue is a cheap cut of meat (brisket) cooked long and slowly in what once was, but has long ceased to be, a smoky, charcoal-fired oven: a tenuous link. All the same, our lack of a barbecue past does not translate as the lack of a barbecue future.



"I think it's starting to grow here," Mr. Lee says of the local barbecue movement. "People are travelling to the States more, because it's so much cheaper. They're getting a better understanding. [Culinary] ideas are spreading much faster because of television. And Canadian cuisine has always been about taking little pieces from different parts of the world. So I think in the next five years you'll see things start to happen."



This makes a good degree of sense. Canada has fantastic products, but almost none are unique to us (from maple and birch syrup to ramps, sumac powder and sea buckthorn, chances are it is growing and being put on plates elsewhere, too). But our best chefs' simultaneous ease with our products and those from elsewhere, because of our urban immigrant populations, is a formula for lending our nascent barbecue a distinct flavour in the same manner it has been for our best cuisine.

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"Looking at food, Canada's such a melting pot," concurred Tom Davis, owner of one of Toronto's premier southern barbecue shops, a leader in authenticity and quality of a suddenly burgeoning movement. Nonetheless, he sells Italian-inspired porchetta sandwiches along with the fine ribs, brisket and fried chicken. "In Toronto, Portuguese churrasco will always be an influence. In Vancouver, you'll see a lot of aboriginal and South Asian flavours, along with East Asian influence like you get with the Cambodian and Thai flavours at the Fatty 'Cue [in Brooklyn]."



In Quebec, where Asian food is popular but Asian flavours have made only minimal inroads into European cooking, things can be expected to progress as usual by a different route. You would think Quebec's historical love of the outdoors and its 300-year head start in the Canadian kitchen would have combined to create a barbecue tradition. But there isn't all that much to it.



Mr. Raichlen's book features some mildly enticing Quebec simplicities such as rainbow trout cooked on a damp log in a campfire and grilled steak infused with the vapours from a scalded branch of spruce. But look to the broader picture to see historically how game meats were cooked there, and you will find that barbecue generally meant roasting on a spit. This is logical for two reasons: Local game meats from venison to caribou and hare are far too lean to slow-cook, and the spit fits with both the French and English culinary traditions that combined in early Quebec.



So "barbecue" in the cookbooks of the wonderful Jehane Benoît, patron saint of Quebec cuisine, almost always means à la broche, or spit-roasted, a method she applied to everything from lamb to pork belly. And if her notion of spit-roasting is essentially European, in the mind's eye of European chefs headed for Canada, the scale and the scene of our local version were obviously distinct. So says Marc Thuet, the exceptionally gifted and comically irrepressible Alsace-born chef who now stars in the reality restaurant show Conviction Kitchen. Two weeks ago, when called upon to cater Toronto arts fundraiser The Power Ball, he fed about 1,700 people from a single outdoor spit loaded with an entire 300-kilogram bull.



"That's Canadian, man!" he told me later of his jaw-dropping idea. "As a kid in Europe, that's the sort of thing you think happens in America. All that was missing was me riding in on a horse."



As it happened, Mr. Thuet came up with this idea some years ago at his Ontario farm, when one of his bulls was turned down by the local slaughterhouse for being too large. This left him no choice but to take matters into his own hands, then have a spontaneous barbecue for 1,000 friends. You can begin removing exterior slices after only two hours of cooking – and then just keep slicing for 10 more hours, as if the animal were a giant shawarma. The fire must be offset, which allows you to place drip pans underneath to collect rendered fat and dredge your bread in it while assembling a plate or sandwich.



"Thuet's right – that is Canadian barbecue," Mr. Feenie agreed from Vancouver, where he was preparing another brine for another suckling pig so he could give his brother-in-law's family a cooking lesson this weekend (in an excessively authentic nod to Canadian barbecued pork, they'd overcooked the last one).



"When I was a kid, I used to spend a month each summer on my cousin's farm in Saskatchewan, and they would always butcher a calf to show me what it was about – and within a week, it would be on a spit. What's more Canadian than that?"



Well, hamburgers, hot dogs and hockey.



Jacob Richler is a Toronto-based food writer. His second cookbook with Mark McEwan, Fabbrica, will be published by Penguin in September.





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