The tides of every publishing season bring to the shore of our gastronomic desert island a raft of new Canadian cookbooks. Has culinary Canada finally come of age? My answer, based on present evidence, is a qualified no. The four works harvested here are the most tasty of a very bland crop, and even they, with not enough exceptions, offer much at which to be downcast, and leave, on balance, too much for which to hope.
With the Vancouver restaurateur Umberto Menghi's Umberto's Kitchen let us begin. This is his fourth and most sumptuous book. The opulent production values-full-colour spreads of Tuscan landscapes, alternating with black-and-white-snapshots and full-colour photographs of food (full page, no margins), hectares of white space around the facing text, generally a big-town, big-man-about town look and feel (the sort of volume the top-rated culinary wizard of the minute in London or New York might get)-all tell the reader something about the Menghi clout.
Non-foodies living a few thousand kilometres away from his aura need to know that our author's towering success in British Columbia is classic immigrant-makes-good stuff. He bosses a little empire of several restaurants, employs more than five hundred workers, has starred in his own cooking show (132 episodes), buys his family a splendid villa in Tuscany.
Basta! The man's ego is as big as a Tuscan bull. What does this do to his ability to create recipes, to organize his thoughts well? There are no leads to individual recipes here, but, as Menghi travels through the courses of a Tuscan meal, big explanations of regional foodways open each chapter.
Not all soups thrill him, so he only lists half a dozen here. Four other Tuscan cookbooks, each about the same size as his, all offer twice as many. Menghi offers a dozen-odd fruit- or cookie-based dolci, a few of them thoroughly modern, most of them teasingly simple. He's true to his roots when he admits to not liking sweets at meal's end, except for sherbet or fruit. It's his book; he's the padrone. But again, any other self-respecting Tuscan cookbook will give you at least as many sweet afterthoughts as Menghi's does, and you'll likely find more trad cookies and booze-and-fruit combinations elsewhere.
The big centres of attention in a proper Tuscan cookbook are pasta, meat, seafood, and vegetables. Most of Menghi's recipes in the last category are routine, the sort of thing one sees in any decent, generic Italian restaurant in Canada. He roasts peppers, stews leeks, and finishes them with butter and cream, misrepresents caponata (rightfully a sweet-sour eggplant relish) as a savoury eggplant stew. The directions are forgiving, but aren't written for the utter novice. You don't often get told little tricks or what colour some ingredient should take as it cooks. Flavours from other regions than Tuscany work their way into these pages. The walnut sauce napping spinach-ricotta ravioli is Ligurian, but plenty sapid for all that. Sometimes fast and loose goes too far. Menghi travesties pesto (a Genoese invention, by the way), supercharging the green, basil-parmesan sauce in chicken broth and butter, seething the whole mess and sprinkling more parmesan over the linguini with which he tosses the now tired-looking accompaniment. The fish preps are generally sound, but some verge on the bizarre. Poor, mild orange roughy can't stand to be paired with two sauces, one a ferociously garlicky basil purée.
The simplicity of Tuscan food is stressed often in books about Italian gastronomy. Menghi usually walks the line here, but sometimes he feels the need to break free. I cite pheasant with mushroom and champagne sauce, or pumpkin gnocchi with smoked mozzarella. In the former dish especially, what a lot of steps and fiddly-diddling! The making of a roux, the straining of the sauce through cheesecloth, all for such a tiny, two-person birdie! These are urban recipes, perhaps even seasonal ones, and demanding; certainly they are celebratory, even though they are presented with no warning or differentiation-just as if they were as banal as eggplant parmesan.
His wine selections, three to a dish and always one from Italy, are mostly exactly what's needed. Nothing's too fancy, and the genres to which the wines belong often sensibly allow for other options: "Full-bodied white", "Light or medium-bodied red".
In contrast, the drink choices in Jurgen Gothe's ever-so-West-Coasty Some Acquired Tastes are sometimes simply just silly (especially when he's going for the quick laugh). To pair with an oddly named "Ready Reuben"-what's so ready about a scratch-made braided loaf farced with pastrami, cheese, and sauerkraut?-Gothe suggests boring beer (Labatt's 50), fancy B.C. beer, or Chateau d'Yquem spritzers. Gothe is scarcely ever less than this specific with such suggested accompaniments. Many of the wines one can perhaps get only in B.C. or just by taking a quick flip down the coast to California, or to points between. These references-at least in the opinion of one who works for a living-appear at times to be so rarefied as to occasion an envious whimper or a decision to treat them as common piffle and substitute any red, white, suds, or firewater one has to hand.
It's difficult not to know about Jurgen Gothe, even east of the Rockies, since his erudite musicological buzz is heard across the land, all of it. In B.C., he's majorly (as they say) in one's face: on the radio, on the tube, severally in print, at wine competitions as a judge. His verbal persona is witty, genial, with high-brow enthusiasms usually portered about lightly enough not to become instantly nauseating.
The recipes, then, are talky, larded both with wee jokes and with very accurate directions for (say) hand movements, or the dimensions into which an ingredient should be cut. So much for verbal precision; but Gothe lacks, in various ways, taste. That lightness of touch brings with it more than a whiff of a cologne called I'm Jurgen Gothe and You're Not. How many of the rest of us, even if we live in or close to Vancouver or can visit there, can aspire to Steamed Pomelo Peel Stuffed with Shrimp Purée? That's a lift from what likely is a decent Vancouver restaurant, so perhaps fair's fair.
But he also sticks in his own creations, and some of these are dreadful mishmashes. The great gastronomic philosopher Fran Leibowitz has observed that there is a good reason why no-one has cooked scalloped potatoes in lime juice. There would be a good reason for Gothe not to have dreamed up or cadged, let alone published, the instructions for bringing into the world "radiatore in a rush" (pasta with pepper, garlic, new potatoes, broccoli, pumpkin seeds, and asiago cheese). Or blueberry garlic spritzer. Or apple chili pie. Or chicken stewed with sweet-savoury pasta stuffing. But he has also committed a sin against the Holy Ghost, I believe, in playing false the cautious palates of most small children by recommending for them a monstrous baked farrago of pasta, spinach, peas, turkey wieners, cream of chicken soup, milk, sour cream, and bacon. Gack.
Though Gothe is at his best when passing along someone else's recipes, even in these instances one should beware. There is a special place in Hell for pasta aromatico (and for its anonymous only-begetter), with its bacon, rosemary, bay leaf, sage, cloves, nutmeg, tomatoes. "...smells so like holiday baking," says Gothe.
Another new-Canadian, rags-to-a-decent-measure-of-worldly-success story now. Wandee Young has opened a few Thai restaurants in Toronto (according to writer-cook Byron Ayanoglu, co-author of The Young Thailand Cookbook, hers was the city's first). To pay the rent, she also built herself a solid rep by turning out more-than-respectable club food at a major Queen Street rock barn between her solo flights.
The collaboration between the two authors, with Ayanoglu as the slightly more than ghostlike, but ever respectful amanuensis, results in yet another Thai cookbook. It's a pretty good one, though, especially for beginners.
Lucidity extends through the accurate imperial and metric measurements, right down to the fully descriptive, detailed method of every recipe. Comparing Young and Ayanoglu's book with Jennifer Brennan's pioneering work, The Original Thai Cookbook, I found that our authors, in about a hundred recipes, do manage to cover the same ground as Brennan. Claiming to wish to avoid the horrors of deep-frying , they leave out (unnecessarily, I think) a splendid dish called mee krob (in Chinese cuisine, crispy noodles with meat and vegetables). The remaining preparations aren't overwhelming in number, but Thai cuisine is adequately served. Few readers whose first language is English are going to cook everything in these pages, and fewer still are going to want to cook more.
Most Thai culinary classics are present and accounted for. Pad Thai is a little less than the ambrosia hymned in the lead to the recipe: "so harmonious, so perfect in every way, that it would be hard to imagine it without even one of its vast symphony of flavours and ingredients." Please. This for a chicken-noodle stir-fry with tamarind sauce and peanut-scallion garnish?
We have in these pages home cooking at its best. It's adapted from a restaurant cook's work, true, but it's the sort of grub the rest of us Canadians need to know more about. Ayanoglu's praise is apt, when he hasn't been into the helium: "There are no overwrought haute-cuisine style accoutrements here. The beauty of the final presentation is inherent in the specific combinations of the ingredients [many of which, your reviewer notes, can now be found in Asian food stores, and some in supermarkets, in our major cities] and the vibrant, satin-smooth sauces that happen effortlessly in the wok. Once the cooking is over, one simply transfers the dish onto a serving plate and more often than not, the only garnishes are the ubiquitous coriander leaves and thin strips of red pepper."
A little over two years ago the Stratford Chefs School hosted a major symposium on Canada's regional cuisines. The papers making up Northern Bounty, the proceedings of that conference, pluck and dress the nation's cookery from perspectives historical, economic, sociological, anthropological, and plain gastronomical.
Some of the writers don't possess a lively style, but most of what they have to tell is put down with passion. Each of our major geopolitical regions gets one or more puff pieces that paint in quick strokes the historical background to its culinary scene today. At times the prose in these pieces takes on colours similar to those in tourism ministry pamphlets, but they're serviceable hues nonetheless. More specialized shorter bursts spray the current canvas: articles about ice wine, the Vintners' Quality Alliance (VQA, our fledgeling wine rating system), sugaring off, Old Order Mennonites' food and food ways, to name a few.
Three papers stand apart in excellence of scholarship and thought: "Traditional Native Plant Foods in Contemporary Cuisine in British Columbia", co-authored by Sooke Harbour House's Sinclair Philip and by Nancy and Robert Turner; "The Art and Science of Good Bread", by the Montreal chef-restaurateur James Maguire, and "Taste, Quality, and Mass Culture", by Eleanor Kane, co-founder of the Stratford Chefs School and proprietor of The Old Prune, a Stratford restaurant .
A voice crying in our culinary wilderness, Kane has written one of the few brutally honest assessments of contemporary Canadian gastronomy. She's a true conservative, a foe of gratuitous innovation, a friend of tradition properly understood. Contrary to the shills and touts who raddle the Canadian foodservice biz, Kane considers that "good food, food that tastes of what it is, is now outside the mainstream of our culture." Many others give lip service to this home truth, but Kane means what she says and knows what she is talking about.
Her plan to change things circles round the unwobbling pivot of respect for the craft of cooking, which implies two further subset instances of the same attitude: a) the respect inherent in the mentoring relationship between student-apprentices and teachers mature in the craft, which engenders b) respect of the artisans for their materials. This is the educational model, Kane says, "that continues to distinguish the training" at the Stratford school. The model is old-fashioned, she admits; it's undemocratic. It sounds like the tough apprenticeships that starred French chefs often recall.
"Never has food looked better and tasted worse," Kane states, but adds that "quality...keeps breaking in...I believe that it exists within our foodservice industry;...with the small pockets of organic farmers striving to restore produce to some level of decency, or with the chefs who believe in sustenance agriculture and are helping the independent farmer to survive." Her stance is elitist, of course. Why settle for less than the best? She isn't being hidebound in thinking and acting this way; she's simply behaving freely.
That kind of profound conservatism should apply also to the writing of cookbooks in this country: no recipe collections that aren't grounded in a real respect for a recognized tradition should go to press. The editors of Northern Bounty list at the end of their collection several regionally faithful menus by noted Canadian chefs. Their recipes are, to a word, clear, unfussy, and utterly removed from the weirdness (grant, please, legitimacy to Sinclair Philip's use of wild B.C. ingredients in otherwise technically traditional preparations) that usually accompanies the frantic need to innovate. The bright future of Canadian cuisine lies with these chefs and in the collections of recipes by other honest cooks interpreting their many ethnic traditions, not in the glitzed-up assemblages of dishes by foodservice overlords, or in the records of loopy home cooking by media subgeniuses.
Ted Whittaker, a Vancouver native, fell from grace into Upper Canada almost three decades ago. He lives to eat, in Hogtown.