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SimonThibault.com

Journalist. Food Writer. Producer.

Fall into it.

Fall smells of apples to me.

Old Fashioned Gravensteins from my parent's orchard in Church Point, Nova Scotia.

Old Fashioned Gravensteins from my parent's orchard in Church Point, Nova Scotia.

Apples on trees waiting to be picked, apples baked into pies, apples covered with oats and nuts in crisps, apples turned into apple sauce. 

It’s a smell, and a season that makes me think of family, and of work.

When I call my parents at this time of year, they tend to answer while they are picking and packing apples. “I packed forty bushels today,” my mother will say. “Your uncle and I picked another forty to replace that one,” my father will say. Everyone wants to eat newer varieties like Honey Crisp, but my parents and I prefer older types of apples. I’ll ask about what’s being picked, and they will rattle off varieties like Gravenstein, Paula Red, Macintosh. Varieties that should be eaten when they come off the tree, and savoured for their brief time in the sun. 

Ever since I came across Rowan Jacobsen’s book, “Apples of Uncommon Character,” I’ve become obsessed with finding older varieties of apples. I ask farmers and vendors, and have some across some interesting types, apples which have wonderful spiciness, sweetness, acidity, and crunch. Fall is here. That means you should be eating apples, and good ones at that.

***

Fall also makes one yearn for the summer, but I will admit I was pretty happy with this summer. Pantry and Palate did well, and continued to gain momentum and mentions in the media. I was pleasantly surprised at where the book would pop up, from a review and recipe mention in local newspapers across the country like this one in the Kingston Whig Standard (by fellow food writer Lindy Mechefske) to a profile in l’Acadie Nouvelle, as well as a feature in The National Post.

Part of the interest in the book has been because of the 150th anniversary of the founding of Canada, and so people were looking to find stories about food that may have been overlooked before now. I was interviewed by Radio-Canada to talk about the role of culinary heritage, as well as on CBC about the revelations I experienced around my personal culinary heritage while writing the book.

Speaking of storytelling, I recently had the chance to shoot with the gang from The Perennial Plate. I first came across The Perennial Plate years ago when they first started telling stories about food producers in their native Minnesota. Years later, multiple world trips and a couple James Beard Awards later, it’s creators, Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine spent a month here in Nova Scotia looking into food stories in this part of the world. Stay tuned for a video this fall. 

In fact, stay tuned for all sorts of goodies popping up here. I'm getting ready to do promotional work for the U.S. this fall, and who knows, maybe I'll be in your neck of the woods. Stay tuned.

Wild and Sweet

Today my sister would have been 44. I don't post personal items on this website very often, but today felt like a day where the exception is perfectly acceptable.

Every year when wild blueberries start appearing on kitchen tables, my mother would tell the same anecdote. “You sister would come from from camp, and I’d make her a wild blueberry pie for her birthday,” she would say.

I remember those summers. My sister Ginette, blonde and smiling from ear to ear, happy birthday being sung, and wild blueberries falling out between layers of pastry. Blue smears on plates and children’s faces. Cake wasn’t missed. It would seem out of place.

This will be the first time Ginette’s birthday will pass without her.  Over the past few weeks, my parents, my in-laws, and friends and I have all had the same thought, “She’s not here.” 

***

“Are you baking a pie this year,” I ask my mother. There is a slight pause on the other end of the line. “Maybe,” she says. “She was the one who liked it the most.” I suggest doing what she feels is best. No one expects anything to be normal today. 

It’s hard not to use words like “strange” or “weird” when discussing life after death. We lack a vocabulary for the sensations, emotions, and passing of time that we endure while we grieve. The world has shifted, or maybe it’s us that has. Things that held positive significance become double edged.  Ceci n’est pas un bleuet sauvage.

***

In 2014, my sister received her first cancer diagnosis. She soon lost her sense of taste due to cancer treatments, and food became a chore for her, rather than the pleasure it had been for so long.  

I ended up interviewing her about the loss of her sense of taste for CBC Radio. I listened to the interview and had forgotten that the it ended with she and I commiserating about peaches - specifically the peaches we ate as kids in our parent’s orchard.

One of the most important things she said to me, to her husband, to her kids, and to everyone who knew her, is that happiness is a choice. So even though today may seem like a day to be sad, I choose not to be be. I choose happiness

 

Pantry and Palate is in stores, in kitchens, and on your screens

It’s amazing what a good story will get you. It can entertain, enlighten, give pause, or give focus. The same goes with a book. Or in this case, promoting one. 

Promoting Pantry and Palate has landed me - and the book - in all sorts of places. It graced the front page of the Arts and Life section of The Globe and Mail, with an excerpt of the book and then was included in a series of new books talking about Canadian cuisine. I also had a really great chat with fellow food writers Jonah Campbell and Linda Mecheksfe over at Quill and Quire.  An interview I shot a few months ago for the french language media organization TFO also went live on social media.

Also on the french tip, I also did two interviews for Radio-Canada- one for the local morning show Le RéveiI, as well as Tout un Samedi (at 9:15) which airs in Atlantic Canada.  Over at CBC I was back on the air, but this time on the other side of the microphone, being interviewed by Jonna Brewer at Information Morning in Moncton.

I also wanted to give special mention that I had a great time shooting a video interview for Chatelaine magazine, which you can watch here. Soo Kim and the rest of the gang at Chatelaine were great to chat with, and I only wish I’d had more time. Next time. 

A glimpse of Chatelaine's Instagram Stories promoting Pantry and Palate. 

A glimpse of Chatelaine's Instagram Stories promoting Pantry and Palate

Pantry and Palate is on store shelves. Pre-orders of the book have been dropped off in mailboxes across the country. I’ve started getting messages from people on social media that they have received and are enjoying the book.  People are making everything from seaweed pies to salted onions. One person told me that they made the cornmeal molasses bread for their kids and that they loved it. I get random tweets and Instagram photos of people’s efforts. It’s no longer a bunch of recipes on my computer screens. It’s living in their cupboards and fridges. 

Photo by Bobby Grégoire.

Photo by Bobby Grégoire.

But the thing that arguably marked me the most was a recent trip to Toronto to speak at the Terroir Symposium. The main topic of the conference was Canadian food. It’s not easy to define or focus such an expansive topic. There were agricultural, historical, cultural, and ethical issues to discuss. There were amateur and professional chefs, writers, and academics. And of course, there was food. But I was there to tell a story, and talk about Acadian food.

I was to speak on a panel about French-Canadian cuisine with some pretty distinguished guests, including Cyril Gonzales and Alex Cruz from École Buissonière (previously from Société Original,), chef Anne Desjardins (who helped promote season and Canadian cuisine way before people really thought about such things) and Geneviève from Caribou magazine, (a french-language periodical that intently and intensely looks at the food and people of Québec). 

I was the last to speak, and the only one to speak about French-Canadian food outside of Québec. I was glad to be invited to the table, and felt it was my obligation to sing for my supper - or in this case tell a story. But it was also my job to lay claim to a place at the table - and I say that knowing that I risk making myself sound a little adamant. The refrains I kept (and keep) hearing were “I didn’t know about this cuisine. I didn’t know about these stories.  I didn’t know about these lives.”  And this was often followed by “yet I still connected with it.”

Telling a story about food is an act of reconnection: familial, temporal, mnemonic. We often our food stories are intensely unique - and in a way they are - but in a more important manner they are universal. And when that story hasn’t been told, or listened to, or had a light shone on it very much, it’s rewarding to see it come through and connect to so many.

 

 

 

Filling up the Pantry

It’s one thing to write about food: the making of, the context, the eating. But to capture it in the blink of an eye - or a shutter - is to see it in the way that we experience it. Visceral, pleasurable, and immediate. 

When I saw my blurred hands in the frame, it all strangely came into focus.

Image by Noah Fecks, Noahfecks.com

Image by Noah Fecks, Noahfecks.com

It was the first day of shooting for my upcoming book, Pantry and Palate. My photographer, Noah Fecks, had arrived the day before from New York, and we were settling in at the location for the shoot. Bags upon bags of fabrics, plates, utensils - and more paper towels than you would ever think you would need - were strewn about the kitchen. 

Noah and I were working on shots of ingredients for the book. I wanted people who may not be familiar with certain ingredients to know what they should look for, and I also wanted them to see a certain kind of beauty in the ingredients themselves. Even the most humble of ingredients can be well packaged, let alone quite striking on its own if you look at it in a new context. 

But we only had a few days to shoot. The list of shots was long, time was short. Today’s last ingredient shot was for salted onions, a condiment/seasoning used in a lot of Acadian cooking in southwestern Nova Scotia. “Tell me how you would make this, and what it would be used for,” said Noah. I explained how it was used to season soups and stews, and even went into the history of salting herbs throughout much of french-speaking Canada. “Yeah, but I want you to show me how it’s made.”

I had tested most of my recipes - and sent them to others for testing - but this was a recipe I had yet to make.  I grew up in a household where every summer, bunches upon bunches of green onions would be collected - either grown in the backyard, or occasionally bought - and the salting of the onions would begin.  When I was a kid, I thought it was a horrible smell, a harsh sulphuric haze that hung in the kitchen. My parents eyes would be slightly misty from the incessant chopping, and the windows would be open to air out the place. 

And then there would be salt. What seemed like an obscene amount of salt would be poured over the onions, covering them in a fine salty snow.  They would sit overnight in that dry brine, their moisture leaching slowly overnight and pooling at the bottom of the big tupperware containers that held them.  The next morning there would be more salt poured over them, and then they would be packed into jars, to be put up for the upcoming winter and fall.  Later in my life, my mother told me a secret that if I were to freeze the jars, that the onions inside would keep their vibrant colour. “It just looks better than the dull green that it turns into,” she would say.

And so here I was, chopping scallions, waiting for Noah to tell me when to stop and go so he could get the perfect shot. I joked that my knife skills are less than stellar, and he kept on clicking.  I grabbed a large wooden bowland scraped the chopped scallions into it. 

I had written down the recipe, as dictated to my father, as it had been told to him. “Add salt, and then more salt. And when you think you have enough, add some more.”  I called him once again, just to make sure. “Yup,” he said, “that’s the way to do it.”

Even though I had never done this, my nose told me what to do.  As he clicked away, Noah noted that I wasn’t joking when I'd said that I would be using almost the whole kilogram of salt for what seemed like a paltry amount of scallions. I repeated what my father and grandfather had said. “When you think you have enough, add some more.”

We started setting up another shot, this one of me tossing the mixture together. Noah stood over me slightly, holding the camera at an odd angle. “I’ll tell you when to start,” he said. My hands hovered over the bowl. I wanted people to see what this looked like. I wanted those who had never done this before to feel confident, and that they too could make this. And cook with it.

“Go.”

Image by Noah Fecks, noahfecks.com

Image by Noah Fecks, noahfecks.com

When we were done, Noah pulled me aside to look at that day’s shots.  There were shots of  salted fish, molasses, a very large blood sausage, and even a pig’s head. But there was something about the tossing of those scallions. A little life. A little history A little pride.