Follow @simonathibault

SimonThibault.com

Journalist. Food Writer. Producer.

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. 

 

Good Gravy

Last night, at the 2016 James Beard Foundation’s Book, Broadcast, and Journalism Awards, Tina Antolini walked up to the podium. Standing up there, she was handed a medal, emblazoned with James Beard’s face, and the name of his foundation. But most importantly, the words, “For Excellence” framed the right side of Beard’s face on the medal. Gravy, the podcast that Antolini steers with great care, had won a James Beard Award for Podcast Of The Year.

If you don't know Antolini's work, you should. Her smooth delivery pricks up your ears every two weeks, when a new episode of Gravy, The Southern Foodways Alliance's podcast, is put out.  That’s why Antolini was up there at the JBFAs.  Her instincts for stories, and her knowledge of audio storytelling are what put her up there, on that podium, with that excellent medal around her neck.

In honour of Antolini and Gravy’s win, I want to share with you some of my favourite episodes of Gravy

As journalists, chroniclers, academics, and historians, it’s not enough to just write down stories about food. It’s not enough to discuss the ethics and history of food, its role in our lives, and the politics behind it.  It’s not enough to just make sure someone, somewhere, writes down a recipe. It’s our responsibility to bring people this information and to make it as palatable as possible, yet without watering it down. It’s our responsibility to temper the sweetness of nostalgia without forgetting the bitter flavours that occasionally must be brought to light. It's about getting it just right, like any good dish served upon the table.

That’s what Gravy does. That’s what good journalism is. And that’s what Antolini does.

I had the chance to work with Antolini on an episode of Gravy last year. The whole thing came about when I met Antolini at last year’s award ceremony. She was giddy and a little beside herself as Gravy’s sister publication, a quarterly published by The Southern Foodways Alliance, had just won a Beard Award for Publication Of The Year that evening. Antolini and I talked about Gravy’s podcast, which had just begun a few months earlier. A friend mentioned to Antolini that we should work together, since I had Acadian and Cajun connections, and I was a freelance radio producer.  Tina said yes, and graciously gave me her card.

At first, I thought she was just being polite. And she was being polite. But she was also sincere. I followed up with Antolini, and sent her some of the work that I had done for CBC. Less than a year later, The Cajun Reconnection was broadcast as Gravy’s 25th episode. I’m still pinching myself that I got to tell this story on such a great platform. And now an award-winning one, as well.

But I want to talk about, to share, and to bring to light some of what I believe are some of the best episodes of Gravy.  Have a listen.

Toni Tipton-Martin also won an award last night for her book, The Jemima Code. The book talks about the whitewashing of food in the American South, especially in the way it was chronicled. In Episode 6, Antolini interviews Tipton-Martin and a slew of others to discuss the illumination and reparation of such a cultural loss.

The idea behind Gravy is to "changing American South, through the foods we eat." But what if you are sometimes defined by what you don't eat. Under the laws of kashrut, or kosher dietary law, the eating of pork is forbidden by Jews. But what happens when you're Southern, Jewish, and your access to kosher food is less than nil? In this story by Robin Amer, meet the last Jews of Natchez, Mississippi, who shared many a table, with many a dish of questionable kosher application, but never of questionable appreciation. 

This last episode, I think I listened to at least three times, and sent it to many a friend, wether they be food lovers, Southerners (or aficionados thereof), podcast fans, or just plain anyone who would give this story a listen. This story is one of resilience, faith, and good food, all set to the stirring voices of church mothers, singing and telling it all

Congratulations again to Tina, the Southern Foodways Alliance, and to all of Gravy's contributors. Kudos. And like Antolini always says at the end of each episode, "Make cornbread, not war."

Pantry And Palate - a centuries old discussion

 

When it comes to food, it’s hard to say that any food culture is completely isolated from those that surround it, no matter how different the surrounding regions and populations may be. This is something which has become drilled into me in my work as a journalist and food writer. There are questions of colonisation, economics, geography, and so much more.

But when you start digging into these topics, you never know how far back in time or how far in terms of geography you will go. This is what I’ve discovered as I work on finishing my book, tentatively titled, Pantry and Palate. It will explore the history and food of my ancestors, the Acadians of Atlantic Canada, and examine those very qualities.

On my kitchen table is a small collection of little black notebooks. Handwritten notes in perfect cursive fill their tan pages. These are recipes written down by my grandmother, and by my great-great-aunt. But they resemble lists of ingredients, rather than what we would call a recipe today.  For example, a recipe for a Molasses Cake asks for :

1 1/2 cups molasses

1 1/2 tsp soda

1/2 cup of grease

1 cup milk

2 cups flour

 

That’s it. That’s all that either of these women needed to be able to make and bake this cake. No notes on how or in what order to add the ingredients. Not to mention temperatures or baking times. There was a hard-earned and encyclopedic knowledge behind these recipes, and it was located at the fingertips of these women. These lists were reminders of the necessary ratios necessary to execute a dish. It’s a confidence that most home bakers rarely possess these days, let alone on the scale that most women would have possessed when these notes were written.

And yet these notes are vital in my search for understanding the cookery of my ancestors.  They give me insight into the kind of knowledge that the people who cooked these meals had in their possession, as well as the necessities of cooking. There are variations on most recipes, with names of people long gone. “Zita’s molasses cookies” could be found next to a recipe for a “Golden Cake.” It didn’t take me long to realize that this cake was referring to the flour company that used to exist and distribute its wares in the first few decades of the 20th century, and not to the colour of the cake. That recipe didn’t make it to the book, but it still told me what and how people were cooking, and sharing cooking knowledge. Even the stuff that doesn’t immediately fit the the mold, has a place, somewhere, somehow. It’s all important.

This recipe for Scalloped Cabbage assumes that the home cook knows how to make a white sauce. Luckily, my grandmother had gone to finishing school and knew how to make one without thinking. Today, however, that white sauce would have its own recipe, written underneath.

This recipe for Scalloped Cabbage assumes that the home cook knows how to make a white sauce. Luckily, my grandmother had gone to finishing school and knew how to make one without thinking. Today, however, that white sauce would have its own recipe, written underneath.

There is a recipe for doughnuts, written directly below a recipe for making boudin, or blood sausage. At first glance, this seemed to be a strange, yet arbitrary placement. It wasn’t until I spoke with a few people did I realize that this was no coincidence. Boudin was often made on the same day that pigs were slaughtered, due to the freshness of the main ingredient, pig’s blood. But there was another abundant and fresh ingredient on days of the boucherie, or slaughter. Fat. Creamy, white, pure back fat, perfect for deep frying. Acadians were fans of salted pork fat, as it was a major part of their pantries in the days before refrigeration and supermarkets filled with shelf-stable fats.  But fresh fat could almost be considered a rarity, since boucheries were often only held in the fall. So why not treat yourself to a hot and tasty treat after all that hard work? 

But this is only the beginning of what I found in digging into my ancestry’s culinary past. One of the recipes I found in those same notebooks was for a molasses and cornmeal bread.  Funny enough, I also found a recipe for the same bread in a community cookbook, published by a nearby church group in a neighbouring english community. This community is also populated by descendants of former Loyalists, both black and white. Many of these loyalists came from parts of the American south, where cornmeal is king. My ancestors spoke mostly french, were catholic, and white. Yet here was an english speaking, protestant, and black community, not far from my own, and our pantries and bellies were filled with the same food. Just goes to show that food is food, and good food is contagious. It travels from mouth to mouth, from community to community. It creates dialogues that last centuries and connect cultures.

The first draft of Pantry and Palate is due at the start of next month, and I am furiously finishing recipes, writing up the last of my interviews, and remembering all the little details I wanted to include. This act of writing may be one of solitude, but the recipes and information found within show that when it comes to food, no one is alone.

 

 

Out like a lion, in like a well-seasoned lamb.

As someone who makes a living by recording other people’s voices, I am often told, “I sound so different.” No, I think you sound exactly as I know you.

But waking up this morning on this first Monday of the new year, I experienced a bit of that.  I was listening to my local morning show on CBC Radio, and I heard my name being called. It was an interview I had recorded with the host, chatting about food trends and topics for 2016. 

To be honest, I am used to hearing my own voice on the radio. I have recorded, edited, and heard my own voice quite a lot over the past few years, so it doesn’t phase me. Maybe it was because I wasn’t awake, but I listened to myself chatting away with the host, and thought, “I should be doing more of this.”

So that’s my resolution. To tell more stories that I am proud of. Stories like that of the Chen family, and how tofu was more than food, it was a way of life. Stories like that of Alexandra Mansour, and how an immigrant housewife came to change the palate of an entire community of rural Nova Scotians.  Stories that speak close to home, whether home is in Nova Scotia, or 2000 miles away. Like the story I told in Gravy, the Southern Foodways Alliance’s podcast. 

*

I've already started on things for the new year. New radio pieces. More stories. And most importantly,  I'm working on a book project, one that will take me throughout Atlantic Canada, and through decades of dishes. Dishes likes the ones detailed in these recipe. But more on that later. Stay tuned.

They say years come in like a lamb, and out like a lion. I say this year went out with a roar, but this new one is coming in like a well-seasoned lamb. Tasty, indeed. 

 

The Value of Story

We used to subscribe to magazines, newspapers, book clubs, and all sorts of things. We paid for these things, and enjoyed what was brought to our doorsteps and mailboxes. We would read, digest, discuss, and even occasionally throw said magazine or book across the room because someone wrote something that incensed us. 

Then the internet came around.

We started getting content for free. But more importantly, the value of said “free” content soon began to reflect the investment that was placed into paying for it. In other words, much of the content began to have next to value. 

And we accepted it because hey, it's free. 

No computers were thrown about, but we did all of a sudden have an abundance of trolls living under bridges. And clickbait. And listicles. 

I'm not interested in free content. I'm interested in good content. I'm a freelancer,and I work hard to get paid. I often joke that I won't get out of bed for less than ten cents a word* but I will tell you that oftentimes the work I am the most proud of is the work that has been paid for by people who work just as hard to pay me. 

We happily pay roughly $5 for a good latte, or a pastry, and seriously, you should pay good money for good food. Nourishment is essential to our lives. 

So is information.  

I am willing to pay so that I can be informed, educated, and inspired. A few sites/magazines/shows have gone to create online funding campaigns to kickstart their careers. They evoke a sense of charity as well as excitement, but those things wane quickly. And once that money is gone, it’s gone. You can’t budget on charity and excitement.

Recently two shows I listen to often started campaigns to get monthly patrons of their shows. CANADALAND, by Jesse Brown is a great show about media, ethics, and broadcasting. I don’t always agree with Jesse - and sometimes even think he’s a bit unnecessarily snarky - but I think he does great work. I don’t mind giving up an extra snack once a month so that he knows, somewhere, a little extra steady funding is coming in.  

Another show I decided to become a patron of was Fugitive Waves, which is part of the Radiotopia. Fugitive Waves is put out by the Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva. I had the chance to meet the two sisters, and Davia was even kind enough to give me some pointers on some of my own work.

In fact, Radiotopia is in the middle of a campaign to get people to pledge $75,000 to be able to continue to produce good content. And they were able to do it because more and more people believe in and are willing to pay for said content. 

I'm not writing this because I want to say, "Hey I'm a good guy and I do this, humblebrag, et cetera," but because I believe in changing the way we consume media, and the way we value said information. I think that's worth $5 a month. 

 

*With apologies and thanks to both Linda Evangelista and Melissa Buote for stealing that.