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SimonThibault.com

Journalist. Food Writer. Producer.

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. 

 

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.