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SimonThibault.com

Journalist. Food Writer. Producer.

Trusting your head, your heart, and your hands.


Talking, writing, doing, and dealing with food is all about trust - trusting you have the right story, words, the right seasoning, the right touch.

That trust is what I talked about in a recent Saturday that I spent at the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia, teaching a workshop on food writing. 

 Many thanks to  Sara Jewell  for the image.

Many thanks to Sara Jewell for the image.

About a dozen people showed up, and we talked about everything from nostalgia to ethics, culinary history to personal storytelling, and everything in between. I brought up classic examples of food writing from Brillat-Savarin to MFK Fisher, culinary historians and chroniclers like Paula Wolfert, as well as contemporary writers like Julia Turshen and Nik Sharma. I wanted to show that food writing is as varied as it’s authors, and that it’s scope is more than just a recipe that tells you to dump and stir. 

I’d like to thank the WFNS for having me, and for the wonderful group that showed up. If all goes well, I’ll be teaching other workshops like this one later on in the new year.

But back to cooking, and to the seasons: 

 A box of fragrant quinces from my parents’ orchard.

A box of fragrant quinces from my parents’ orchard.

I can’t decide if fall is for the heart, or the head.

I’ve closed the windows in my apartment, but the oven door is in a state of constant flux. Open and close, baked goods in and out.  Fall makes us want to settle in, ruffle pillows and blankets to warm us, and seek out sources of heat. The biggest source of heat in my apartment these days is my oven. 

And I think my heart likes it that way.

This isn’t to say that my relationship to my oven is strictly emotional. In fact, these days my head is swimming with ratios, queries, decisions, calculations. 

I’ve been working on a recipe for a whole grain cornmeal skillet cake, something which at first seemed pretty basic. It all started with a recipe from Erin French’s The Lost Kitchen (Sidenote: if you grew up in/near the New England states, or Atlantic Canada, do yourself a favour and read it, as so much of it will sing to you). 

I’ve bastardized her recipe, replacing this with that, trying this ingredient with another. Part of it is hubris: I want to see what I can make. How far can I adapt, what can I learn in playing around? But the other part is an exercise in humility: the cake is not where I want it to be. There is much work to be done, things to tweak, figure, play with. I won’t ignore the original, and when people ask where I got the idea, I make sure they know it started with that recipe. But a really good recipe can give you a bit of agency, a bit of liberty.  And if you really want to see what you can do, and you pay attention while you’re doing it, the head will lead the heart to a place where both can speak.  I fell in love with possibilities, and I enjoy the thought process. I’ll let you know when my head and the heart both enjoy the cake.

I recently had an exercise in letting my heart, or more precisely my hands, lead the way, without thinking too hard. I trusted that I could do it if I just let it be.  

My friend Pat had contacted me a few months ago about a french-language television show he was working on. I won’t get too much into details, but let’s just say it involves hunting, a house that’s off-grid, and a bunch of hungry mouths to feed. Now I knew about the hungry mouths, but I was expecting six, maybe eight. Nope. By the time things got underway, there were over a dozen people to feed.  

Ok then.

I’m used to knowing where the pots and pans are, used to the amount and variety of ingredients I have in the house,  how heavy the cake pan is, how hot my oven runs. But this wasn’t my kitchen. I was making a fricot - a hearty acadian stew - but this time I was making it with partridges they had caught. 

 One of the aforementioned partridges - technically a grouse, but we colloquially call them “pardrix” amongst ourselves in french-speaking southwestern Nova Scotia.

One of the aforementioned partridges - technically a grouse, but we colloquially call them “pardrix” amongst ourselves in french-speaking southwestern Nova Scotia.

Have I mentioned I’ve never cooked partridge before?

I mean, I’ve had it, as I grew up in a household where it was present, along with a lot of other forms of wild game. The flavours, the challenges of cooking with game are not uncommon to me, and thankfully not too intimidating. But I was asked to make a fricot with said partidges. And even though I’ve written a book that features fricot, I’ve not made it umpteen times like many of the people who would be sitting at this table would’ve. These were my people - a table of Acadians, not to mention a few extra crew members who had never had the dish before.

So I winged it, no hunting puns intended.

I sautéed onions, more onions than I thought I might need. When making soup, you can never have too many onions.  I seared the meat ever so slightly, to create the beginnings of a fond, that rich meaty base for so many soups. I added the water, a carrot or two for flavour, and let it simmer. Once the partridge was cooked, Pat and I took the meat off the bones - those tiny, tiny bones - and put them aside while the broth simmered away, reducing ever so gently. He and I rasped the potatoes for the potato dumplings, or poutines for our fricot au poutines rapées à la perdrix. While the fricot was cooking, the broth reducing and slowly growing in flavour, I started to work on the pies. And this is where my hesitation was put aside.

Like I said earlier, this wasn’t my kitchen. I didn’t have the comfort of my mixer, let alone a pastry cutter/blender. I’m of a generation that relies on machines to do the work for me in a kitchen. A stand mixer, immersion blender, tools that give you time and ease. I had flour, lard, a couple eggs, a bag of apples, and my hands. And to be honest, I learned to stop using my head, and trust my heart. Or rather the next best thing: my hands.

I have to admit, the capacity to trust my hands has taken time. That agency I mentioned above? It’s not an overnight thing. It takes time. Trust in one’s self. And a gentle push.

At that moment in time, that push was feeding people, and not fucking up in front of cameras. 

My hands knew to cut the lard into small pieces, and that it should feel a certain way when mixed into the flour.  They knew the dough needed just a bit more water to come into it’s shape.  My stand mixer would’ve told me to look, but my hands told me more than I can glean from looking. In fact, this felt way more usable, practical, and doable than any other pie I’ve made.

Before you ask, of course I was nervous. This wasn’t a recipe testing session for just me and myself, or a family gathering where I could pawn it off. This was for an audience, an audience of people in this room, and for the people who would be watching this later on television.

Did I mention that I was doing all this cooking with a camera crew following my every step?

But I’d read the recipe before. Heck, I’d written it. But it was in the doing, not the reading or writing, that it felt right.

 The aforementioned pies,  via Pat’s IG feed.

The aforementioned pies, via Pat’s IG feed.

The pies turned out great. In fact, these were some of the flakiest pies I’ve ever made. Because I was gentle with the dough, because I pushed myself, just a little, because my hands, my head, and my heart, told me that I could, and should.











Common and Uncommon Apples, Cookbooks, and Seaweed.

After my last post about cookbooks, it appears that would be the logical place to start this post: with the announcement that Pantry and Palate: Remembering and Rediscovering Acadian Food has been nominated for a Taste Canada Award in the Regional/Cultural Cookbook category.

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Taking a look at the nominees, that’s quite the company to keep.

* * * 

I’ve written before about being lucky enough to have grown up with an apple orchard in my backyard. My parents have a hobby orchard in my hometown of Pointe-de-l’Église, and so the act of picking an apple directly from a tree is not only familiar, but borderline necessary for me. The snap of biting into an apple is only secondary in pleasure to gentle crack of taking the apple from the branch. 

And so I would argue that Gravenstein apples are - to me - best picked a few days early, when they are almost bracingly acidic, but also at their crispest. That McIntosh isn’t worth buying in a supermarket when you’ve eaten one that was only on the tree within a 24 hour window.  That Russets - of all sorts - are almost apples designed for adults with their tight texture, gentle dryness, and so many ways of using them. It’s what made me want to write this piece for Canadian Living magazine, entitled “The Apples You Should Be Shopping For This Fall.” *

 Old Fashioned Gravensteins

Old Fashioned Gravensteins

Many thanks to Anita Stewart, Canada’s Food Laureate and maven behind Food Day Canada, as well as Rowan Jacobsen, author of “Apples of Uncommon Character” to being available to talk about the beauty of apples, and how diverse that beauty is.

Also, I do have to admit, I do take a small bit of personal joy in having an image of my father’s Old Fashioned Gravensteins take centre stage. Conflict of interest? Maybe. But I am my father’s son.

That piece went live on the very same day that it was reported that the Red Delicious was on its way out as the best selling apple in North America.  Serendipity being what it is, I got a call from a producer at CBC Radio’s As It Happens, asking if I would talk about the Red Delicious, and why it may deserve it’s not-so-gentle tumble from first place. Although it may have been “delicious” at some point in it’s trajectory from one lone tree to the most-grown, success changed the apple, and also changed how we consume them.

Yesterday was also publication day for another story I filed, this time for The Huffington Post, on seaweeds/sea vegetables.

 To be clear: 'Superfood' is put in quotation marks for a reason. *

To be clear: 'Superfood' is put in quotation marks for a reason. *

People are looking at them for all sorts of resources - from nutrition to medicine, from ecological as well as gastronomical - but will it work?  I chatted with a few people to talk about the eating of it, such as Nancy Singleton Hachisu - author of the recent Japan: The Cookbook, as well as Jonathan Kauffman, who’s book Hippie Food: How Back To The Landers, Longhairs and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat is a treat. I also had a great time Skype-ing with Tamar Haspel, who gave me some of the best quotes for the piece. Haspel’s work over at the Washington Post has earned her a James Beard Award, and her Twitter feed is worth checking out for her no-nonsense approach to agricultural/food issues. Agree with her or not, she has a deft turn of the pen/keyboard. 

 Recipe for rose sugar - hang out with your mother on the coast of Saint Mary's Bay, collect wild roses. Place in sugar. 

Recipe for rose sugar - hang out with your mother on the coast of Saint Mary's Bay, collect wild roses. Place in sugar. 

In the meantime, enjoy the summer in whatever way works best for you. I’ll be putting up everything I can get my hands on, probably with the rose sugar I recently put together.  Thanks to my friend Stephen Sherman Wade for the inspiration.  The last of the strawberries have benefited greatly from it, as did my mother and I as we collected the petals...

 

 

* It should be noted that writers and journalists rarely select the titles of their journalistic endeavours, and even less so in a landscape that is powered by searchable results. I don’t blame my editor for any titles, and I don’t envy their position either.

Lost in pages

I can’t decide if the first joy of a cookbook is in purchasing it, reading it, or in cooking the first recipe from it. 

When people ask me about my love for cookbooks, there is a familiar refrain that comes out: I read them like novels.

When I say this, it is to convey the engagement I have with cookbooks:  I read them from cover to cover, pore over the language, and the ideas found therein. I want to convey the love I have for these books: the work that goes into making them, and the work that comes out of from using them. 

People often have bookshelves stationed prominently in their homes. Those shelves can tell you what language they enjoy, what stories, what ideas. Do they prefer a clipped lexicon, direct and forthwith? Are they fans of flowery language, with sentences that run on to the point of droning verbiage? 

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The most visible, accessible, and used bookshelves in my household are filled with cookbooks.  The shelves are organized by (loose) categories: a shelf for baking (this is the most rapidly expanding shelf), a shelf organized by regional cuisines, a shelf for books by cooks/restaurants, a shelf for single subjects, and a shelf for resource materials.  In my bedroom there are shelves for food writing, books to pick at before bed or books to sit in the sun and absorb their information at the same rate as the sun’s rays come down on me. Deliberately. 

The purpose of a cookbook is ostensibly to collate a series of recipes and present them in the best possible manner. Sometimes that manner is direct, with little artifice, and pure information.  Sometimes the manner meanders, wafting through your mind like aromas from warm kitchens. 

What makes a cookbook valuable is more than just the recipe. It is the perfect example of something being greater than the sum of its parts.

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And that brings me to the most common argument I receive when I say that I love and collect cookbooks: I could just look it up online.

Of course you could.

First, let me applaud you. You want to cook, you have a desire to look up a recipe, to try and cook something that is perhaps new to you. Maybe you’ve decided that you want to ameliorate the dish you’ve been making by rote, and are looking for a new way to look at that dish you love. Maybe you are looking at recipes because you need to stretch your dollar as far as it can go. More than anything I applaud the desire to find agency and self reliance, and a respect for the foodstuffs that we have access to, and respect to those who brought them to our tables. 

Online resources abound for the curious cook. There are so many websites that can give you instant, practical, and well-tested recipes. I respect, admire, and even wish to perhaps one day contribute to some of them. (That was a hint, editors.)  But the manner in which we absorb that information - as immediately and as quickly as we plug in our search parameters - ignores the work that brought it to your screen. More importantly, by ignoring that kind of work, we often ignore the work we are about to undertake ourselves.  Or at the very least (or most?) we will view that work as drudgery, a means to an end. 

Search. Find recipe. Execute. Eat. 

Reading a recipe online is like reading an excerpt from a novel - it can be beautiful, it can lead to satisfaction, but it misses so much of the breadth that gives an excerpt heft and gravitas: the words that surround it on both sides of its cut.

It’s a little too utilitarian. It leans towards the gross rather than the subtle.

So allow me to flip the narrative , and give you a gross of subtleties. 

 A glut of rhubarb, roasted with ginger and star anise. 

A glut of rhubarb, roasted with ginger and star anise. 

Think of how you read a novel. You start at the beginning, and allow yourself to follow the story. You will give yourself permission to pause at certain moments, re-read passages that have struck you.  You will follow the narrative flow: Character goes on journey. Character encounters tension. Character resolves issue, completing journey. It is engrossing. 

In a good cookbook, there will be a similar flow. Not all books follow a direct narrative approach, nor do they need to. But they follow a logical order: This is what you are here to learn. Here is the process you can follow. Journey complete. Let’s eat.

Like I said at the start of this piece: I can’t decide if the first joy of a cookbook is in purchasing it, reading it, or in cooking the first recipe from it.  I think the ambiguity and almost Venn Diagram-esque way of measuring this is part of the beauty. Each book is different, each first joy is different, and each brings about their own nuanced manner of introduction.  The recipes don’t stand alone: they stand next to each other, on the pages that precede and proceed. 

It could be the location where you sit and read said book. The book may act as a balm to a busy day, helping you leave the world behind, as deeply as you would fall into a novel.  It can be even more engrossing than fiction, because unlike fiction where you must imagine the reality, with a cookbook you can forge that reality: at your fingertips, at knifepoint, in the well of a spoon. 

There is something to be said for finding that book you’ve been looking for, an author whose name has been repeated to you. For you, it could be an old paperback copy of Elizabeth David, or an out of print tome that you already own, but wish to purchase so that you can give it to someone else.  These are two distinct pleasures on their own. Sometimes that book is one already sitting on your shelf, something you picked up because you feel you should own it, or something someone gave you, because they felt you should own it.

For me, the most recent that book was Nigel Slater’s Tender.* Reading it was like listening to that friend who you call when you’re stuck on what to cook next. The one who gives you all the good ideas, and then you actually feel like you can make them happen.  At the time of this writing,  it’s summer, and I find myself at the edge of a glut: the berries have just begun to appear, and I am at the edge of where I am almost tired of rhubarb.  But I don’t wish to be in the case of the latter, and I wish to be prepared for the former. 

 Yes, it would be easy to type in a few letters and find the most popular recipe for said ingredient.  But an algorithm will not tell me what is already in my home, nor will it be able to predict that I will find much more satisfaction in doing my own digging, than letting someone else do the work for me.  The satisfaction of looking for the book that holds the recipe for the dish you’ve always wanted to make, or the dish you never thought of making.  

This is how you end up with a rhubarb flavoured with amaro. Rhubarb roasted gently with fresh ginger and star anise. Rhubarb baked into various forms of coffee cakes, with various flours to see which works best.  I see possibilities, not culinary doldrums.

 100% whole grain flour coffee cake with rhubarb roasted with ginger and star anise, and an oat and oat flour streusel.

100% whole grain flour coffee cake with rhubarb roasted with ginger and star anise, and an oat and oat flour streusel.

This is how your fridge is emptied. This is how you become emboldened. Like a novel that leaves you with hopes and ideas, a cookbook that has been read from cover to cover can arm you with knowledge and inspiration.

Because you allowed yourself to once again get lost in pages.

 

 

* I could link to an online retailer here, but really, if you care about books as much as I think you do, you could ask your local retailer to order it for you, or at the very least, check it out of your local library.

For the love of libraries

Last year, Halifax Public Libraries asked me to be a part of a series of videos about how the library has impacted people's lives.  As someone who has hosted talks at the library and even done radio stories about using it's massive cookbook collection, I was more than happy to be a part of it.

The video came out a couple weeks ago and has been shared and promoted on social media to a really wonderful response. I invite you to check out the rest of the videos, as well as more about their new campaign called Tastes Like Home. 

I've written about my love of cookbooks before, but this was a wonderful way to talk about how my own career path started with a book I borrowed from the library.  Check it out below, and support your local library.