Follow @simonathibault

SimonThibault.com

Journalist. Food Writer. Producer.

Begat, Bequeath, and Begin.

A journal by Augustin Comeau, detailing his honeymoon to New York City in 1939.

A journal by Augustin Comeau, detailing his honeymoon to New York City in 1939.

It was often half-jokingly referred to as “old stuff,” with the value of said “stuff” to be determined by the day, the mention, and the context in which said stuff found itself being discussed.

The “old stuff” was boxes of papers my mother had inherited from her father, reams upon reams of loose papers, random notebooks, and the occasional legal document that had (probably) lost its legal standing, or was obsolete.

It was a “later” project for my mom, as in she would look at it later, when she retired. Or when she had time when she retired.  But that “later” eventually became a “now” and the “old stuff” was no longer just stuff to be joked about. It was little pieces of family history. 

Yes, there were interesting family tidbits, like the notebook her father took with him when he went to New York City for his honeymoon. He wrote about the first time he visited a building that had this new fangled thing called air conditioning.  And there were boxes upon boxes of old photos that left my mother saying, “I wish I had gone through these with my father.” People left unknown, events undescribed.

One of the many unnamed and unknown individuals photographed and found amongst the “old stuff.” However, do note the copious amount of sweets, cakes, and whatnot, eaten at many traditional Acadian weddings at the turn of the century.

One of the many unnamed and unknown individuals photographed and found amongst the “old stuff.” However, do note the copious amount of sweets, cakes, and whatnot, eaten at many traditional Acadian weddings at the turn of the century.

Many of us have little pieces of history in our families - heirlooms, anecdotes and legends, and the occasional family bible. But the further my mother began to dig into these family objects, she began to recognize that her definition of family could not be contained by her immediate family.

No, this stuff was much bigger than that. Those legal documents -that left her and my father wondering why they had been kept- turned out to be papers that spoke of the founding of the village where over one hundred years later she would be raised. Amongst a whole lot of other people.

And then there was the notebook. 

Unassuming, coverless, a couple inches wide and only few inches longer, its first entry was dated the fourth of August, 1856.  The ink of the entry underneath had faded, but snippets of it were still readable under the right light - or the right scanner. My mother had seen it around, but hadn’t paid close attention to it at the time, thinking she would get back to it.  And when she did get back to it and started reading it, she realized what it was. A journal. A journal of a trip, taken over 160 years ago, from the tiny village of La Butte, to a series of acadian communities throughout the Canadian maritimes. Places like Memramcook, Tignish, Miscouche. 

Its author, Justinien (son of Old Jos, son of Justinien), was travelling to where his ancestors, and notably his grandfather, had lived - and possibly visited - during the expulsion of the Acadians in the mid 1700’s.  It was a retracing of steps. Whether it was intentional or not was not written in the journal, as it read more like an itinerary, with names and dates and places. But while it didn’t speak of Justinien (the younger’s) emotional life, it did speak of what was important to a man like him: visiting churches, going to mass, making sure to name the people who put him up, all alongside of occasional doodles and a few religious texts interspersed throughout. It was personal to him, in his fashion, and in and of his time. 

I posted about the journal on Facebook and on Twitter and was surprised at the reaction it got, from Acadians and non-Acadians alike. I was asked to share it, but it was not mine to share, as I wanted to make sure it was alright with my mother as it was her discovery, and I didn’t want to take the credit away from her, or those who helped transcribe it, let alone those who were interested in sharing it with various genealogical and historical groups. With their support, it was decided that, I, a descendent of Justinien (via his son Étienne, his grandson Augustin, and his great-granddaughter Jeanne), should share and present it, here, on this website. 

You can see scans of the journal here, with notes both in english and en français here. And you can also read the journal entries, here.

Many thanks to my mother, who gave me permission to share this (and her) story, as well as her transcribers, and her friends in archiving.

Paying Attention to Time: Old Recipes, New Recipes

Cookbooks and recipes will often tell you to pay attention to what you’re doing. Pay attention so you don’t burn the butter, overwhip the egg whites, overdevelop the gluten. In my case, I should’ve been paying attention to the cookbooks themselves. You never know what they will show you.

When my mother gifted me the family notebooks that would go on to become the basis for Pantry and Palate, she also handed me a series of seemingly random books and small pamphlets along with the handwritten family notes. 

Old recipes new recipes 1.JPG

My mother had told me that her father - as well as her grandfather - had run a small general/dry goods store for decades in the village of La Butte where she was raised. In the house where I was raised, all sorts of leftovers from that store could be found. A shelf for motor oil from the 40’s was used to store tools, a pencil in a cup would be emblazoned with slogans like, “Don’t say salt, say WINDSOR SALT”  (I still have the pencil). When I received the pile of cookbooks and pamphlets, in my head, I simply though, “Ok, cool, more promotional items.”

At the time I was so thoroughly focused on writing Pantry that I didn’t pay much attention to the rest of the pile. Two of the books ended up on a shelf as decorating accents, with the gentle promise of “I’ll get to you later.”  In a procrastination-based cleaning flurry the pamphlets ended up being bundled up with random papers, put aside, and somewhat forgotten. 

But as I started digging further and further into the recipes for Pantry - let alone all the cookbooks and culinary history tomes I was reading at the time - the more connections I kept seeing. And I’m not talking about specific dishes being found in random community cookbooks. So much sameness that it was interesting onto itself.  That pie recipe in my book? I’m pretty convinced it used to be on the side of a box of shortening. 

No, that pie dough recipe did not come from here. But the first page of this booklet is filled with wonderful quotes such as, “Man’s most important food, fat.”

No, that pie dough recipe did not come from here. But the first page of this booklet is filled with wonderful quotes such as, “Man’s most important food, fat.”

This is nothing new, really. Culinary historians have pointed this out before, as have food writers and chefs. Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson pointed it out while doing press interviews for The Nordic Cookbook. You see, the thing is that we all love a good recipe, and we love a recipe that works for everyone.

And that’s what a lot of these pamphlets tend to be; trends, notwithstanding. 

Nutrition, especially during times of war rationing, was mentioned often in a lot of these books and booklets. This also speaks to how we viewed the people who created the information in these books, the   Domestic Scientists  of the day.

Nutrition, especially during times of war rationing, was mentioned often in a lot of these books and booklets. This also speaks to how we viewed the people who created the information in these books, the
Domestic Scientists of the day.

The cookery books of the early 20th century - tempered by war rationing, nutritional science, technology, and so much more - have a lot to contribute to today’s foodstuffs. Can’t find any recipes in your latest cookbooks on what to do with all those random foodstuffs you’ve bought because you saw them on Instagram? I’m looking at you, my beloved quinces. Bored by the same old ideas on what to do with all those blueberries/apples/tomatoes/insert random seasonal item? Five will get you ten you’ll find something unexpected and beautiful in one of those books.

This is not to say that there aren’t strange and arguably unpalatable duds. No, we don’t need another recipe for an overly sweet punch, and the cooking times for some of those meats may be debatable, but that recipe for Irish Moss Blanc Mange is kind of interesting. Coffee Jelly wouldn’t be out of place on a modern dessert plate. What is old is new again, and worth examining.

And don’t forget about the visuals. Yes, that colour plate by today’s standards seem anachronistic at best, unappetizing at worst, but those typefaces are beyond beautiful, as are some of the illustrations placed higgledy piggledy on the pages.

IMG_3500.jpg

But the beauty for me in all of these books, the thing that sparks my interest in them, is examining them for what they are: conveyers of convenience, archives of alimentary apocrypha, and testaments to taste. They tell you how and what people were truly eating, all the way down to the specific brands - who else was going to teach early 20th century women how to use Magic Baking Powder? And who else would tell you which apple is best to use in what manner like a pamphlet on Nova Scotian apples.

I’ve decided to praise these old cookbooks and pamphlets over on my Instagram feed, under the title Old Recipes, New Recipes (#oldrecipesnewrecipes). The idea is to show that there really is nothing new under the sun, and that sometimes, the old guard is the most interesting guard of all. Check out the hashtag #oldrecipesnewrecipes, and feel free to send me any of your fave old cookbooks at simonathibault@gmail.com.











Finding the whole meaning of flavour and flour

As interesting as it is to talk about all things food -  ethics, history, agriculture, theory, technique, nutrition - in the end, all that is culinary depends on one thing for its survival: flavour.

And recently, flavour is on my mind. Or rather, it’s all over my hands, my countertop, and in my oven. I’m talking about flour, and the flavours found therein.  

And most of the time, it’s not. Flavour in flour, that is. Because most of the time that flavour has been taken out, or is waiting for it to be added in, in the form of sugar, fat, seasoning, and yeasts. But that’s not the flavour of flour, or rather, that’s not the true flavour of the grain that provided that flour. That was being tossed aside, sold off as germ and bran, or sold in whole wheat flours that were often left on store shelves for too long, leading people to assume that whole wheat flours tasted off, of rancidity. 

I was one of those people. 

Whole grain galette with roasted green garlic and parmesan. A test made with rye, Red Fife, and Acadia wheat strains.

Whole grain galette with roasted green garlic and parmesan. A test made with rye, Red Fife, and Acadia wheat strains.


Over the past couple years, I’ve become rather enthusiastic about whole grain flours (my Instagram feed will tell you this). To be clear, I am not against all purpose/white flour. I’m not especially interested in it’s nutritional value, or vilifying its lack thereof. I’ve baked with it. I still occasionally have a desire for it - like when I make my mother’s apple pie - and the vast majority of the recipes in my cookbook collection ask for it. Heck, I’ll probably always have a small bag of it in the house. Emphasis on the small. I’ve got more options to play with now. Spelt. Buckwheat. Corn (flour, as well as meal). Rye. Red Fife. Whole White (not whole wheat, but whole grain flour made from white wheat). And I use them all. I’m interested in seeing what I can get, and what I get are flavours.

I’m interested in flavour: how to best use it, incorporate it, present it, and highlight it.  And when it comes to flour, that flavour is a thing that you and I, and many of us have been missing out on.

I get it. The vast majority of people hear “whole grain” and think of “whole wheat.” Images and flavour memories pop up of overly dense and poorly presented bricks baked by people who care more for ethics of food than its flavour.  Both have their place in history, and good or bad, they and their elk have populated many a bread box on this continent. But to equate that with whole grains is to lose out. It’s an unfortunate - yet arguably well-intentioned - facsimile of what it can be. 

A crew of home and professional bakers learn how to use whole grain flours at the Grain Gathering, held annually at Washington State University’s Bread Lab.

A crew of home and professional bakers learn how to use whole grain flours at the Grain Gathering, held annually at Washington State University’s Bread Lab.

Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to write about and travel for stories about grain, met with whole grain bakers, attended conventions and conferences about grain, and even visited a mill in California. I’ve had multiple conversations with farmers, home and professional bakers, scientists, writers, bloggers, and no matter what their angle/interest/profession, they all talk about one thing: the flavour of the grain, no matter what kind of grain it is.

They all want to understand and use that flour and its flavour in the best possible manner, as they are able to make it manifest. It’s not just about recreating or translating white flour baked goods into whole grain versions - although there is a lot of that - it’s about understanding what the grain and the flour it produces asks for. Does it need more liquid? Does it need acidity? Does it need gentle heat or a high blast? Does one fat work better than another? What liquid in the batter/dough helps it shine through? What country is this grain traditionally grown in, and how is it used? What are those baking traditions and what flavours and textures have I missed out on?

And yes, these are challenges, and challenges that a lot of bakers don’t have to contend with. But in meeting and rising above those challenges, there is so much more available to the baker, and the eater. And that’s all because of flavour. 

So over the next little while, I’ll be talking about flavour, through the lens of whole grain flours. Follow my work over at Instagram. Check out bakers who are using whole grains in your area. Here in Halifax, you’ll find Dina’s Sourdough on Novalea, and Gold Island Bakery over at the Brewery Market. I’m pretty sure you can find one in your city or town. And if you’re interested in buying/using whole grain flours, here is your challenge: learn. Learn by talking, baking, eating, making, trying, failing, and sharing. 

Close-up of buckwheat streusel over coffee cake. I live for streusel.

Close-up of buckwheat streusel over coffee cake. I live for streusel.

Happy baking.

***

For those of you interested in whole grain baking and bakers, here is a bit of inspiration for you.

“Consider Flour as Flavour” - a story I wrote for The Globe and Mail about bakers throughout the country who are baking with whole grain flours, featuring Dawn and Ed from Evelyn’s Crackers as well as Christine Fancy from Yesteryear Baking.

A Taste for Grain - a Montreal-based grain conference who recently hosted its 3rd version.

Maine Grains Alliance - hosts of the Kneading Conference in Skowhegan, this annual conference brings in people from all over North America and beyond to talk all things grain, with a focus and heart on community and grains, from economics to flavour.

The Bread Lab at Washington State University - hosts of the Grain Gathering, the Bread Lab is at the vanguard of all things grain, wether your interests are agriculture, breeding, baking, malting, or the history of grain.

Thousand Bites of Bread - Adrian is an proselytizer of all things grain, done through introductions, context, presentation and demonstrations of all things grain take on a personal touch with her, whether through her Instagram feed or her whole grain baking tours in Portland, Oregon.

Amy Halloran - Author of “The New Bread Basket,” Halloran is a self-described flour ambassador, and one of the biggest voices in grains in North America.

The Rye Baker - Stanley Ginsberg loves rye, and wants to share that love. His website and his book explain how to use rye in a manner that speaks to both amateur and professional bakers, without leaving either behind in the flour dust.

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.

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 10.44.09 AM.png

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.