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SimonThibault.com

Journalist. Food Writer. Producer.

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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.











Plating it up

In 2010, I came across a rather interesting video. It was produced by Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine, a couple who had left the hustle and bustle of NYC to start chronicling the lives of food producers in their home state of Minnesota. The name of their video series and website: The Perennial Plate

Their first video was a heck of an introduction - Daniel purchases a live turkey from a farmer, and dispatches it himself for Thanksgiving dinner. Mirra would soon become a vegetarian. 

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Daniel and Mirra may have started telling stories from food producers all over Minnesota, but they soon expand to all over the United States, and eventually they started telling food stories from around the world. They learned about everything from  making noodles in Japan, to showcasing snippets of culinary life in Morocco.

They were nominated for, and won, multiple James Beard Awards for their work.  In 2017, they created a Kickstarter campaign called "Resistance Through Storytelling" to use social media - and the algorithms found therein - to tell and highlight the stories of immigrants in the United States.

And then in September of 2017, they came to Nova Scotia to tell stories about this part of the world.

 Daniel and Mirra from The Perennial Plate framing up a shot.

Daniel and Mirra from The Perennial Plate framing up a shot.

While researching ideas for films based in this region, Daniel and Mirra approached me to see if I was interested in being a subject for one of their films. As someone who has a deep appreciation for the kind of work they do, I have to say I was incredibly flattered (and more than a little excited) to be a part of The Perennial Plate. Daniel and Mirra, as well as their friend and Perennial Plater Hunter, shot over three days in Halifax, at the Grand-Pré Historical Site, and down in Clare, where I grew up.  

Since Pantry and Palate has come out, it’s been interesting to be on the other side of the microphone. I’m the one used to asking questions, seeking out details, noticing things that are interesting that the subject of the interview may not notice.  Although Pantry and Palate was a chance to look at my own culture in a new and interesting manner, I’m always surprised as to what sticks out to other people, what speaks to them, and why.  No matter what your culture or your family situation, it’s liberating to see that certain things resonate with others: the feeling of comfort in certain foods, or the love found in family. I must admit that I may have gotten a little misty eyed at the shot where my parents and I get to share the screen.  

Thanks again to Daniel, Mirra, and Hunter for giving me a chance to tell a little bit of the story of Acadie. 

Talking Culinary History, in both official languages.

Over the past few weeks, I have been repeating two words, over and over: culinary heritage.

One of the reasons for this is because I recently signed a book deal with Nimbus Publishing to write a book on Acadian cookery.   The book will be an exploration of the Acadian pantry and palate, looking at recipes, traditions, methods, and the items found in Acadian kitchens throughout the Atlantic region. 

Because of this research, I was asked to speak at the Festival de Clare-té in Church Point, Nova Scotia, on March 21st. The arts and culture festival is put on by the Fédération régional des arts et du patrimoine de la Baie. This was my second time at the festival, and this year I spoke on and about some of the research I have been doing, looking into the agricultural, economic, cultural, and historical connections that make up the Acadian kitchen.

In the same vein, I was asked to speak on two separate programs on Radio-Canada.  The first was on Le Réveil, Radio-Canada's french-language morning show for Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, talking about the conference, as well as my upcoming book. I also spoke on Tout Un Samedi, their Saturday morning current affairs program broadcast throughout the Atlantic Provinces. 

To top it all off, I was also recently asked to be a guest on CTV Morning Live, where host Heidi Petracek and I talked about the importance of - and interest in - older culinary traditions, methods, and recipes. You can watch the segment here. 

 Joining CTV Morning Live's Heidi Petracek and talking about old kitchens and the meals that came out of them.

Joining CTV Morning Live's Heidi Petracek and talking about old kitchens and the meals that came out of them.

In the meantime, I plan on conducting more and more research, interviews, and digging around as much as I can on this topic. If you have any information or tips of any sort on this subject, please don't hesitate to contact me.