GENERAL ARTICLES

Canadians Can’t Cook

Our restaurant meals are uncivilized, sniffs this critic. But, he asks, what can you expect?—Mom’s cooking’s just as bad

ROBERT ELLIOTT September 1 1946
GENERAL ARTICLES

Canadians Can’t Cook

Our restaurant meals are uncivilized, sniffs this critic. But, he asks, what can you expect?—Mom’s cooking’s just as bad

ROBERT ELLIOTT September 1 1946

Canadians Can’t Cook

Our restaurant meals are uncivilized, sniffs this critic. But, he asks, what can you expect?—Mom’s cooking’s just as bad

ROBERT ELLIOTT

CANADIANS can build locomotives, split atoms, trap lobsters, make nylons, do anything—except cook.

For some strange reason, good food just doesn’t seem to interest you (I’m Canadian-born, but have lived most of my life where the cooking was better, so prefer to make it “you” instead of “us”). With plenty of wonderful materials to work on, and relatively few restrictions, the meals you turn out are well up among the dullest in the world.

They are so dull, indeed, that they’ve come to

official notice. Certain farseeing statesmen, having figured that if something isn’t done soon the tourist trade may start falling off, nerved themselves to broadcast rude remarks about your restaurants and hotels, at the same time imploring the owners to brighten their menus before it’s too late.

But none of them came clean and told the whole truth. Nobody dared to point out while he was at it that things were nearly as dismal in the home, because that would have meant taking a crack at mom; and that again would have been the exact political equivalent of sticking a loaded service revolver into the mouth and pulling the trigger.

Yet mom—or, putting it more technically, the average Canadian housewife isn’t a whole lot better cook than the Greeks and Chinese who run most of your public eating places; too often she is even worse. I speak from bitter experience, after a long journey of experiment which took me to all sorts of places—farms, small-town cafés, summer hotels, city apartments and suburban houses—up and down the land. And as far as I’m concerned, however lovable and fine and such she may be otherwise, in the kitchen mom is strictly from hunger.

I remember, to take an instance at random, a fearful meal I had once, in a little house precisely like two out of any three little houses in those parts. This particular mom had white hair, steel-rimmed specs and a benevolent expression, so I guess that makes her kind of typical too.

She ran true to form in another way. Her sons, whom I am prepared to forgive if it can be shown that they were only doing their duty, insisted she was the best cook for miles around. So when I was asked for Sunday dinner I jumped to accept, especially since the big feature was to be roast leg of lamb, a dish to which I am more than somewhat devoted. They didn’t tell me what else mom had lined up. Now I can see why.

First there were cocktails: that is to say, lukewarm tomato juice with a few drops of sauce added, instead of the straight stuff. Next, thick brown soup that tasted of scorched metal, and with it small hot biscuits tasting of nothing whatever, baked by a secret process which made thdm both hard and flaky.

Then came the leg of lamb, brought in on a platter garnished with roast potatoes and the odd sprig of parsley. If you think that sounds good, wait. The potatoes had been not so much roasted as lightly boiled in fat; and rather than crisp and brown they were a dim yellow, and had apparently begun to melt. I’d have thought it quite impossible to go wrong on the parsley, but it must have been boiled too, or not picked until the day after its death from blight. Anyway it was almost as brown as the potatoes should have been, and every whit as close to collapse.

Post Mortem on a Dead Sheep

AND the payoff, the lovely lamb I’d been . looking forward to with such greedy passion, was a mere mockery. If there were laws to protect people who have dinner at other people’s houses, mom would have been given six months without the option of a fine. It wasn’t lamb, it was sheep, and it had been roasted only in the narrowest sense of the word. Mom had simply put it in the oven that morning and left it there until Joe got back from the drugstore with the ginger ale. For basting during the long hours of its ordeal she apparently used warm sea water, spiked with lanolin from the poor animal’s wool. At any rate the meat was wet, tough, salty, light grey, and had a haunting perfume of fleece.

I can’t bring myself to describe all the vegetables, but the peas were beyond belief. Once—I know,

because I saw them being shelled—they’d been beautiful little pale green globes, firm and sweet. Now they were wrinkled, faded and shrunk. When a forkful fell to my plate it sounded like a sudden shower of ball bearings, and the forkfuls that didn’t fall tasted that way.

Sitting there at mom’s dinner table, stunned and despondent, I thought of the leg of lamb I’d had at another table, long ago in Paris. Not, you understand, in a famous restaurant, nor in the house of a rich man with his own chef, but in a tiny apartment on the fringe of a factory district, where I’d been invited to take potluck with a taxi driver and his wife.

It really was potluck too. Madame couldn’t have had any warning that her husband was bringing a guest. But she scurried around the kitchen, nipped out to do a little quick shopping, and a couple of hours later—

The soup was clear and fresh, with a wonderful flavor I can only liken to the smell of roasting beef. She had managed to get a fine cut of salmon; it was poached and served in a frothy hollandaise sauce which had a sharp, delicate edge of lemon. The leg of lamb was lamb indeed—small, tender, basted in its own juices and a touch of red wine, rubbed with garlic and seasoned lightly with a crumbled leaf or two of marjoram. The roast potatoes were the color of pork crackling outside, of snow inside. The peas were a smooth, bright green, and had been cooked with a sprig of mint, which did incredible things to them.

My hostess was terribly ashamed to have been caught short with nothing better to offer than the sort of meal she ran up every day.

“I don’t pretend to be a good cook,” she said, “but I wouldn’t want you to judge me by this, monsieur.” And she meant it; for two pins she’d have gone off into a corner and cried.

Not all Frenchwomen are such artists, no matter what anyone tries to tell you, any more than every Canadian housewife is as wretched a bumbler as mom. But meals like madame’s are by and large the rule in France, or were in happier days, and mom’s are horrifyingly near the normal over here. Comparing hers with a whole series of other home meals, I can’t see much real difference between them. They all had several things in common: they were insipid, the various dishes weren’t planned to complement one another, the buying or choosing of food in the first place wasn’t skilfully managed, and almost without exception cakes and pies were far better done than the rest of the courses.

The Cult of Fanciness

WHAT does cooking require to make it good?

Like any other job, knowledge, time and hard work. And, naturally, interest. On my rounds I met many hostesses who had been trained in domestic science when they were at school, and thus presumably ought to have had at least the fundamentals under control, but the chief result of their lessons seemed to be a belief that as long as everything looked fancy and—if possible— quite unlike what it was originally, they had themselves a feast. Maybe cookery is taught here in the same curious way as

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Canadians Can't Cook

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literature, which has made it virtually unthinkable that any student exposed in the classroom to Shakespeare would ever consider reading him for fun, or to learn wisdom, or for any reason except sheer necessity.

Maybe, too, the younger versions of mom are afraid of getting fat, and by the same token afraid of food itself, and put their menfolk on the rack with them because it’s too big a chore to separate the diets. Whatever the explanation, the vivid, earthy concern over eating isn’t there.

To put it simply and brutally, the average Canadian housewife can’t be bothered, and if she has a genuine reputation as a cook, rather than the automatic family one which appears to be guaranteed her by the British North America Act, chances are she will have earned it with her pastry or her preserves and not with anything much else.

Home cooking has something to do with the poor standard of public eating, too. Your hotels, restaurants and hot dog stands, by which the tourist is principally nourished during his visit, are as a general thing terrible. The few good ones only serve to show up the lamentable many, to do justice to which even the prophet Jeremiah would have to curse overtime. If I hadn’t wide first-hand experience of mom’s meals, I should have been completely unable to understand why you continue to put up with public eating at such a low level.

Having had it, I’m convinced that she, and none other, is the answer to this extraordinary tolerance. If she were a neater hand at the skillet, the gap between food at home and outside would be both obvious and unbearable. You would rise in revolt. Athenians and Cantonese would either smarten the bill of fare or go broke.

As things are, hear for example Dr. J. T. Phair, Ontario’s Deputy Minister of Health, on the subject of hot dog stands in his bailiwick. The good doctor, more in sorrow than anger, said recently:

“Any attempt at roadside catering, as far ... as the Province of Ontario goes, needs to be referred to only to be condemned. The majority of these establishments—if one could flatter them by the term ‘establishment’— have been set up for the sole purpose of getting as much for as little as it is humanly possible for the tariff to stand.”

His cry of shocked despair could be echoed anywhere else in Canada, and I no doubt has been; so if I here conj tribute a roadside adventure of my own, it’s just a coincidence that it happened in Ontario.

Travellers’ Tales of Woe

Not long ago I was travelling by a bus which stopped for a “rest period” where the only place to eat was a ramshackle lean-to which announced hot dogs and didn’t have them in stock. It also mentioned hamburgers, and was again fresh out. Sure, there’s a meat shortage. But the choice, absolutely the single solitary choice, was cheese sandwiches or nothing. There was one kind of cheese, rubbery and spread thin, and two kinds of service: with a scowl or with a snarl. The price of each sandwdch was at the very least seven times what it could conceivably have cost to make.

Later, in the same journey, the bus allowed its passengers half an hour for dinner, in a town which shall be nameless. Most of us went to the best

restaurant, which I think had better be nameless too, and found the quantitative opposite of the situation just outlined. The menu, a fly-specked document about the length of the local telephone directory, listed no fewer than 311 different items, roughly three times more than you would have been likely to encounter at a top spot in pre-war London or Paris.

There were 17 sorts of chops and cutlets, distinguished by name, weight and color rather than by taste. If you wanted eggs, you could have them done in 28 separate ways; having nothing in common but the use, in their preparation, of a substance which may have been either axle grease or tepid codliver oil. I ordered a breaded veal cutlet. I paid for a breaded veal cutlet. What I actually got, I don’t know.

On the other hand, I do know why I got it. The character who cooked that cutlet, if indeed it was one, hadn’t learned his trade. No man who ever underwent the apprenticeship demanded of cooks in Europe, even though he might have had a personal grudge against me, could have brought himself to commit such an outrage. I make this statement, as they say, advisedly; because I myself underwent such apprenticeship, although for less than a year, and not with the idea of becoming a chef. I just wanted to learn to cook.

It’s a Hard, Long Road

The master I studied with had a small hotel in the French Alps, and he took me as a pupil on the distinct understanding I would go through a sternly condensed form of the whole routine, but that at the end of it I must never say I knew more than a smattering of the score. So I won’t say it now; but I shall never forget the early days of the course.

That was when I acted as the humblest functionary in the kitchen, junior even to the dishwasher and an old woman who peeled potatoes. I arrived for work at half-past three in the morning, started the fires and scrubbed the floors. Then I made coffee and otherwise got ready the breakfast of my betters—then dodged their insults, and occasionally blows, while preparing little pats of butter in an elaborate manner for the guests. On good days I was allowed to stir the chocolate a bit, if I had time. I was entrusted, after a week or two, with boiling eggs.

Breakfast over, I rushed around with pots and pans, fetching and carrying for the mighty who were beginning to cook lunch, or made rosettes out of radishes, or grated cheese, or some such elementary operation. I also helped the dishwasher and scrubbed parts of the floor again. I scrubbed it for the last time about 10.30 at night, having stooged and drudged with few letups for 19 hours.

In the final stages of my condensed career I went out with the boss while he did the marketing, thus learning a little about how to recognize prime meat and poultry, fresh fish and vegetables, and a great number of useful and rather astonishing swearwords. For my reward at the end, the old master snorted that my sauces were enough to excite the derision of a dying bus boy, but that maybe I wasn’t too bad on straight scrambled eggs.

The point of mentioning my own experience with the training of a chef is simply to give a glimpse, which is all I had myself, of the long hard work that lies behind competent restaurant cooking. Without that background, or at least an approximation of it,

nobody can produce consistently good food—unless he happens to be a natural-born wizard, instinctively at home on the range.

Once in Canada I came across just that kind of a genius, at a rambling old hotel in the Maritimes, where I had put up for the night with misgivings, and which I intended to leave at the earliest possible moment. But at breakfast the fish cakes were celestial; out of this world. They stood in relation to ordinary fish cakes that iced champagne does to warm lemonade. I ordered a second lot, and a third, and quit only because I couldn’t have got another mouthful into me if my life had depended on it. My old master in France would have kissed the chef who made them. I wasn’t prepared to go quite that far, but I did want to congratulate him, so I asked the waitress if it would be all right.

“Okay,” she said, and sniffed. “If you wanna talk to him, he’s in the kitchen. But I’m telling you, it ain’t worth while. He ain’t what I’d call any too bright, see? All he can do is cook.”

The moral of that is that the only good cook I found in a public eating place in Canada was considered just slightly above a moron. “Imagine” (I could almost hear that waitress thinking), “anybody actually taking some trouble to cook when he could be reading the funny paper and chewing gum!”

That is how it was at most of the other small hotels I sampled, except that none other had been lucky enough to get comparable wizards on their staff. The hotel menus were less elaborate than the 311-item restaurant job I touched upon earlier, otherwise they were interchangeable. None of them troubled even to serve good coffee — an unbelievable omission, especially when dealing with American tourists, who very properly set great store by it, know how it’s made, and get it every day at home. And what they think of Canadian coffee won’t bear repeating in a family magazine.

How they make theirs will bear it, though. The secret is almost childishly simple. Buy good stuff in the first place. Use a lot of it; never skimping. Keep the coffee maker scrupulously clean. Brew fresh issues as often as you are able. Provide real cream with it if that can be contrived. It will cost very little more, but it would be cheap if money were lost on every cup, because once a man has smacked his lips over it he’s halfway to happiness right there, and he’ll remember it and tell his friends.

•How to Get a Reputation .

Another simple and useful thing for small hotels and restaurants is to concentrate on a few particular dishes in addition to the regular list, preferably made from any, local specialty there may be—for instance, salmon, or whitefish, or peaches, or blueberries. And those few dishes should be worked over, practiced and perfected until they make the mouth water just to look at them, and served with a flourish. Three such star turns can make a reputation: 300 run-of-the-mill ones may keep the bailiff away, but they’ll leave the customers cold.

But how many Canadian eating places garnish their menus with the noble fodder that is distinctively Canadian and, with proper promotion, could become as famous among footloose gourmets as the pâté foie of France, the wiener schnitzel of Austria, the ravioli of Italy? I’m thinking now of such native delicacies as northern

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sturgeon and caviar, Lake Winnipeg goldeye, lake trout, full-bodied habitant pea soup, or the blissfully noisome Oka cheese. I can get Canadian sturgeon and caviar in New York, seldom in Canada. A broiled goldeye is far more likely to show up on the Chicago loop than on the bleak tables d’hôte of Portage Avenue in Winnipeg.

Good food isn’t merely good business, j and though it’s important not to lose tourist trade, enjoying one’s own self at table year in and year out has a certain value too. Unfortunately such enjoyment is hard to find in Canada, even at those restrained festivals known as church suppers, where the worthy ladies of the Missionary Society vie with one another and no doubt do their best cooking for the occasion.

I remember such a supper, laid out on long narrow tables arranged in the shape of a letter U around the hall, which smelled of varnish and hymn| books. The food looked rather pretty,

I chiefly because the plates were wreathed j in leaves and flowers, and the chicken patties and so on were garnished with everything but Christmas tree ornaments, but it was awfully dull when you got to it. The chicken had been too freshly killed, then overcooked, then smothered in a kind of gluey paste which incorporated tiny fragments of mushroom, and the seasoning was negative. The cakes and pies were fine, but there was relatively far too much of them. The coffee . . .!

It was like the stuff I had at a very different affair a little later; a banquet, it was called, in the private dining room of a middle-sized hotel. There was roast chicken that time, yet it also had' been kept too short a while and cooked too long. There were little ball-bearing peas, in the manner of mom; there was anonymous soup; there were infinitesimal pieces of tired, underprivileged fish. There was some-

thing sweet and gooey at the last. There was a charge of three dollars a plate.

There were fellows there, Canadians to their finger tips, who had served overseas in the late war, and been fortunate enough to taste French cooking almost up to peacetime standards. And those fellows weren’t happy about the three-dollar banquet. They didn’t see why, in a land of plenty and for a fairly high price, they should get such flabby and tiresome food when, amidst ruin and privation, ordinary Frenchwomen could manage meals none of them would ever forget. I was there myself, and I don’t see why either. Maybe if enough exservicemen got nostalgic, as these chums did, a kind of spontaneous pressure group would form and your national cookery would take an upturn.

There seems absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t. Newspapers and magazines are full of admirable recipes; you have organizations of skilled women to help and advise their less experienced sisters. Above all, you have the food itself to cook with, and can take advantage of your blessings with a good conscience, because Canada is doing so much to help the needy and stricken in other lands.

No reason, then, for dull meals— except that neither abundance nor generosity make the slightest difference to a dish on which the cook doesn’t spend the necessary time and care.

If as a nation you are willing to take time and trouble over your food; if mom spends an extra hour in the kitchen, lays in a supply of simple herbs, buys a good cookbook and follows the instructions with real care and interest—then criticisms like this won’t ever be written again. If on the other hand you aren’t willing, the saddened observer a generation from now is going to find himself forced to the same reluctant conclusion: Canadians can’t cook.