Dan Bilefsky, my colleague who is based in his hometown, Montreal, looked into a existential threat that has united, sort of, two of the city’s greatest rivals: Fairmount Bagel and St-Viateur Bagel.
The threat is the prospect that the city might ban the wood-burning ovens that are a key component of what makes Montreal bagels, at least to their proponents, the world champions of bagels. Those of you who are unfamiliar with Montreal bagels can learn about what distinguishes them from other bagels, the St-Viateur-Fairmount rivalry and the debate over which shop’s doughy circles are the finest by reading Dan’s entertaining story.
But I have to share one quotation from the article to give you a sense of the limits of the current collaboration between the shops:
“His bagels went to the moon, yeah, sure,” the owner of St-Viateur said of his competitor’s shop. “But the oldest? Give me one iota of proof!”
Montreal bagels are just one of many foods associated with a city, province or region. Of course, Montreal and Quebec can also add smoked meat, steamies, sugar pie and poutine to their lists.
Some local favorites have made their way across the country. Montreal-style bagels are pulled out of a wood-burning oven 24 hours a day just a few blocks from my house in Ottawa. And a couple of weeks ago when I was out running in Calgary, I passed a shop with signs boasting about its similarly authentic Montreal bagels.
But many other food oddities remain stubbornly local.
Here, by city or province, is my unquestionably incomplete list of regional dishes.
Newfoundland: The most recent newcomer to the confederation is up there with Quebec when it comes to having its own cuisine. Seal flipper pie — think of a chicken potpie but with seal meat — is perhaps the only one from the province that attracts both admirers and critics from animal rights groups. A jiggs’ dinner, a largely boiled meal based around salted beef, offers a more substantial alternative.
Many delights from The Rock also rely on the fishery, like fried cod tongues (not actually tongues) and scrunchions (fried salt pork). But Newfoundlanders have also developed a whole school of cooking around waxed bologna, or “the big stick.”
Halifax: Once its bars close, Nova Scotia’s capital meets the early morning nutritional needs of its large student population with the donair: spiced ground beef roasted on a spit, sliced and served with a distinctive sauce on a pita. Like Montreal and bagels, which shop produces the finest or most authentic donair is a subject of debate. There also appears to be some questioning of whether a donair is actually different than shawarma or a gyro.
New Brunswick: Fiddleheads, the curly shoots of ostrich ferns, are free for the picking each spring. The province’s tourism authority offers this description of their flavor: “similar to asparagus or artichokes … kind of.”
Prince Edward Island: Islanders, please help me out. There appears to be no end to various fish, potato and lobster dishes, but none appear to be obviously of P.E.I. Perhaps potato fish cakes fit the bill, but their popularity and place in its cooking history are unclear.
Thunder Bay, Ontario: Bisected by both transcontinental train lines and the Trans-Canada Highway, and also the last port on the Great Lakes, Thunder Bay attracted immigrants from around the world who brought their cooking with them. They included my maternal grandfather, Mike Holavec. Originally from Ukraine, he came to Thunder Bay from Manitoba to work as a logger.
Two dishes have emerged from that history. First the dense, egg-rich Finnish pancake. As I wrote in 2015, it really isn’t from Finland but is most likely a variation of something that was served to my grandfather in lumber camps.
It is on the menu at several places around town, but Finnish pancakes are most closely associated with the Hoito, a Finnish restaurant that started as a cooperative catering to lumberjacks.
Thunder Bay’s other contribution to Canadian cooking is the Persian, an oddly named variation of the cinnamon bun topped with lurid pink icing.
Winnipeg: Bannock, of course, is found in Indigenous communities throughout North America. But I associate the ritual of the flatbread served with tea with Manitoba’s capital city and the surrounding area into northwestern Ontario.
Winnipeg has at least two dessert obsessions. Imperial cookies are two vanilla biscuits, joined by jam and topped with icing. As with Montreal’s bagels, there are varying opinions about which Winnipeg bakery makes the best ones.
Shmoo, or Schmoo, is Winnipeg’s tall torte based on angel food cake, layered up with whipped cream, caramel and pecans.
Saskatchewan: Even in a Canada that is increasingly divided by region, we can all probably agree that anything made using Saskatoon berries is a treat.
While it’s not really a dish, I’ve been in restaurants in Saskatchewan, as well as in Alberta, that offer pirogi as a breakfast side-order option.
Lethbridge, Alberta: This one may be more of a food obituary. The Crazy Cakes Bakery claimed to be the last shop in Canada still producing spudnuts: doughnuts made with potato flour. But about a month ago, it shut down.
Vancouver: The city of sushi is the home of the B.C. roll, which contains barbecue salmon skin and a sweet sauce or mayonnaise.
Of course, a short ferry trip from Vancouver can take visitors to Nanaimo, British Columbia, home of that no-bake, namesake wonder dessert, the Nanaimo bar. In the interest of not offending anyone from that city, I will not go into the old joke about what’s in a Nanaimo bar.
As mentioned, this list is woefully incomplete. Neither I nor several friends or relatives could come up with anything specifically associated with Toronto, for example, despite the city’s proliferation of restaurants.
So please fill me in on what’s missing from your community: [email protected] We’re looking only for dishes that are found in restaurants and home kitchens, not regional commercial snack foods. This newsletter has already explored that topic as well as your thoughts on it.
Similarly, we probably don’t want to get into ethnic foods that are popular in your town or city but not unique to it. Please include your full name and where you live. We may use the some of the replies in an upcoming newsletter.
Alexandra Jacobs has written an amusing lament for the demise of department store window displays. “In the old days, window displays were the primary form of marketing — fashion was the same as butcher shops and fishmongers,” one prominent window dresser told her. “Now, if you’re waiting till someone walks past your store, you’ve lost the fight.”
James Gorman looked into dogs’ affection for humans and found that it may indeed be true love. The catch: Their interspecies bonding ability may extend to almost any other creature.
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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