Friday, June 7, 2013

My First Authentic Canadian Food Memory (for The Canadian Food Experience Project, June 7, 2013)

The Canadian Food Experience Project began June 7 2013. As we (participants) share our collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. Please join us.

I was born at the dawn of multiculturalism in this country, at the corner of Lawrence & McCowan in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada. My parents came to Toronto from Trinidad & Tobago, a place where multiculturalism was a way of life. Caribbean food, especially food in Trinidad, like the people, comes from a mix of all of the cultures who settled the island, whether they were brought by slave traders,  were the slave traders themselves, or emigrated during British rule.
My experience of Canadian food is probably different than most, since as a kid, Canadian food meant grilled cheese & fries with ketchup at the Kresge’s counter with my mom at Eglinton Square after my checkups with the doctor. Canadian food was the food my mom didn’t cook at home. I grew up on roti and curry, thick chicken soups, callaloo, pelau, salt fish buljol, baiganee, and other Trinidadian staples. My mom only started buying Kraft Dinner after I was old enough to be seduced by television advertising and asked for it by name.

My mother grew up on a farm in Trinidad. My grandfather raised goats and chickens, had the occasional steer for beef, and grew fruits and vegetables by the bushel. His farm had a small swamp on it where he and my uncles would catch fresh blue crab and crayfish and cascadoo (a hard-shelled fish that is special to Trinidad, and has nearly become extinct now), among other fish. So my mother knew a thing or two about choosing fresh vegetables, meats, and fish.

Just before I turned 4, my parents moved from Victoria Park and Ellesmere all the way to Newmarket, Ontario. My parents wanted to have a nice house with a yard for their kid to play in. Newmarket is also near the Holland Marsh, and every weekend we would venture up to Bradford to buy our vegetables and fruits for the week. My mother trusted the produce straight from the farm over produce at the grocery. It seems obvious now, but in 1974, people were still enamoured by tinned vegetables, TV dinners, and instant mashed potatoes.  
The backyard at our new house was huge (definitely larger than most suburban yards these days). The previous owners left us with a large back garden, which included a large, flourishing plant of rhubarb. My mother had no idea what to do with rhubarb. We planted our tomatoes next to it, because, well, all of our neighbours planted tomatoes. It seemed like the Canadian thing to do.

(Those tomatoes we planted near the rhubarb were the sweetest tomatoes I had ever tasted in my  young life. I used to eat the ripe ones right off the vine (because what 4 year old in 1974 would even think about washing a fruit!) and get in trouble for not leaving any for my mom. To this day, I prefer the taste of a Canadian backyard-grown, vine-ripened tomato over any other tomato on the planet.)
As for the rhubarb itself, my mother asked our neighbours, two elderly British ladies who lived together in a large farmhouse-style home to the back of our house, what she should do with this plant. The ladies were more than happy to help her out, and told her to wait until the rhubarb stalks were pure red, then they would be ready to be picked. They were going to give her a recipe to make a pie out of the fruit (and yet even though I know rhubarb is technically a vegetable, to this day I still call it a fruit).  They showed her how to make a shortcrust dough, and then showed her how to cook down the rhubarb for the filling and add sugar and spices and then put it into the crust and bake the pie.

It was probably the second most disgusting thing I’d eaten in my life. After liver.
I hated anything tart, and the tanginess of the rhubarb, even with sugar, was too much for my 4 year old palate. I spat it out and swore I’d never eat those red stalks again, and for 35 years, I didn’t.  It wasn’t until I had a child of my own and moved out to Ajax,  because I wanted to raise him in a house with a backyard, and discovered the green belt at this end of suburbia, where the strawberries smelled like heaven and the rhubarb was redder than the ripest berry, did I decided to give rhubarb another chance. Then I learned that the key is to NOT cook the rhubarb before putting it in the pie!


For those of you who are now craving strawberry-rhubarb pie (since strawberries are now in season), here’s my own personal recipe for the filling. Pie crust is more about technique than recipe, so whatever you choose for your pie crust, if it’s Crisco, butter, lard, or some combination of those, the key is to freeze your fat, and then use a box grater to grate it into the flour mixture (I use 2 c flour, 1 Tbsp sugar and 1 tsp salt for 1 cup of fat). Use a pastry blender or knife to mix the grated bits in, then add ice cold water, bring it together using the knife you used to stir in the bits of fat, and then dump the lump right onto plastic wrap. Wrap that lump of dough and then shape it into a ball (I shape mine into discs so they chill through, but to each their own) while in the wrap. Wrap overtop of this and then refrigerate overnight or for a minimum of 2 hours. Not 20 min. 2 hours.  
Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

1 pie crust recipe that will make a top and bottom crust.

For the filling:
2 cups diced fresh rhubarb (try to get it redder than the ones in the picture)
3 cups diced hulled fresh strawberries
¾ to 1 cup white granulated sugar
½ cup packed brown sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp ground cardamom
¼ cup cornstarch or 1/3 cup tapioca starch
Pinch of salt
1 beaten egg

1.       Combine rhubarb, strawberries, and ½ cup of white sugar in a bowl. Toss the fruit in the sugar, then dump it all in a colander and leave it to drain in the sink or over another bowl for at least 45 min but no more than 1 hour.

2.       When the fruit has been sitting for about 30 min, preheat oven to 350F and line bottom of pie dish with bottom crust. Put bottom crust back into the fridge until your fruit is drained.

3.       After the fruit has been drained, put it into another bowl and add remaining ingredients. Toss to combine well but work fast since your fruit will be mushy and liquidy.

4.       Take bottom pie crust out of the fridge and add fruit.

5.       You may choose to top the pie with a lattice using the second half of the crust. It looks prettiest, but if you just want to put the top on and cut a nice pattern in it, you can do that too. Don’t leave it without a top, though.  Just make sure to put a top on with ventilation, and crimp the edges well.

6.       Brush pastry with beaten egg and place in oven for 20 minutes. You may choose to TENT a piece of tin foil over the pie at this point, but be careful not to squish or tuck the foil onto the pie itself.

7.       Continue to bake the pie from 45-60 minutes more, or until the filling is cooked through and bubbling, and your crust is golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool somewhere where nobody will try to eat it. (Good luck with that).


  1. I, too, have an early memory of rhubarb. My grandma had a plant in her yard, and my mom kept trying to get rid of it, but it kept growing back, every year! Thanks for sharing your Canadian food memory!

  2. When we were kids you could find us in our neighbours rhubarb patch with a bowl of sugar to dip the raw stalks in..

  3. Dearest Mimi,
    What a story! What a life! I was in high school in the 70's when you were 4. I graduated in 1973, so eating anything at Kresge's was a very special treat, as eating out was something absolutely rare in my childhood - and in everyone's at that time. But, I got a soda float at the counter at Kresge's a couple of times while my mother had a coffee, apple pie and a slice of cheese while visiting with a friend. What a splurge! Rhonda is also from the Caribbean and participating in this project. She has written an incredible story about salt cod and the traditional dish made with it. Your rhubarb experience is hilarious, and not as uncommon as you might think... what a journey you have had. What transitions you have undertaken. A compelling read, and I look forward to more!

  4. Loved you story of your first taste of rhubarb!

    And I agree, pie crust is 100% about technique.

    Great post.

  5. Wonderful story, Mimi!

    I never ate rhubarb as a child. It wasn't until I moved to Grande Prairie AB, and learned that my boyfriend (now husband) was a complete strawberry/rhubarb junkie, that I began eating it. I'll have to try your recipe sometime and see if he approves!