Family Holiday Dinner

We’re Not Quiet About Thanksgiving

A very Canadian response to Pete Wells' discovery of the the Great White North's Thanksgiving tradition.

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Oct 10 2016, 4:00pm

Family Holiday Dinner

Family Holiday Dinner

Photo: CSA Images/Snapstock.

Canadians invented insulin and Scotch tape and Hawaiian pizza. We also invented basketball, ice hockey, the goalie mask, the jockstrap's hard cup, and table hockey.

We invented the Wonderbra, the pacemaker, the garbage bag, and Trivial Pursuit. Also the Jolly Jumper, sonar, the snow blower, the caulking gun, and Easy-Off oven cleaner.

And we invented Thanksgiving.

That last one I never would have known had it not been for America's greatest living food critic turning away from his regular gig that has seen him slice Per Se off at the knees and brilliantly and mercilessly skewer Guy Fieri (in what was probably the most read and shared restaurant review in the history of restaurant reviews). Last week, the New York Times' Pete Wells turned his gimlet eye on our harvest holiday and in doing so woke up a normally quiet population. And we were not pleased.

"I feel sorry sometimes for the Americans and their insular view that the end all and be all is America," Dave McMillan tells me. The co-owner of Joe Beef in Montreal is one of Canada's most beloved restaurateurs and a man devoted to the history of this country and his home province of Quebec.

If you believe the quoted expats, you would come away feeling sorry for us and our pathetic Canadian Thanksgivings, affairs that can't hold a pumpkin-spiced candle to the glitter and glam of American turkey traditions.

"Never forget that nobody but the native tribes were living on the island of Manhattan while we were dining with forks and knives and drinking brandy in the port of Montreal," he adds. "To be writing about food in the giant steakhouse that is America, with maybe the most narrow-minded readership..."

He sympathizes that Wells might have been hard-pressed to find a target in the slow month of October but doesn't agree that our Thanksgiving fits the bill.

"Canadian Thanksgiving is actually perfectly placed at the exact moment of harvest. It's when the corn is ready, when the squash is ready, it's the beginning of hunting season."

American expat and chef Michael Smith, a prolific cookbook author and owner of the Inn at Bay Fortune in Prince Edward Island, agrees.

"Here in Canada, Thanksgiving is a bit more pure. It's a genuine celebration of the harvest, while the American version is a wildly commercialized version of something that celebrates a fictional event that was flawed to begin with." He adds, "The story of the Pilgrims and the Indians, even Wells acknowledged it was a genocidal whitewash."

Dina Rock, a pickle maker and owner of Mighty Fine Brine in Toronto, is another expat American who admits she prefers the Canadian holiday to the American one, at least where the date is concerned. "The Canadians have got it right as far as timing. It is a better time of year, at least here in the northeast, to eat locally. Fall produce is at its peak right now."

The timing couldn't be more perfect also in relationship to the other holidays we share—which is almost all of them, by the way: Christmas, Easter, Mother's Day, St. Patrick's Day, even New Year's Eve. We do not share the Fourth of July, (over here we do Canada Day) and we don't celebrate President's Day, but we've stolen Black Friday and we still print calendars that denote Secretaries Day.

And speaking of produce and the delicious timing for the bounty of the harvest, who are these anti-Canadian expats Wells hunted down?

"Michael Goldbach's description of our cuisine as 'deeply, boringly Canadian,' is meaningless to a population that couldn't point out Canada on a map. He grew up on a farm and ate bland corn? I'm surprised that Wells couldn't find an informed Canadian cuisine expert to fill in his American readers," says Arlene Stein, founder of Terroir, Canada's largest food symposium.

"What about Mitchell Davis? He's a PhD and the vice president of the James Beard house—I'm sure he has a slight inkling as to what the holiday is about in Canada. The article attempts to define what makes our Thanksgiving ritual unique, while ridiculing us for shamelessly copying their event. A quick search would tell you that our harvest ritual started in Newfoundland 53 years before the pilgrims showed up in Plymouth."

While she's disappointed that we are not more relevant to our neighbours to the south, she is more flummoxed by the Canadians quoted and surprised that they "were not prouder of their heritage."

The expat Canadians drew the ire of chef and restaurateur Chuck Hughes, of Chucks' Day Off. "For Canadians to say it's boring—that's the one thing that I can't stand about Canadians that move away who become condescending towards their home country."

We give thanks for not having Kim Kardashian and Blac Chyna at the top of our news feed. We give thanks for gun control. We give thanks for humility.

If you believe the quoted expats, you would come away feeling sorry for us and our pathetic Canadian Thanksgivings, affairs that can't hold a pumpkin-spiced candle to the glitter and glam of American turkey traditions.

How can our Thanksgiving be boring and be the exact same menu? That's what I don't understand. In an attempt to give credit where it is due, the Times ran another piece last week on Canadian Thanksgiving, this time listing dishes for each province and territory. While the recipes sound lovely, most Canadians won't be gathering around a platter of "Roasted Heirloom Squash with Mushrooms and Montaña Cheese Fonduta Filling." (What's "fonduta" anyway? Maybe Wells can fill us in.)

This weekend we will be dining on exactly the same (slightly dry) turkey, mash (made with Yukon Gold potatoes—invented in Canada!), stuffing, cranberry sauce, and gravy that Americans will serve up in November. Also pumpkin pie and apple pie, possibly made with McIntosh apples. (Another Canadian invention!)

We will try not to talk politics with our family members and will hide the booze from the one crazy drunk uncle and we'll enjoy the turkey with a side of sports—in our case, the Blue Jays kicking ass rather than heavily concussed college boys chasing the pigskin around on the gridiron, but that's about the only difference.

It doesn't hurt to know about another country, especially in the era of the internet (which we didn't invent—we left that to Al Gore). "I would say to be educated about another country, that isn't a negative thing," says Hughes. "Especially when it's your neighbour."

Or, in the words of food writer Deborah Reid, "You think that the fuckin' Mayflower was the only boat that set sail from a European port for the New World?"

Or, from McMillan, "We give thanks for not having Kim Kardashian and Blac Chyna at the top of our news feed. We give thanks for gun control. We give thanks for humility."

And we do it every fall, quietly and proudly. It's a Canadian thing.