Say Guelph, and what comes to mind? If you said manure, I won’t hold it against you.
Guelph, and Wellington County in general, has a long and storied past as one of the most important centres for food and agriculture in Ontario, and Canada. The University of Guelph has always been synonymous with veterinary medicine, biological sciences and agriculture, and now more than ever, scientists, researchers, and food activists alike are dedicated to cultivating a new understanding about the impact of not just what we eat, but how we eat. Thanks to Alisa Smith and J.R. MacKinnon, the “100-mile diet” has now become a household phrase. Buying and cooking food has been infused with a new sense of purpose and responsibility. Much of the work that goes on at the U of G supports this new way of thinking, and the future where our tables are laid with only the fresh, the local, and the seasonal, is well within our grasp.
It seems appropriate then, that Canada’s largest collection of cookbooks is housed in the Archives and Special Collection at the U of G library. I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to be given a guided tour, complete with anecdotes about Canada’s rich and colourful food history read by none other than Anita Stewart, who has been called the “patron saint of cuisine in Canada”. It’s not uncommon for myself and my peers to feel ambivalent at times about what we do. In the most fundamental sense, food and eating is necessary to sustain life, and in a broader sweep, a valuable cultural experience. But can food, dining, and cooking change the world? Is where the steak came from and where the frites were grown really matter? Does food have meaning? Anita’s answer was yes. Her message was inspiring, challenging all those in the food industry to reach deeper, to see ourselves as the caretakers of our future society. It seems like a stretch. Food professionals, caretakers of society? But think about it; from the people who decide what goes on our grocery shelves, to the chefs who choose whether or not to buy what is readily available (and cheap) or to source ingredients from local growers, food professionals in Canada (and the world) have a huge responsibility if we are serious about making fresh and local the status quo. From those who develop new products for supermarkets to high-end chefs and small town caterers, we are the future of Canada’s tables, our influence is far-reaching, and the work we do is important.
After our visit with Anita, our guide for the day led us to the cookbook archives, collections of magnificent books acquired from the likes of Edward Johnson, the old Rockwood Academy, Una Abrahamson, and the wonderful Edna Staebler, who was one of the first food writers to extol the virtues of eating locally and seasonally through her sharing of old order Mennonite recipes passed down from her mother and grandmother in her great cookbook (one of many) “Food that Really Schmecks.” The book vaults were opened one by one and the unmistakable smell of all those old books was as delicious to me as freshly-baked bread as I browsed in reverence through the chilly temperature-controlled stacks. Many of the titles were poignant, funny, and very dated. Apparently, women once cooked “To Make Your Man Happy”, we learned how to keep a good table for sixteen shillings a week, and at some point in the early seventies we needed a cookbook devoted entirely to deep-fat frying. The library also had a first-edition of one of my favourite books of all, “Beeton’s Book of Household Management”, first published in 1861. I acquired a copy of this massive guide to all things domestic when I was still in my early twenties, and I still love reading how to properly clean leeks from the garden or make freshly-caught rabbit stew from beginning to end. All of a sudden, Mrs. Beeton is current again. If we haven’t grown the leeks or trapped the rabbit (or chicken) ourselves, chances are we can get them from someone who did.
As with any branch of history, eventually it all comes full circle. Fresh, local, and seasonal was all our great-grandmothers knew. Perhaps an attainable goal, is that it be all our children know, too.
After a Sunday afternoon of raking leaves or planting bulbs, I love to come in and smell this cooking. Roast chicken, like bread baking or warm cookies, just says home.
Whole Chicken with Roasted Garlic Rub
1 whole free-range roasting chicken, approx. 3-4 pounds
1 whole head garlic
2 tbsp. chopped fresh herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, sage, or parsley
Preheat oven to 400F. Place head of garlic on a square of aluminum foil. Drizzle with 1 tsp. of the olive oil. Wrap tightly. Bake 1 hour. Remove from oven and open foil to cool garlic. When cool enough to handle, squeeze garlic from skins into a small bowl. Add chopped herbs, 1 tbsp. of olive oil, and a pinch each of salt and pepper. Wash chicken and pat dry. Loosen the skin of the chicken by running fingers underneath breast skin and thigh skin. Rub the roasted garlic mixture under the skin. Truss chicken with string. Season outside of chicken with sat and pepper. Place in a shallow roasting pan, skin side up. Bake at 400F for 1 hour and 30 minutes, or until a meat thermometer registers 185F. Remove from pan. Place chicken on cutting board, and allow to rest for 10-15 minutes before cutting. Serves 4.