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"There's an amazing array of things available now. I mean, who ever thought that lemongrass or balsamic vinegar would be common household items? Hoisin sauce. Things that are in your average Safeway now, you can probably get 10 kinds of it, but what do you do with it? It's in there."

 

 

 

 

 

 

You don't have to have studied psychology to understand their dynamic. If you don't pick up the finer points when you read the book (her name is larger, but his is in black ink) it's impossible to miss it when you meet them. Bi-coastal cousins with a passion for food, words and everything done right. He smiles a lot, treads quietly but manages to make his voice heard. She walks firmly, never avoids an eye and makes certain that she's understood. And together, this team would set Canadians on the road to unified eating and -- meeting them -- you can't help but think that if anyone can do it, they can.

In the first place, the credentials are terrific. Carol Ferguson is a name that is practically synonymous with food in Canada. Ferguson was food editor at Canadian Living for over 10 years; she is the food and nutrition editor at Homemaker 's magazine; and was the author and editor of The Canadian Living Cookbook, as well as the author or co-author of several other food-related works. Murray McMillan has been a journalist for over three decades and has been the food editor at The Vancouver Sun since 1994. Together they bring a great deal of experience about both food and how to tell people about it.

The passion for real food -- basic food -- comes from the same place for both of them. Summers spent with their mutual grandmother in rural Saskatchewan meant things like, "digging potatoes out of the ground and having them on the table half an hour later under a whole lot of butter," McMillan relates wistfully. And the point, of course, is not the mounds of artery-hardening dairy product, but rather the enjoyment of a thing that was perfect in its simplicity and enhanced by both the digging and the sharing.

 

Linda Richards: It intrigues me so much that you guys are cousins and that you ended up in the same field.

Murray McMillan: Well, she got me to write my first piece about food for Canadian Living about 20 years ago. She was pulling all-nighters and said, "Do a Christmas cocktail party for me." So I was doing it long before I had anything to do with food at The Sun.. But we're a fairly wordy family.

Carol Ferguson: Well, food-y and teacher-y and writer-y. Our mothers are sisters. Cousins are sort of similar to each other in some families and in our family it's like that. It was lovely to work with him because he's a really good, credible journalist that everybody likes. He knows food well, has a good reputation out here and people have started to know him nationally as well. So he's an excellent key person to have on-side.

LR: Are there stories about grandmother's kitchen or anything like that?

Ferguson: We have prairie roots. Our grandmother and our uncles -- our mother's brothers -- had big farms east of Regina. Murray's family lives on the west coast, but the rest of us were living on the prairies then and we'd have lots of family gatherings there. That's what we remember most from when we were kids.

McMillan: Just going out and really exploring those farms because just about everything that you ate was grown there. So you'd go dig the wonderful new potatoes and scrub them and an hour later they're putting half a pound of butter on them with everybody else in the farm kitchen.

Ferguson: In the New Basics, we seem to be leaping into real food because it's the stuff of the 90s and the stuff of the new millennium and people are returning to or discovering real flavors.

LR: The glossary is very good. Very complete.

McMillan: Well, we tried to make the references very complete. We tried to include things that people should know in Canada. It's interesting to be here kind of in between a whole bunch of places. It makes us very different.

Ferguson: Food is just very interesting. I think you need the science and the precision to a certain extent and then the art takes over.

People are more sophisticated now. They've maybe tried things when they travel or out at restaurants. They may not have the kitchen skills, but they have an idea what they want to make. So we were trying to cover all of that. So that anybody opening the book and trying things could try the easiest things first and then sort of work their way through the book. And people who do cook well will find new versions of the traditional recipes plus the recipes with new ingredients that they don't know what to do with yet.

We wanted something that would look comfortable, that you'd use in the kitchen, write in it, get it all splattered, turn to it everyday. Most people will find most things that they expect in there. It's got almost everything that a home cook would need: it's got a quick reference to how long to cook the turkey, and what do you do with stewing beef and what are the kinds of pastas and... all of that is in there. So it's very up-to-date and it's very different.

McMillan: There's an amazing array of things available now. I mean, who ever thought that lemongrass or balsamic vinegar would be common household items? Hoisin sauce. Things that are in your average Safeway now, you can probably get 10 kinds of it, but what do you do with it? It's in there.

Ferguson: It keeps getting better and better and better in Canada. We have amazing food here. Amazing stores here. Amazing ingredients here.

LR: Are you guys wonderful chefs?

Ferguson: There are food writers who are cooks, and there are cooks who can write and there's a combination but -- yeah -- we can do both, can't we Murray? I don't trust food writers who can't cook. Or who don't like it, or don't have basic kitchen skills or understand how food is put together. Food writers shouldn't be writing recipes unless they know that. They can do journalistic anthropological approaches to food, or something. But don't write cookbooks! We cook basic, ordinary things most of time just like everybody else. I think the difference with most foodies is they're just a little fussier about what they eat. They don't want it fancy, but they want it good.

I like putting Canadian foods into context. You know, where did it come from? What's happening in the country? What's good? What needs to happen? Then you see food much more clearly as a cultural thing. People who travel a lot see this very clearly. I think that's what's happening in Canada: people are understanding better the ingredients and where they come from. That all translates from restaurants to the food stores and into the home kitchens. They just know more now.

And the food retailers of the world will tell you how segmented the shopping is in some cities. A store chain will be quite different in one neighborhood than in another. Not that one is bad or one is good, but they're different, reflecting different ethnic bases.

LR: Are people shopping less in big markets?

Ferguson: Everybody's busy. It depends what kind of lifestyle you've got. If you've got a kid and a job and all that... research is showing that it's still the weekly shopping trip. But as the small shops continue to proliferate, people like 'em! And they get loyal customers. And farmer's markets are growing more in cities every year. That's a really good sign because it means people are starting to get back into the rhythms of the seasons.

I'm not a doomsayer about food in Canada: I'm not. Depends who you talk to. Some people talk about fast food and take out and certainly that's growing. But for people who are cooking more it's growing too. And people are cooking better.

LR: What were your favorite recipes from the book?

Ferguson: It's the same as favorite recipes anytime. It depends on where you are, who you're with, what's the season, what country you're in. I don't have favorite recipes in the book. If you ask me my favorite cookie or my favorite Italian dish it's the same thing.

McMillan: There's nothing in there that we don't like. It was sort of a given in there that it would be a little bit eclectic. There's a great maple-hoisin chicken that I just love. It's really good: simple easy, great for company and it's about as Canadian as it gets.

Ferguson: Anybody can write a book on 57 wonderful recipes, that's not what this is. That's why it was so hard. We had to know what we were doing so we could provide the basics. It sort of goes from bread pudding to the pad Thai, but those are all Canadian basics now.

We didn't include the old, old, old Ukrainian and German and Mennonite and Icelandic and all the rest of those. It's been done, and there are no new basics in those categories. So we did a linzertorte and a couple of old fashioned things saying clearly that these are heritage recipes and that they're either ethnic or regional Canadian heritage stuff that we love and we will never stop making. We put it, I think, in its place. Where it belongs. I just get very annoyed with people who go moving into one tangent and they want to talk only about regional Canadian cooking or only the light and healthy stuff. No, no, no: read the introduction. It's light, easy, healthy, fast. That's a given. It's the new international flavors, the new seasonal look at good quality ingredients and flavors. And the last category is the traditional recipes that we retain and love doing and are part of our heritage and are important but we've streamlined them and updated a little where possible. That's why this book was missing. There are books in all those areas, but not this one. This is an important book. I think it'll be around for a while. It's certainly an important kind of book for us to have in Canada right now.

People are more knowledgeable. They know more about food. One just follows the other. They travel more. They shop more. They eat out more. They go all around the world.

We're newspaper people. We're magazine people. This is enough for a while. Though I'm pleased to have done that. We need that one. We'll use it in our own kitchens. | May 1999

 

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.