This is the second in a two-part series on the fall 2012 course, Culture & Cuisine: Québec. Read part 1 here.
by Brad Jones
In the course of the trip we did get the opportunity to experience a great variety of more formal sites of education. But thinking back on it we never once attended a “legitimate” museum—the type so frequently associated with a study abroad experience. Instead, we saw exhibits like the sensory rich display at the Wendake reservation or the virtual exhibit on Quebecois food culture. We toured econo-museums, exhibits disassociated with state or religious institutions, which depict the rich history of production on the property of the cheese maker or the eel fisherman themselves. We took tours of vineyards and barns and orchards. We sat in on lively discussions. We tasted things right from the hands of those who grew, hunted, or foraged them. We learned from each and every one of these experiences in ways that the art museum or the antiquated cathedral could never offer.
Though the question mark remains, I think the best answer to the question of how one might define Quebecois cuisine was offered by food scholar David Santo. It is a cuisine defined by its emergence he claimed. Emergence suggests a state of transition, a trajectory of becoming. It is antithetical to structural or static approaches. Santo saw emergence nestled between the daikon and the baguette of the banh mi sandwich. I would claim it can be found scribbled in chalk on restaurant walls. Is there a better form to capture a spirit of constant flux than the chalk board which can be erased with the wave of a hand? Norman Laprise of Toque said they update their chalk board menu up to three times a day depending upon what ingredients they have at their disposal. To steward a flexible approach of this kind is to celebrate diversity. It is to allow producers like Patrice (of La Societe des Plantes) to be economically viable as they grow small quantities of heirloom vegetables. It is to keep cooks engaged as they are freed from the monotony of a repetitive menu. It is to eliminate waste and to appreciate the marginalized, the ugly, and the out-of-place.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of the trip was the opportunity to travel the full length of the food chain. We saw eels harvested in the morning. We touched their slimy skin as they still wriggled with life. In the afternoon we felt the chilly vines of an emerging tradition of wine making. And we consumed them side by side around the dinner table in the evening. In so doing, we set ourselves apart from the average tourist who goes to consume but rarely, if ever, to produce. Indeed, while the opportunity to experience Quebecois cuisine prepared for us in its various manifestations was a delicious and rare treat, to speak with those who create the foods we ate and whose blood, sweat, and tears were tied into the products of which they were so proud, was truly invaluable. It bridged the pervasive gap of anonymity and made us truly appreciative. Moreover, that we were there for reasons not of sport and spectacle, but from legitimate and concerned interest, I hope that these producers in turn appreciated us. I think that they did.
Brad Jones is a current Gastronomy student and Cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen. View more photos of the Gastronomy trip to Quebec on out Flickr page.