I had the (mis)fortune of catching an interview with Jacob Richler on CBC Mainstreet on Friday, and while Stephanie Domet did an incredibly admirable job of challenging Mr. Richler’s opinions, in the end I was left with a heavy heart. The interview was in response to Mr. Richler’s comments in a recent interview with The Globe and Mail stating that the culinary scene in “The Maritimes is a culinary sad sack…”, which as you can well imagine got under my skin. Now, I am not going to bother responding to the foolish drivel that Mr. Richler was spewing on the radio, because to be perfectly honest he isn’t worth my time. Pretentious food critics have been the bane of many a hard working restauranteur, and while I am sure that there are things we can learn from professional criticizers, my concerns lie with the chefs, the eaters, and the producers of this wonderful province. I want to counter Mr. Richler’s inane ramblings with a word of encouragement to these individual members of this giant food family we call Nova Scotian cuisine.
To all the chefs and cooks we have been privileged to work with since moving to Nova Scotia I would say this; you have chosen a hard and noble road and you should hold your heads high. Buying seasonal local products directly from producers is no small challenge in Nova Scotia. With no centralized distribution and the large majority of producers operating on a small to medium scale, purchasing the bulk of your ingredients from local farms and producers is an incredible challenge. One restaurant we work with, The Wooden Monkey, is so committed to the idea of buying local that their vendor list numbers in the dozens. The dozens. Contrast that to a conventional commercial kitchen which simply places one order a week with a giant multi-national food corporation like Sysco. One order, one sales rep, one invoice. The logistics of buying local are infinitely more complex than buying commercial, yet we are seeing more and more kitchens step up to the challenge of buying seasonal, local, direct-from-the-producer products for their menus. The inevitable benefit of this choice is multifaceted but I want to highlight two important points.
First, by digging in your heels and buying local products, you are helping define what Nova Scotian cuisine is. We are seeing incredible things happen with Nova Scotian food. The patriarchs of our food family, guys like Craig Flinn, Dennis Johnston, and Michael Howell, having been paving the way for years. Add to that the next generation of Nova Scotian chefs like Mark Gray at the Brooklyn Warehouse, Steven Galvin at Elements on Hollis, and Renee Lavallee of Fiesty Chef fame (to name just a few) doing their part to contribute to the developing world of Nova Scotian cuisine, and you have something very definite that is starting to emerge. By no means do I think we have arrived, and that would be the one point on which I would agree with Mr. Richler, but there is a small army of chefs and cooks in this province who are committed to putting us on the map by showcasing our food. I want to commend all of you, both chef and cook, for the hard work you are doing day in and day out in giving Nova Scotian cuisine a voice and personality.
Secondly, I want to thank you for making farming in this province a possibility. Conventional agriculture in Nova Scotia has been devastated. The beef industry is practically non-existent (453 of the 620 Nova Scotian beef sold at auction last week left the province), the pork industry has been decimated in recent years, the fisheries have been rocked by industrial practices, and much of what is left is being shipped out of province. Yet there are a great many producers in this province who refuse to give up on Nova Scotian agriculture, which has meant rolling with the times and changing their business models. A great many direct to market producers that you meet at local farmers markets used to be conventional farms selling into the world markets. In order to keep their family farms and continue making a living on the land, they have had to change how they do things and begin selling directly to the public and to restaurants. In addition to these multi-generational family farms, we are seeing an increase in new farms being started by idealistic young folks looking to make a living providing good clean healthy food to Nova Scotians. Did you know that Nova Scotia is the only province in the country to see an increase in the number of farms in the latest census data? I firmly believe some of the credit for that increase lies with our chefs and restaurants. By purchasing our products, you have made it possible for us to make a living from the land. To feed our families and buy them clothes. Those boxes of carrots, those bags of apples, those pails of honey, they are all literally keeping farms alive in Nova Scotia. So thank you chefs and restauranteurs, by choosing to stand by Nova Scotian products, you are helping keep agriculture alive in our province.
Now to my dear friends the Eaters, the farmers’ market faithful who make the weekly trek to their local markets to buy their share of locally produced food, I would say this; you have become legion for you are many. Buying local food for your families has surpassed the status of trend here in Nova Scotia, it is quickly becoming the norm. The Seaport Farmers’ Market, where our butcher shop is located, sees 10,0000 to 13,0000 visitors on any given Saturday. Those numbers are staggering and they are representative of what is happening all over the province. Farmers’ markets are once again becoming community fixtures. They are helping play a roll in binding communities together, in helping restore local economies, and creating relationships that span the rural/urban divide. Most importantly, in my biased opinion, they are keeping farms alive. Much of the credit for this goes to you the Eater.
Your decision to shop with local in mind, to ask where your food is coming from, to shop at farmers’ markets, to participate in CSAs, and to frequent local minded restaurants is having a profound impact on food in Nova Scotia. Farmers’ are still farming because you buy their products, farm land is still worked because you ask where your carrots are coming from, rural communities still have doctors because you choose to support restaurants that buy local farm products. Is this an over simplification? Perhaps, but it can not be denied that if Nova Scotians stop insisting on and supporting local food, if the Eaters stop eating, then Nova Scotian cuisine is going to have a much tougher time. We are talking about food after all, and someone needs to eat it!
Lastly, I want to encourage my fellow producers. We have chosen a tough road. Some of us are on this road for ideological reasons, some of us are on this road because it’s the only one we know, and some of us are this road by sheer accident (I put myself in this category), but I think we can all agree that this is the only road we want to travel on. The journey, the adventure, of farming in Nova Scotia is as rewarding as any could be, but it is also as tough as any could be. We probably aren’t going to get rich doing what we do, at least not in the financial way. We are, however, blessed with the opportunity to provide our fellow Nova Scotians with the very basic need of life. Food. Let’s face it, we could do without televisions if we had to, we could do without name brand clothes if it came down to it, heck we would probably be better off without all the disposable *things* that we as consumers are told we need to be happy, but we simply can’t go without food. We as producers are privileged to meet one of the fundamental human needs of our fellow citizens, and in Nova Scotia we have the unique opportunity to develop relationships with those very people. We can talk to the people who make soup with our veggies, we can talk to the chef who makes a special with our lamb chops, and we get to work together with other producers to overcome the seemingly endless challenges of farming. So to my fellow producers, to all those who have gone before us and taught us so much, I want say thank you. Thank you for showing me what true character is, thank you for teaching me that having different values is ok, thank you for keeping an industry alive in difficult times, and ultimately, thank you for continuing to help put Nova Scotian food on the map.
I guess what all this boils down to is community. Nova Scotian food is about community, about the relationships we develop with each other in the process of growing, processing, preparing, and eating local food. After hearing the Richler interview on CBC, local food writer (not critic) Simon Thibault made the comment on Twitter, “If Mr. Richler is only looking for high end dining, then he’s missing the point of eating out. Period.” I couldn’t agree more. Eating is about community, it’s about sharing a basic need of life with each other. It is easy to forget that in today’s age of hurry, panic, and processed, but things seem to be different here in Nova Scotia. People here like to eat together, they like to be together. Even as someone who is “from away”, I have been welcomed in to many a strangers home to sit down and share a meal, and that my friends is what Nova Scotian food is all about. Developing relationships and being in community. That is why Mr. Richler completely missed it when he was here, because let’s face it, who of us wants to eat dinner with a pretentious blowhard from Toronto who thinks he knows better than all of us chefs, eaters, and producers…