Appreciating foods native to Canada
I remember well being a young girl and sitting on my grandmother’s kitchen counter in Saskatchewan, watching while she sieved the pips from chokecherries to make deep purple jelly, or canned pretty, pink crabapples. At the time, I didn’t realize it, but she was doing much more than making delicious food: she was giving me a taste for ingredients that were not only locally grown, but also indigenous to that region. It has taken me a long time to appreciate the full value of what my grandmother was doing, and to begin to understand the importance, both ecologically and culturally, of foods native to where I live.
While there is academic and philosophical debate over the precise definition, in general a native plant is one that existed in an area prior to European settlement.
“In North America that would be, for the most part, plants that evolved here following glaciation — in areas that were glaciated. Those plants have evolved over thousands of years in some kind of relationship with the environment. So, it tends to mean that the plants are adapted to the conditions here and don’t necessarily need the inputs — the watering, fertilizing, et cetera, that non-native plants that have been introduced to the garden might require,” says Toronto writer, author and gardening and native plant expert Lorraine Johnson.
Another big benefit of native plants, says Johnson, is that they support local wildlife — birds, butterflies and other pollinating insects. “Native plants create really meaningful, rich habitat for those creatures, in a way that plants that have not evolved over thousands of years in those relationships just don’t tend to provide.”
People are often surprised by the edibility of many native plants. While they do grow in the wild, they can — and as Johnson emphasizes, should — also be cultivated.
“I think there’s a bit of a forager in all of us, but our natural areas can’t support that kind of foraging activity. So, what we can do is grow edible native plants in our yards, in our gardens. That will create all of the environmental benefits we’ve talked about — in terms of reduced water use, reduced fertilizers, no pesticides, the creation of wildlife habitats — plus the really significant added benefit of creating food for humans as well.”
Edible native plants can offer many unique and unusual flavours. Ingredients can be cultivated at home that simply cannot be purchased anywhere else.
“Just an example: every spring, at a dinner party, I go in the backyard and get flowers from my redbud tree. The redbud is one of the first trees to flower in the eastern part of Canada and the northeastern US, providing nectar for the early pollinators. It has these gorgeous pink flowers that cover the branches, and they’re edible. I put them on salads. They’re an amazing burst of flavour — this honey and green, just delicious. And people are amazed, they say ‘I’ve never seen this, what is it?’ Well, it’s the flower of a native tree!” says Johnson.
Many of us have tried, or have at least heard about, edible native plants such as Saskatoon berries or fiddlehead ferns. But there are many others.
The largest edible native fruit in Canada is from the pawpaw tree, native to southwestern Ontario. The fruit is about the size of, and looks like, a small mango. It tastes like a combination of banana and pineapple. To eat a pawpaw, you cut it in half, remove the two or three big seeds and scoop out the smooth custard from the skin with a spoon.
“We’ve got three pawpaw trees in the backyard producing fruit. And people are just amazed to know that this is a native tree. How incredible is that? You cannot buy them. Maybe every now and again, for a week in October, some farmers’ markets have a forager that might have some pawspaws, but other than that, you’ve got to grow them,” says Johnson.
“These are amazing plants, and food. Let’s just hope that people get a lot more interested in growing them, perhaps even farming them. Why aren’t we farming pawpaws? The idea of having environmental farms — pawpaw is one of the only known larval host plants for the zebra swallowtail butterfly, a butterfly that’s rare. So, if we were growing or farming pawpaws, we’d also be farming zebra swallowtail butterflies.”
Johnson points out that growing native plants also asserts a very local connection to the place where you live, and what makes it unique and special. Native plants have an identity that can be learned about, understood and engaged with.
To connect with native ingredients, chef David Wolfman, a member of the Xaxli’p First Nation in BC, culinary arts professor at Toronto’s George Brown College and host of Cooking with the Wolfman TV program, says we need to connect to the stories behind our food.
“For example, if I tell you that you can cook with spruce tips, you might say, ‘why would I want to cook with spruce tips? I’m trying to get rid of them, trying to rake them out of my yard!’ But if I start telling you, ‘it was used as a medicine, it’s got sort of a flowery taste, use it as a hint to lift some flavours out of some meats,’ you might say, ‘hey, let me try that,’ because it’s a back story that you’re picking up and sharing in. All of a sudden, it stimulates you and you try it once — and once you try it, once, etc, etc!” says Wolfman.
He also talks about sea asparagus, wild salmon, moose and many other foods indigenous to this continent that also have long traditions and deep roots in Aboriginal culture. He co-wrote Cooking with the Wolfman: Indigenous Fusion, which was named Gourmand International’s 2017 best English-language cookbook in Canada, with his wife and business partner, Marlene Finn, a member of Ontario’s Métis Nation.
Most of the recipes in their book use ingredients that are indigenous to North America, such as Big Buffalo Pot Roast with Cranberry and Pear Brown Sauce; Saskatoon berry drizzle; Back to the Land Salad, with wild grapes, strawberries, nuts, sorrel and dressing made from mashed avocados and maple syrup; Nish Kebobs, skewers of deer meat and a glaze made from birch syrup; and a fiddlehead side dish.
“Marlene and I say we’re reclaiming our heritage, one bite at a time.”