Canada’s culinary champion: Anita Stewart, cookbook author, culinary activist, founder of Food Day Canada

By Steven Chester
Anita Stewart, cookbook author, culinary activist, founder of Food Day Canada

It’s a safe bet that many never thought the little girl selling beans on the side of the road would become author of 14 cookbooks and founder of one of Canada’s most talked about culinary events. But Anita Stewart’s farming roots blossomed into a storied career that just a couple of years ago earned her a membership into the Order of Canada.

“That was when I began to understand how good food really tastes,” Stewart says of her childhood. “The other thing too was we really didn’t have much processed food then. I can remember when the first TV dinners were purchased, and that was really cool! But otherwise, everything was pickled, preserved or cooked from our garden. When we got our first freezer, I might have been eight years old. That was really when we were able to be more self-sufficient.”

Celebrates heritage

Today, Stewart works tirelessly, crossing the country promoting Canadian cuisine. Her bread and butter, or maple and poutine, is running Food Day Canada, an event that began in 2003 initially titled The World’s Largest Barbecue – a country-wide response to the U.S. sanction on Canadian beef exports. The event has evolved to an annual mid-summer celebration that shares Canada’s culinary heritage and is a showcase of Stewart’s life’s work.

Her cooking skills came out of necessity back in 1959, after moving from Markham, Ontario where the fruit and vegetable stand was located, following the passing of her father. To Mount Forest she went, along with her mother who had just landed a job as a school teacher. Duties were shared, and cooking fell to 12-year-old Stewart, who was fascinated by the culinary art.

That self-sufficiency came in handy as she grew to become a mother of four – at one point with all children under the age of five. The stay-at-home mom, armed with cookbook favourites such as Edna Staebler’s Food that Really Schmecks and Marie Nightingale’s Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens, kept her passion burning in her role in the kitchen.

Embraces challenge

“It was pretty wild,” explains Stewart. “We had no money! So again, I was called upon to use those skill sets, and I took it as a challenge. I really liked it. It was one of the happiest times of my life. It was really interesting – I learned to do things like render lard.”

Stewart’s first cookbook involvement was born from charity rather than necessity, as she and some other mothers got together to raise money for a local pre-school. The Juice and Cookies Cookbook was a cooperative project where home recipes were hand-written on 8.5 x 11 paper, folded, cut and sold for $5. The first “print run” earned enough funding to purchase the appropriate printing equipment, and then the professional version of the book was created. Today, the Elora Cooperative Preschool still stands and thrives, as do many of the friendships created while crafting the book.

In the early 1980s, Stewart saw an advertisement in a community newspaper for a food culture course at the University of Guelph. There, her teacher made a game-changing connection with her star student, planting the seeds of a tremendous publishing career.

Puts experience to work

“I saw the ad, and I thought, holy crow, someone is actually teaching this stuff? So I took the course. The professor, Jo-Marie Powers, said she had an idea for a cookbook and asked if I would like to work on it with her,” says Stewart. “I had no idea how to write a book proposal, but five publishers wanted it. That was the Farmers’ Market Cookbook. And then from that, it became obvious to me that people were doing local food at different levels, so I wondered about country inns. I went on to do The Country Inns Cookbook and The Guide to Canadian Country Inns. I then did The Lighthouse Cookbook – all the time embroidering my knowledge with the real farmers of Canada. There were so many great moments, and it was so exciting.”

Researching The Lighthouse Cookbook was one of Stewart’s fondest memories of her travels, crossing Vancouver Island in two icebreaker ships and visiting all of the non-automated life stations on the west coast of North America. The unique lifestyles, stories and above-all gourmet creations of these inhabitants who used gardened and wild vegetables, berries – and of course seafood – were an inspiration.

Iconic career

Stewart’s involvement at the University of Guelph continues, as she is now their first and only Food Laureate. She is responsible for refining the food inventory, developing events and awareness campaigns, and strengthening connections between local food producers and consumers. She has also been awarded a Doctor of Laws (Honoris Causa), a Master of Arts (Gastronomy) and is honourary lifetime member of the Canadian Culinary Federation of Chefs and Cooks.

Referring to her Order of Canada membership as “breathtaking,” Stewart is now working to harness this momentum to further her goals of promoting Canadian cuisine to home kitchens – and to restaurants as well.

“I think there’s a lot of room for positive communication. I don’t think we need to bring in chefs from other countries. It’s always nice to be inspired, as Canadians, and maybe learning new things. But in terms of the quality of the production that we have here in Canada, we have some of the finest restaurants here on earth,” says Stewart.

Proud Canadian roots

Asked if she has a message for the restaurant industry, Stewart’s passion for the culinary art hearkens back to that little girl at the produce stand.

“I think that the link between the restaurant community and agriculture is one that has been talked about, but it’s on the periphery,” says Stewart. “Farmers don’t grow commodities; they grow ingredients so that cooks can create civilization. I think that we as Canadians don’t realize that over 90 per cent of our farms are family owned and operated across the country. It’s pretty amazing. We’re also feeding a great number of people around the world; we’re the sixth largest exporter of food on the planet. There are so many ingredients, like Yukon Gold potatoes and lentils, that have been developed and bred here in Canada that have made an enormous impact on the way the world eats and the way Canadians eat. That’s one thing I’d like Canadians to understand is that we really do need to protect our farmland, because once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

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About the author

Steven Chester is the editor and social media community manager for Restaurant Central. His 13-year journalism background includes writing and editing for digital and traditional media. He is an expert in social media, online content and email newsletter development. Follow him on Twitter at @restaurantCRFN.

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