Meredith Erickson knows food. The award-winning cookbook author hails from the agricultural soils of Southwestern Ontario and, in 2005, she helped chefs Frédéric Morin and David McMillan open Montreal’s Joe Beef — arguably the most influential restaurant in Canada. In 2009, Joe Beef nabbed its first cookbook deal, with Erickson as its author, and soon North America’s top chefs were requesting that Erickson pen their own cookbooks.
Today, Erickson is one of the food world’s most acclaimed writers. And while her career has taken her international (she currently lives between Montreal and Milan), she stuck a fork back into Canada last summer, embarking on a cross-country culinary adventure with Audible.ca. Her podcast, the Field Guide to Eating in Canada, sees Erickson travel across Canada in search of the country’s best food.
Here, she discusses her cross-country adventure, the differences between podcasting and writing, and how food can help you understand an unfamiliar place.
First off, what inspired the Field Guide to Eating in Canada?
I thought my last book, Alpine Cooking, was going to take two years [to write]. That became five years. I realized while I was making it why no one else had. And the answer is, you have to be a complete psycho; it was a massive undertaking. And when I look at Canada, I don’t see the definitive book in terms of food and travel in the [way] that I did with Alpine Cooking. So, I said, “I want to do this. I want to write this book.” Around the same time, Audible reached out, and from the beginning, they loved the idea.
In a country that’s as big as Canada, how did you pick who and what to feature?
A map and intuition. For me, Montreal had to be the start. The Joe Beef books were my beginning. But no one [can capture] Canada in 10 episodes. It’s not possible. I can’t wait to get to the Prairies, and I really want to do Labrador.
Were there any common themes that you uncovered while travelling the country?
Speaking to farmers, bakers, and fishermen, the thread of continuity across the country was everyone is doing their own thing. For me, that humbleness is definitively Canadian. But I also think that we could look to our American pals and harness like 10 per cent of their bombastic nationalism. Part of the impetus of why I wanted to do this show is: why can a lot of Canadians name Dan Barber, Alice Waters, Chez Panisse, and what happened in the ’70s in American food culture, but we can’t name who our food security champions are? Who should we know? I wanted to shine a light on that.
Your Alpine Cooking cookbook is as much a cultural history as it is a cookbook. Is food a good starting point for getting to know a place?
I think it’s as great a starting point as any. Something definitive about the personalities of people in the restaurant world is generosity. I think the act of eating and sitting at a table is everything, and I mean that in a really democratic way. You coming to my parents’ in Southwestern Ontario and having corn on the cob and a burger from the barbecue, that’s as important as a Joe Beef meal.
This past year has helped a lot of people better realize the emotional connection to food — how we derive comfort and safety from it. How important has food been for you this past year?
I hate cooking right now. [Laughs] I didn’t go through the sourdough or banana bread craze, but at the beginning, I was like, “I’m going to do rabbit legs and cream, and drink Pinot noir.” But then the fatigue set in. I love my partner, but “I don’t want to have dinner with just you every single night.” We need more. Restaurants provide healthy social environments for us, at the end of the day. We need to get out, and I need to turn off my phone and interact and be in the present.
One of the show’s highlight episodes is about Indigenous cooking, in Alberta in particular. During the show, you mention that it was the cuisine that you are the most nervous to “get right.”
For someone like me, that episode had the most weight to it. From being with Shantel [Tallow] on the reserve near the border to being with Shane Chartrand near Edmonton, those conversations were quite heavy, because those conversations were about tradition, the past, family ties, access to quality ingredients, and community. Making sure we got it right was deeply important. We hit on bannock; we made the most delicious venison stew. Everything that I tried was outrageously good. But what I realized was that it’s just the tip of the iceberg. And when we started to speak with Shane about going up to Prince Rupert or going to the Maritimes or to different Indigenous communities, I was like “Wow, I could do three seasons of just this.” Or more — Shane should do 5 seasons about this because there are really beautiful things going on.
Your career has largely been in print. What was it like doing a podcast?
I love it! Writing just kind of nags at you. Books are torture. You’re always [lost] in it in your mind. With audio, it’s a conversation and it’s nimbler than the written word. Originally, when I spoke with Audible, they wanted a bit of cooking in the show, like where I or the interlocutor would cook something, but I thought we didn’t need that. How many times can I say, “That’s delicious”? Using adjectives in audio isn’t sexy or dynamic. [But] the sound of the twin engines on our miniscule plane going to Salt Spring, or what Richmond sounds like in this mall that’s [home] to the best Chinese food you’ve ever tasted in your life — I think that really works. I think the landscape of Canada was the most beautiful, audio-rich tapestry we could have had.
All images courtesy of Audible.ca.