Anita Stewart asked, and Canadians sighed a collective “count us in.” The World’s Longest Barbeque was set to get underway at 6 p.m. on the August long weekend of 2003, and Elora, Ont.’s culinary sweetheart was continuing her crusade to promote Canadian nosh.
At the time, the financial repercussions of mad cow disease (BSE) were ravaging the Canadian agriculture industry, and Stewart launched the barbecue in response to the sanction on Canadian beef exports levied by our trading partners. The cattle industry was almost completely shut down, and millions were being lost each day, but the event was a vote of confidence for our farmers. Since then, the barbecue — which was celebrated from Beijing to Victoria — has evolved into Food Day Canada, a party in support of our nation’s table. But, this labour of love has been a long time coming.
Rewind to 1974. At the time, Stewart was a busy mother of four boys, who unwittingly opened a new chapter in her life when she worked with local parents to compile a cookbook of recipes, named The Juice and Cookies Cookbook; the project was launched to raise money for a cooperative pre-school. “We cut everything by hand, every page [with] paper cutters, and then we bound it with a cerlox plastic binding, sold them for $5 and then opened our nursery school,” recalls the culinary activist, noting one of her earlier crusades that funded the Elora Co-operative Pre-school, a successful institution, which remains today.
But, it wasn’t until 1984 that Stewart “backed into” work as a magazine journalist, after co-authoring The Farmers’ Market Cookbook with Jo Marie Powers. “I didn’t realize that I was supposed to write articles and become a personage in the food industry before I wrote a book,” she admits with a laugh. “It was the time in which Canada was stretching and growing up and looking around and going ‘Hey, you know what? We have a cuisine.’” And, Stewart was preparing to promote that heritage after being pegged to write a Farmers’ Market supplement with Powers for Canadian Living magazine. Afterward, the rising star began to sniff out local ingredients — and her modus operandi was born. It was a precursor to her eventual mission statement, which stipulated her plan “to actively promote the growth and study of our distinctly Canadian food culture.”
Along the way, Stewart continued to write, churning out cookbooks and magazine articles, before founding a pivotal conference named Northern Bounty in 1993. “It was the first time Canadians had gathered to celebrate and discuss our national food traditions, ingredients and reality,” she recalls. A year later Cuisine Canada was born as an alliance of culinary professionals who crossed career boundaries and spanned the nation. The first of its kind, it helped propel the regional food movement forward and had a profound impact on Canada’s culinary fabric.
Moving forward, Stewart worked for everyone from the University of Guelph to the CBC and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, which chose her to co-host two media breakfasts — one at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and the other at the 2010 Calgary Stampede. And, in the next couple of years, her work began to saturate the country’s consciousness in earnest. She was named the year’s Food Ambassador for the Ontario Farm Fresh Marketing Association, presented with a Doctor of Laws (HonourisCausa) from the University of Guelph and appointed to the Order of Canada for her contributions as a journalist, author and culinary activist and for her promotion of food in Canada.
Such accolades are numerous and applauded by Stewart’s peers who understand the depth of her commitment to the cause. “One of the things that’s amazing about Anita is she’s done this on her own,” says Dr. Rob McLaughlin, PhD, the former dean of Agriculture at the University of Guelph and former chair of Guelph Food Canada, who’s now retired. He initially worked with the writer during the launch of Northern Bounty, approximately 20 years ago. “She’s fundamentally doing this because she truly believes this is the thing to do, and she cobbles it together, and she makes it work. And, quite frankly, it’s amazing how she doesn’t lose her energy or her enthusiasm and start to get frustrated, because not everybody immediately sees what she’s about and lines up to help or to pay for it.”
Stewart admits her plight’s been tough, and as a single parent who put herself through graduate school on a line of credit in her 50s, you know she’s committed. “It’s very difficult. You talk about Canadian cuisine, and people look at you with these blank stares, and then you have to start explaining, again and again and again,” she says, recalling how the Northern Bounty days were formative moments in an industry, which has changed dramatically since she began her work. “In the days when I started to write, the further away [an ingredient] was, the more exotic it was considered to be — and sexier. And, if it were from close to home it was commonplace and of little value. And, things have changed dramatically; it’s completely reversed now. The closer to home it is, and the more stories you can tell about a particular peach … the more valuable it is.”
Today, there is a dramatic shift in the perception of Canadian food, so it makes sense that the cheerleader of our national field was handpicked to become the inaugural Food Laureate at the University of Guelph, a natural progression after Stewart’s years of work at the institution. “Anita’s commitment to Canadian cuisine is unparalleled, and through her work with the University of Guelph, we hope that we will be providing support to help her take it to another level,” says Julia Christensen Hughes, dean, College of Management and Economics, University of Guelph.
The two-year appointment puts the personality at the forefront of events and university initiatives; she’s taken part in a Q&A at Toronto’s Food on Film series and given chefs from across the country tours of the university, among other contributions. “Since Anita has come on board, we’ve started declaring the university to be Canada’s food university in a much more pronounced way,” affirms Christensen Hughes. “Anita’s work has helped reinforce that message. And, work she’s doing is helping the university to bring an increased focus on Canadian food and local food.”
But, that doesn’t mean Stewart offers a one-sided approach to her food mandate. “If there’s anything that I do as a food laureate or a gastronomer it’s really trying to bring balance to a conversation, so that as many sides as possible can be seen so we can make reasonable judgements of where we’re going,” she says.
But, just because we’re embarking on a new era in food, that doesn’t mean the speaker, broadcaster, journalist, food advocate and author of 14 books, is ready to slow down. At press time, she was madly preparing for Food Day Canada. The August gathering has evolved from backyard celebrations of Canadian food to an event that is uniting restaurants and the public in a common goal to celebrate the nation’s table. “Anita has this charming habit of shaming everyone into saying, ‘This is Canadian,’ we should be proud of it,” notes McLaughlin. And, it’s a sure bet she can count on the country’s foodies to celebrate our distinctly Canadian ingredients as we gather at tables and barbecues across the country Saturday, Aug. 3, and raise a bottle of micro-brew to the true north, strong and free.