Jehane Benoit – Canada’s Greatest Food Authority (and Her Recipe For Beans, Deer and Beer)

The doyenne of Quebec and Canadian cookery will always be Jehane Benoit (1904-1987), whose career spanned the 30s through the 70s. This lady was thoroughly French Canadian, from a privileged background, yet was a bridge-builder to Anglo-Canada and became almost as well known in that world as in Quebec. She was open to every influence in cookery in her time.

From running a vegetarian restaurant in the 1930s to responding with enthusiasm to the microwave in the 70s, she was for anything that could help make a tasty and nutritious meal and save time. She wrote many volumes, appeared on radio and tv and was “the” personage in cookery and culinary education in her day. She was certainly equal to Julia Child in Canada in her influence.

She had studied at Cordon Bleu in France before the war and also held qualifications from the Sorbonne in food chemistry. This “double” interest, gastronomy and food science, plus her engaging personality – not to mention her industry – were the keys to her success.

An example of her ‘cookery without frontiers’ approach, in a day when interest in ethnic foods was tentative and guarded, is the inclusion of many ethnic and foreign recipes in Madame Benoit’s Library Of Canadian Cooking (Les Messageries du St. Laurent Ltée, 1972). “Canadian” fare, to most at the time, basically meant American, British, French, and French Canadian dishes, or derived from those traditions. She gave those in plenty but in addition, offered Polish meat balls, meat sauce for spaghetti, Greek-style barbecued lamb with mint, chow mein, and hundreds more recipes brought to Canada by what were then called “New Canadians”.

My eyebrows raised when she wrote – this is 1972, but possibly earlier – that she often made liver especially to cook with baked noodles in the Jewish fashion – she was referring to kugel with nodes of cooked liver in it, popular amongst my crowd in Montreal in the post-war era.

Without doubt she was a smoked meat maven and a souvlaki maven and a chow mein Cantonese maven – if it was good and interesting, she was in.

In Vol. 2 of the series mentioned, she has a heading, New Ways With Chicken. Rather than complain that “advanced methods to raise chicken” resulted in tasteless birds and advising people to buy free-range animals which only a tiny percentage could afford, she lauded this advance of our food industries, noting the birds were sold “plucked, drawn and dressed ready for cooking”. She was (surely) all-too-aware that ménagères for generations had had the hard work of raising, killing and dressing birds before they could be cooked to reach the hungry table – she didn’t want to go back to that time.

If there was some trade-off in flavour from the old days, she didn’t complain. She advised brightly, “Add your own personal ‘zing’ to the following recipes and you will be responsible for the creation of another variation – to me this is the great challenge of cooking”. Formidable, Madame.

Mme Benoit would have been amazed and delighted to work in our wired world, with any recipe available at the touch of a key and the ability to keep in touch with fans via Twitter, websites, Instagram and other social media. She would have been perfect for our time. Indeed, she presaged it: the Bourdains, Olivers, Rays and other celebrity chefs all follow in her footsteps, she along with people like Julia Child, James Beard, Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson set the stage for our modern food culture.

Mme Benoit was, at the same time, very conscious and proud of her Québécoise heritage and the books contain many recipes from this tradition. Needless to say, their authenticity is of the highest order. Of these, this rustic preparation of beans, ale and venison evokes the iron pot on the fire under star-lit northern Quebec nights.

IMG_20160130_142919

The recipe is obviously drawn from experience, her own or people she knew, as it has relatively few ingredients, thus easy to carry by a float plane or small craft, and the typical Quebec touch of savory (sarriette). We see, too, the old-fashioned dollop of molasses. Now, I know I’ve seen English recipes for venison which combine molasses, beer and the meat. Was the dish, to which she gave a French title, of distant British inspiration?

It would have been interesting to ask Mme Benoit this question. Rarely does she include historical notes or entertaining asides in her writing. I don’t think it was lack of interest, but more likely that she had so many recipes to convey, so many ideas to improve daily living while saving time and money, but little or no space in the books to explore this aspect. Perhaps had she lived longer, she would have written of the historical roots of Quebec cuisine.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter, she was multicultural before anyone thought of the word. She may have answered, who cares, just enjoy it. Et voilà.