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 1930s through the 70s. The lady was thoroughly French Canadian, from a privileged background, yet a bridge-builder to Anglo-Canada. She 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 adopting enthusiastically the microwave in the 1970s, she was for anything that could make a tasty and nutritious meal and save time. She wrote many books, wrote for magazines, and appeared on radio and tv. She was “the” personage in cookery and culinary education of her day. She was certainly equal to Julia Child in her influence, in Canada at that time.

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

As an example of her ‘cookery without frontiers’ approach, in a day when interest in ethnic foods was tentative and guarded, many ethnic and foreign recipes were included in Madame Benoit’s Library Of Canadian Cooking (Les Messageries du St. Laurent Ltée, 1972). “Canadian” fare, for most at the time, meant American, British, French, or French Canadian dishes. In addition to recipes from those traditions she featured 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 specifically to cook with baked noodles in the Jewish fashion. She was referring to kugel with nodes of cooked liver in it, popular among my crowd in Montreal in that period anyway.

She was certainly 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, a heading reads New Ways With Chicken. Rather than complain “advanced methods to raise chicken” resulted in tasteless birds and suggest people buy free-range, which only a tiny percentage could afford, she lauded the advances of our food industries, noting birds were now sold “plucked, drawn and dressed ready for cooking”.

She was all too aware, without doubt, that ménagères for generations had the hard work of raising, killing and dressing birds before they could be cooked for the table. She didn’t want to go back to that time, and who could blame her?

If there was some trade-off in flavour compared to 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”. 

Mme Benoit would be amazed and delighted to work in our wired world, where almost any recipe is available at a keystroke. She would enjoy keeping in touch with her fans via Twitter, Instagram, blogs, and other social media. She would be perfect for our time, as she was for hers.

Indeed, she presaged our time. The Olivers, Rays, and other celebrity chefs follow no less in her footsteps than Julia Child, James Beard, Elizabeth David, and and Graham Kerr.

They all set the tone for the modern food scene.

Mme Benoit was, I should add, always proud of her Québécoise heritage, and her writing contains many recipes from this tradition. Needless to say, their authenticity is of the highest. This rustic preparation of beans, ale, and venison evokes the simmering iron pot on open fire under a star-lit northern sky. Perhaps she knew the dish from youthful camping trips, or fishing trips up north with her husband later.

 

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The recipe has few ingredients, easy to carry in by float plane or small boat. Originally the deer would have been sourced sur le champ. The savory (sarriette) is a typical Quebec touch. We see too the old-fashioned dollop of molasses. Some old English recipes for venison combine molasses with beer. Maybe the dish to which she gave a French title was of distant British inspiration. It doesn’t matter either way.

Rarely did Mme Benoit include historical notes or offer entertaining asides in her writing. I don’t think it was from lack of interest. More likely she had so many recipes to convey, so many ideas on how to improve daily living, that little space was available. Had she lived longer, maybe she would have addressed the historical roots of Quebec cuisine

Or maybe her answer would have been a blithe, peu importe, who cares, just enjoy it! Et voilà.