Have we really outgrown our inferiority complex?
Nancy Hinton, (Food writing 2005)
Not so long ago in Quebec, all our chefs came from France. The only fine food was French, the most luxurious of foodstuffs imported. If it came from abroad, it was guaranteed some kind of status, much nobler than anything to be found here.
Perhaps then, it was largely true. We’ve come a long way, with a new breed of homegrown chefs, great local products, fine cheese, and even drinkable wine. Local and terroir have become catch phrases.
Yet, there is still a reticense, an unwillingness to pay top dollar for something from here. It takes much more marketing, convincing, support from celebrities etc. to make a local product fly.
In some cases, the product is indeed a work in progress, like many Quebec cheeses, that should be encouraged, but still lack the fine-tuning and expertise to command the highest price. Then again, often, the quality is there, has always been, it just needs to be discovered, or rediscovered and endorsed. A good example in nature is our wild mushrooms, or many wild plants for that matter. Some of them, the natives used and taught us Québecois to eat, but subsequently somehow, this knowledge got lost through the generations. Funny enough, fiddleheads held on. Many people (even chefs) still don’t believe that porcini or chanterelles grow here. Most mushrooms on Montreal menus come from abroad. We have crisp, tender sea asparagus on the shores of the St-Lawrence that is juicier, less woody, with the perfect level of saltiness, but still most people import it cooked and frozen from France if they know about it at all. Many excellent traditional recipes and preserves are made in Québec and sold in the countryside, but when you go into an épicerie fine in the city, you will not find them hidden among the majority of little jars from afar. There are top-notch artisanal products made in Québec, but they have a hard time selling them for the what they are worth. (Granted, there is alot of crap too. I have heard the complaint often that some hacks have ruined it for the others, indicating the need for some kind of quality control system like in Europe. Another story altogether, I digress.)
We obviously don’t value our homegrown industry much if we are so neglectful of our farmers and artisans, and so easily seduced by the easy, accessible, cheaper imports. You’d think it should be the opposite, that you would want to pay more for something local, that you can know everything about, to support your neighbor, and save the cost of transport on the environment. The global marketplace and our individualistic lives must have led us away from our social values. Or so I thought. It turns out the Quebecois have always had this inferiority complex, commonly turning up our nose on what was from here as too ordinary. On the contrary, the French and Italians for instance, always think that the closer to home the better.
I always wondered why this was, until one day at a food history and anthropology conference, someone was speaking about the diet in early New France, and I understood just how deep rooted this sentiment was. When it came to several indigenous foodstuffs, the colonists would not eat them until they were endorsed by the French or the English (corn, jerusalem artichoke?). Only if the Europeans desired it, was it good enough for our ancestors to eat. So, this inferiority complex is a part of our cultural heritage. I knew our colony was founded on derelects and rejects from the old world, and generally regarded by Europeans as a bare notch above the “savage” natives on the food chain, but still, this reverse food snobbism was a surprise to me. Funny, but not so funny. I guess I never got it because I have always been proud and patriotic, and I trust my palette. And when I like something, I really like something, especially if from here.