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Is Turkey Still King? How Canadian Holiday Food Traditions Are Changing

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CANADA AND TURKEY
© Justin Lo via Getty Images

When Canadians sit down for their big holiday meal this year, there's a good chance turkey — or some other kind of well-roasted or well-brined fowl — will be at the centre of the gastronomic indulgence.

But other dishes on the table will undoubtedly reflect how Canadians' tastes are changing, and how an evolving palate and expanding interest in food in general are moving the holiday dinner in different directions.

"I think in Canada, turkey is considered the traditional holiday meal," says the noted Toronto-based author and food columnist Lucy Waverman. "I see it even in the ethnic communities as well.

"It's not just in the traditional Canadian home … it's everywhere," she says, noting a Portuguese woman she knows who basically cooks only Portuguese food but always has a turkey at Christmas, saying she feels that's the Canadian way.

The big stuffed turkey is a tradition that goes back a long way, and there's not necessarily an easy explanation of its origin.

"That's a difficult one, to decide where it all began," says author Dorothy Duncan, who has written extensively on Canada's food heritage.

Fowl dinners, Duncan notes, can trace their origins back to a Michaelmas goose appreciated by Queen Elizabeth I in the 1500s, and that as early as 1861, English author Isabella Beeton was writing about turkey and its North American origins.

Today, however, Duncan considers it a "curious phenomenon" how people focus on cooking "that meal they've known all their lives" for the special occasions like Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Comfort Food?

Among readers of CBCNews.ca's Facebook page, turkey certainly has its fans.

"Things I've made for Christmas dinner in the past: beef wellington, rack of lamb, duck, goose. This year, I want a good old turkey dinner!" said Retta Casavant.

Some readers are mixing turkey with new traditions.

"Since their father and I separated, my children are only with me every other Christmas Day, so when I only have them on Christmas Eve, we enjoy a new tradition of having a fondue," Tracey Lothian of Lunenburg, N.S., said in an email.

"It's unique, festive and completely our own. I think we enjoy this even more than the "usual" turkey (even though that's STILL a must!)"

For all the festive focus on fowl, however, there are endless other ways the traditional holiday meal appears to have moved beyond its starchy potatoes, turnip and mincemeat pie mainstays.

"It's all about flavour," says author and culinary activist Anita Stewart, appointed earlier this year as the University of Guelph's first food laureate.

"We're really into good flavours, and certainly not just necessarily the same old same olds."

The focus on flavour has led to more exotic side dishes like stuffing pepped up considerably with Asian or Indian tastes.

Consider sweet potatoes with a healthy dash of Thai Sriracha hot sauce added to spice things up, suggests Waverman.

More Sophisticated Palates

For Stewart, the interest in flavour runs parallel with the food traditions Canadians want to cling to, particularly at this time of year.

"No matter what faith you are, what spirituality you are, there is absolutely a food that's tied to it in some fashion," she says. Still, "it's fun to update."

All this is happening because Canadians' knowledge of food has expanded dramatically, Stewart says.

People are reading more about food — particularly online — and Stewart also sees a "preoccupation with 'What I'm eating today,'" or the idea that "that if I can eat, I can blog."

Waverman also feels people are "more sophisticated in their approach to food" and are going for more flavour.

"People travel more and they're very interested in different kinds of flavours," she says. In fact, her most recent book, with co-author BeppiCrosariol, The Flavour Principle, has global flavours as a central theme.

Lighter Fare

But if people are looking for more when it comes to flavour, they appear to be looking for less when it comes to dessert after the big holiday meal.

The heavier traditional fare such as mincemeat pies or tarts, steamed plum or carrot puddings and Christmas cakes laden with dried fruit still have some fans, but they seem to have become fewer.

"I think the tide has turned," says Stewart, noting that even in her own family, she can barely give away a serving of steamed carrot pudding.

"I like it, but at the end of a heavy meal, I'd prefer something lighter."

Waverman also sees a trend toward fruity and creamy flavours for dessert after the big meal.

"Lemon is another big flavour after a Christmas dinner."

Other changes at the holiday table are a reflection of broader trends in eating — and that is also influencing how those preparing the big meal plan the menu.

"There are so many more vegetarians and vegans today, and people who are gluten free," notes Waverman. As a result, "Christmas dinner has become somewhat more difficult to prepare if you have people who have all of these different ways of eating.

"You have to be more thoughtful now in what you are putting on the table."

No Tofu Turkeys

Waverman has a simple philosophy for that planning, one that makes no sacrifices on flavour or originality — and that doesn't go for tofu turkeys or anything like that.

"If you're going to do a holiday dinner for people who do have these specific needs, you should try to make it as delicious as you can," she says. 

"You don't try to mimic food that people have when they're on a regular diet. You just make deliciousness on a plate of things that they would enjoy."

Waverman has also noticed some people are asking her for fish dishes as a main course because their children are vegetarian or they want a lighter dinner.

"One of the most popular is to do a side of salmon ... because it looks spectacular and you can flavour it in so many different ways."

Of course, for some people, enjoyment of the holiday meal may not include any of the foods that are considered the traditional fare.

"We're a blended family, we love Christmas, and we love our mix of traditions," reader Amy Proulx wrote on CBC News' Facebook page.

"We often prepare a traditional Iranian peasant meal, and abgoosht is one of our favourites."

The dish is "hearty and wintry," she says, and is typically made with slow-cooked stewed lamb, beans, onion and tomato.

"It gives plenty of energy for a post-meal snowshoe hike, or warms you up for a post-meal nap."

The meal is, she says, "simplicity and satisfaction in one bowl."

And sometimes, people just want a change from the traditional meal.

"Sick of turkey," wrote CBC reader Melissa Foster Dorsey on Facebook. "Prime rib this year with jumbo shrimp!"

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