FOOD: Living in small-town Canada (aka A funny survival guide for US expats, eh?)

Living in Canada (aka A funny survival guide for US expats, eh?)

Chapter 1 – Food and Drink

While the food is about the same as US food, there are some basic differences, and things like “renamed” food, stuff you can’t get in the US (except in specialty British or French groceries), you will find many favorites missing or in short supply here, and other things you will come to love. Let’s start!

Renamed food..

Kraft “Mac&cheese” is called “Kraft Dinner” up here. American cheese slices are called Canadian cheese slices.

There is your normal bacon and yes, Canadian bacon (which is called back bacon here).

The salami may be more like what Americans call bologna, but they also have smokies (smoked hot dogs, sort of).

Like the US, Canada was partly founded by the Brits, though in Canada the country is still tied to Parliament, the Queen, and all that, so there’s lots of British food here..

Unfortunately not much ale/beer from ol’ blighty, those that are available are costly (in comparison to US prices).

So here comes the beer..

On the subject of beers, I realize one’s own personal taste dictates what is palatable– In the movie “Canadian Bacon” John Candy’s character got himself in quite a bit of trouble saying Canadian beer sucks. Was his protest valid? Well, let’s see.. Canada is (mostly) stuck in the clear lager/pilsner era, like the US was in the 1970’s. Yes, there are good microbrews, and other breweries “play it safe,” with a smattering of similar formula/taste beers.. nothing wrong with that, except I get bored by the lack of adventure.

Hey, I’ve only lived in Alberta a short time, and this country is the 3rd largest in the world. Maybe there’s a Canadian beer mecca hidden some other place? BC? Ontario? PEI? One sure thing is, Canadians like beer just as much as any country so I’ll endeavor to enjoy it, becoming more Canadian one brew at a time.

On to sweets..

Not much US candies or chocolate here really, but they do have Cadbury, Mars, and Nestle stuff, more like what the UK has, as well Arnott’s TimTams (from down under) can be found in your local supermarket! Biscuits of all sorts, yes but lacking in chocolate chip cookies and so on.

Under the renamed category, what we know in the US as “Smarties” candy are called “Rockets” up here, because Canadians already have something called smarties, and they’re like big M&M’s.

We don’t have a wide variety of Hershey’s, Ghiradelli, Sees, or most common US brands or bars like Three Muskateers, BigHunk, AbbaZabba, etc. We do have Aero, KitKat, Almond Roca, Ferrero Rocher and a few favorites like M&Ms, Hershey’s kisses. For whatever reason (like beer) Canadian candy portions are smaller than their US equivalent.

However, Canada has some homegrown candy, chocolate, and goodies which are pretty good, for example Nanaimo bars, licorices, peanut butter things, and of course maple flavored treats.

Donuts aren’t quite the variety of American offerings such as Dunkin Donuts or KrispyKreme, but there’s a Tim Hortons in every city. For those who haven’t been in Canada more than 10 minutes, Tim Hortons is a Canadian institution, they have locations everywhere, as prolific as Starbucks may be in the US. The selection of coffee, donuts, and light sandwiches is similar to Winchells in the US. The coffee is brewed fresh and they put the cream and sugar in for you, this is true about most to-go coffee in Canada. You actually order coffee and say how many creams and sugars you want, they make it for you. The best thing about Tim Hortons are “Timbits”- boxes of 20 or 40 donut holes in a huge assortment of flavors. Very addicting.

Let’s move on to restaurant food.

Orders in the US are “for here or to go?” while in Canada they say “to stay or go?”

Toast in America is “white or wheat” (even though, yes, white bread is made from bleached wheat flour) – in Canada they ask if you want “white or brown” toast.

French fries are generally eaten with brown gravy, and if you add meltedย  cheese curd bits or melted cheese, this is a dish of itself, and it’s called “Poutine” (pronounced as it looks, or more accurately, ‘Put-sin’) which varies slightly depending where in Canada you may be. Even the fast food places offer it (though usually not as good as you’d get in a restaurant).

Allegedly, some Japanese Kobe beef and their special-grade hay originates here. Well, there isn’t much cattle grazing or hay fields in Japan eh? Canadians are known to be carnivores, in fact Albertans eat more meat per capita than anywhere else in the world! There are Vegan options, sure, but we love our animals of all sorts, domestic or wild, fish and fowl, for dinner!

At restaurants, most meat is cooked to order, except burgers, even though Alberta has some of the best beef in the world.

I love a good medium-rare burger. Here comes my next rant..

Since the 2003 mad cow scare, either Canadians or health officials are over paranoid about disease or ecoli and have a myth that states, “if it isn’t totally brown inside or charcoaled black outside, then it isn’t cooked enough.” This is true at least in restaurants, where practices are somehow enforced, even though common sense shows a burger doesn’t need to be dried burnt crisp to be properly cooked at temperature.

Heck, you can get a steak bloody raw.. Why not a burger? Just handle the beef right, wash your hands, is that too hard?! Go figure.

I still order medium rare burgers, but they are rarely, well, rare. That’s just the way it is, so deal with it. I found if I choose my burger places wisely, I can sometimes get “good eats” worthy burgers, ever pink inside and juicy, just as I remember from the states. Outlaws/Swamp Donkeys here in Sundre has good burgers, and on occasion, cooked the way I request.

Conversely, I’ve had horrible burgers elsewhere- everything from frozen microwave-heated burgers to additive and filler-stuffed beefage I wouldn’t want for spaghetti or adding to chili, let alone stuffing on a bun and eating.

That fancy burger place in Cross Iron Mills and the touted sirloin “Uncle” burgers were two of the absolutely worst burnt hockey pucks I had my entire life, which is sad because both portray themselves as serious burger-fare, yet fall short to resemble drippy yummy hamburgers you’d expect.

Moving down the food quality chain, we gotta talk more about fast food! ๐Ÿ™‚

Canada has many of the same chains as the states, though the options may be different.

Here in Sundre, we have a nice A&W that serves all the family burgers (albeit slower than expected) as well the full Chubby Chicken and hotdog menus, best of all you can get frosty glasses of root beer or floats like the good old days before US took away the full menu and mugs. Many A&W’s in the states are no more than glorified hotdog stands in malls that sell the same A&W root beer cans you’d get at the grocery store.

I’ve seen Canadian KFC, Wendy’s, Subway, McDonald’s, and Dairy Queen, Burger King, though with some variation to US menus.

There’s no Sonic, Taco Bell, In&Out, or Carls Jr., but we have Denny’s, Papa John’s, Starbucks, even some mall-food franchises like Orange Julius and Quiznos are here in bigger cities.

There are some great restaurant chains exclusive to Canada, “Boston Pizza” is one of them. Boston Pizza is like BJ’s Brewhouse, Red Robin or TGI Friday’s chains of the states (without the nice on-location beer-making, ah well!) We also have “Smitty’s” (kinda like Baker’s Square in the US) and “Burger Baron” (pizza, ice cream, and burgers of course) about everywhere. There’s TacoTime (in Red Deer), and a few random chains I can’t recall at the moment..

Enough variety to satisfy your need for high-fat, low nutrition, rapidly prepared processed junk, as well enough locations of your good Canada-made favorites to stay satisfied wherever you go.

Pizza is usually thick crust like in California, though places are known to put unusual combinations of toppings on your pie- not so much anchovies (also rare in Alberta) just different than the US. We have Dominoes and Pizza Hut, but no Round Table up here.

Pasta dishes are more New York style Italian, they love to put celery in about everything. When you get Italian food they give you garlic bread and butter ( sometimes margarine) so forget the olive oil and balsamic vinegar with fresh ground pepper you may be used to. Also the salad is going to be iceberg lettuce or nearly caesar salad, parmesan isn’t fresh ground and comes shaken from a can. Mixed greens are too expensive for most restaurants to deal with, this is redneck country where people generally avoid dark green salad whenever possible. But don’t despair, everything else is pretty decent grub! Nothing like your North Beach places in San Francisco or hole in the wall places in Jersey, but passable enough you’ll come back later for more. “East Side Marios” in Red Deer is one such place I enjoy, everytime I go.

Fish and Chips are horrible in Alberta, normally it’s frozen fish sticks with tartar sauce and small french fries (which were also frozen). Forget getting good large chips (aka steak fries) worthy of eating alone, and bring your own malt vinegar, because Canadians will bring you white vinegar when asked. If you’re extremely lucky you may find a place that does it right, like the Irish pub in Calgary who also serves Guinness on tap (yay!)

On to groceries..

Grocery shopping is about the same as the US, except for booze, which you can only get at liquor stores- that’s beer, wine, and spirits, you can’t get them at a grocery store, walmart or gas stations. Why? I dunno. It’s just that grocery stores don’t bother getting liquor licenses and liquor stores don’t bother carrying groceries or mixers, that’s the way it is. Must be a post-prohibition law or tradition or something.

There’s Safeway here along with other major chains like Wal-Mart, IGA/Sobey’s, but no Lucky’s, Albertsons, Mollie Stones, Trader Joes, or Whole Foods. No Nob Hill groceries or frilly markets (like Draegers) so common in California.

“Major” stores have limited quantities of healthy food or organic stuff, however there is a big chain of natural/health food, “Nutters” — the name means something else to Brits of course ๐Ÿ˜‰ maybe big cities have more choices than the rural stores where I call home? Dunno..

You’ll find frozen & refrigerated favorites from Kraft, Nestle, Coca-Cola, Quaker, General Mills, Minutemaid, even Nature’s Path and Ben&Jerry’s can be found in Canadian stores.

You can buy (overpriced, genetically modified, battered or questionably ripe) veggies and fruits from around the world, along with some fresher locally grown or raised stuff.

You can buy frozen fish of all sorts, but not much fresh (here in Alberta anyway). Ready to eat cocktail shrimp is impossible to find, but you can get live lobster, go figure. There is sushi, but don’t bother, it’s stale crap and you will only get tame stuff like “California rolls” or simple crab and vegan sushi.

There are no burrito bars and Mexican food is quite a rarity. In fact, most ethnic food from Asia or India, let alone restaurants that serve other than Western (e.g. Steak & Potatoes), Greek (sort-of, anyway) Chinese food, and Pizza/pastas is difficult (not impossible, just rare) to find.

There are indeed sections in the store that have ethnic provisions, but it’s a few packaged boxes the weekend mom may try for the fun of it, some staple spices, but perhaps not enough for making a complete meal, if you know what I mean..

I don’t cook so often, but if I did, I would be at a loss where I’d find ingredients fit for a good bowl of Pho, Rogan Josh Lamb, Chicken Tikka Masala, Lebanese Babaganoush with a Pita, or any sort of worthy burrito.

There seems to be a shortage of herbs and grains in Alberta, though they do have the best Canola, Blueberries, and Beets I’ve ever had. I read the barley is good, but haven’t found a decent beer brew-supply house yet.

On that note..

There is a nice little store in Red Deer (on 54th near Taylor) called Valentine’s Wine & Beer making supply. They don’t sell bulk grapes or grains or malt by the pound, but they do have a nice variety of box kits (pre-brewed beer wort ready for first fermentation, or partially completed wine where you’ll have a batch ready in 5 weeks!)

Sure, part of the process is done for you so it’s not really brewing right, nonetheless, I was gifted 2 beer kits as a Xmas present, as close as I’ve come to making it from scratch lately, so I’ll be happily fermenting it soon!

As for other drinks, we have Canadian cream soda which is normally pink, unlike our amber colored US stuff.

The most popular bar drink is the “Bloody Mary” of Canada, called a “Caesar” and normally has a marinated asparagus stick, a celery stick, clamato, and vodka, the rim of the glass dipped in celery salt, topped off with a lime wedge.

Folks also drink rye whiskey (just call it rye) pressed with coke or seven-up, or rum (Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rhum is Canadian), but usually folks mix it up or have it on the rocks with water — straight shots are called “shooters” and unfortunately there’s a bit of a shortage of scotch whisky here in Alberta- I’d guess they have more scotch drinkers the closer you get to Nova Scotia ๐Ÿ˜‰

Speaking of Nova Scotia, let me introduce you to screech. It’s kinda like rum or whiskey and tradition has it that newcomers must kiss a codfish on the lips, drink screech, and say a tongue twister to be “initiated” and thus become part of the community, all the while listening to various local legends and tales. This event is called “screeching in” and forwarning to those who don’t get the tongue twister the first time, you’ll need to drink more screech to help untangle your lips (hehe!) until you get it right.

On to convenience stores..

I don’t recall seeing bunches of 7-Eleven stores here, but we have convenience markets up the wazoo. Petro-Canada, BigSky, FasGas and others come to mind, as well a plethora of dollar stores. You’ll find frozen drinks resembling slurpees and can stock up on tacky souvenirs, munchies, cigarettes, or what nots galore. Dollar stores aren’t really convenience stores, but here in Canada they often carry popular snack items along with your basic trinkets, candles, and everyday use things such as batteries, tape, ice scrapers, writing materials, etc., so consider your friendly neighborhood dollar store when searching for a quick fix of candy.

I guess that’s all I’m going to say about FOOD and DRINK in Canada.. More to come (with colorful photos and illustrations, I hope) soon!

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