Welcome back to the Canadian Food Experience Project. This month, our challenge is to feature a Canadian regional food hero.
While Toronto has a really vibrant food scene and literally hundreds of local heroes to choose from, I really wanted to pay homage to someone who directly influenced my own relationship with food in some in some way… and when it comes to that, there’s really no one who’s inspired me quite like Jehane Benoit… or rather, Madame Benoit, as she’s affectionately known by most Quebeckers.
Born in Montreal in 1904, Madame Benoit received diplomas in food chemistry from the Sorbonne and in cuisine from the Cordon Bleu in Paris, before returning home to found a cooking school of her own, Le Fumet de la Vieille France. She also operated one of Montreal’s very first vegetarian restaurants before eventually finding her calling as a cookbook author, penning her first book in the 1950s.
In many ways, Madame Benoit is to French-Canadian cookery what Julia Child is to classical French – she took many traditional recipes typical of Canadian (and, more specifically, Québécois) cooking, and made them approachable for even the most inexperienced cooks. She was also a well-known TV and radio personality, and even had her own show on the CBC, Take 30.
Like most French-Canadian households in the late 70s and early 80s, her cookbooks occupied a place of pride on our shelf. There was a yellowed and very dog-eared copy of her Encyclopedia of Canadian Cooking from my mother’s university days, now held together with an elastic band, along with her six-volume Encyclopedia of Microwave Cooking (a series published after Madame Benoit’s 80th birthday, which is pretty damn impressive in and of itself!).
In our house, roast beef and shepherd’s pie were made Madame Benoit’s way, or not at all. In many ways, her books were considered as essential at my house as The Joy of Cooking or Mastering the Art of French Cooking was for their anglophone contemporaries
And yet, despite all this, she remains largely unknown in English Canada, let alone the rest of the world. Which is really kind of a shame.
According to Wikipedia, she penned over 30 cookbooks during her decades-long career, but most beloved of all for me is her children’s cookbook, La cuisine au four à micro-ondes, ça m’amuse, a collection of easy beginner recipes all prepared using the microwave. I’m rather ashamed to admit that it’s also the only Madame Benoit cookbook in my own collection, an oversight I plan on rectifying soon enough.
That book, gifted to me by a family friend many many years ago, is the one I used when I first started to cook on my own - my very first attempts at glazed carrots, applesauce, meatloaf and rice pudding were all made with her recipes, and set me up with the basic skills I needed to graduate to more complicated dishes and eventually, to using a proper stovetop.
I haven’t cooked from La cuisine au four à micro-ondes (nor have I cooked much of anything in a microwave, for that matter), but I still keep it on my bookshelf as a reminder of how much I’ve learned since then.
That doesn’t mean I don’t cook with Madame Benoit’s recipes though. I still make shepherd’s pie and roast beef the same way I learned all those years ago. Always.
And then there’s this simple cabbage apple slaw from one of her best-loved classics, , which has all the hallmarks of a classic Madame Benoit recipe. It’s made from a very small number of ingredients and requires no fancy kitchen skills to prepare, but when created with fresh good-quality ingredients, it creates a dish with a perfect balance of bright flavours and textures that belies its simplicity.
It just goes to show that you can’t go wrong with a classic old-fashioned recipe prepared with fresh, local ingredients… which is the biggest lesson I’ve learned from Madame Benoit.
The Canadian Food Experience Project began June 7, 2013 with the goal of bringing together Canadian food bloggers in celebration of the amazing cuisines that make Canada the unique and diverse place we’re so proud to call home. As we (participants) share our collective stories through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity.
- 3 cups shredded cabbage
- 2 sweet apples, grated
- 1 small onion, grated
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ cup sour cream
- 2 tbsp cider vinegar
- 1 tbsp honey
- ¼ tsp fresh ground black pepper
- In a large bowl, toss the cabbage, apples, onion and salt until combined. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the sour cream, honey, vinegar and pepper until smooth. Cover and chill until ready to serve.
- Just before serving, pour the dressing over the salad and toss until evenly coated.