Twenty years and counting
So it’s been 20 years, eh? A couple of decades. Not a lot of time, if you say it fast.
But yes, it was only 20 years ago when a woman named Mary Bailey decided to do something about the quality and quantity of dedicated food writing in Edmonton. Enough with the old recipe sections; there was a lot more to food than that.
She started small, with 16 pages of staple-in-the-middle newsprint known as City Palate Edmonton soon to become required reading for local foodies.
Gradually, it morphed into a kind of newspaper/ use-paper/magazine highlighting local food and wine events, stirrings and happenings in restaurants, back door to front-of-house.
No longer satisfied with reading a few columns in our reluctant daily’s token food section, Bailey’s coverage of the burgeoning food scene here and elsewhere grew and grew. Having dragged food-in-print out of its recipes-only doldrums, she was poised to catch the near obsession with the culinary arts that began rolling over North America in the mid-to late-90s.
As the restaurant critic and food writer at the Edmonton Journal, I had become the city’s resident curmudgeon, constantly griping about our culinary shortcomings. Edmonton had too many steakhouses, too many bored chefs and boring menus dedicated to the dreaded catch-all: continental cuisine.
As a respected chef from Quebec-via- Switzerland explained to me, the state of food arts in Canada was a work in progress. “When I came to this country, chefs were still (considered to be) not too clever people hiding behind our saucepots.”
The birth of the Food Television Network, back in November of 1993, was destined to bring dramatic changes to the role of the professional chef. Out from behind their saucepots strode a youthful army of homegrown Canadian chefs, with regional North- American roots and sensibilities. Finally! With them came Martha Stewart, the original food entrepreneur, challenging print media with her own magazine, television, radio and a flurry of cookbooks.
There was still no Bobby Flay or Giadda deLaurentis to make on-camera cooking look sexy, but we’d moved beyond the earnest and scholarly demos of Julia Child who, try though she did, could not make black-and-white television do justice to the ingredients for a vibrant bouillibasse.
Food television pushed the growing celebration of cooking and winemaking as legitimate art forms. It embraced trends, including the self-styled food writer, known as a blogger, jostling for online attention.
In the year 2000, Bailey and Crystal Armstrong created an Edmonton food and wine show called Indulgence, bent on pairing food producers, chefs and Canadian wineries. It was an instant hit; it still is. Along with proceeds to the Edmonton Junior League, it supports culinary bursaries at NAIT.
But even with Indulgence, local ingredients hadn’t yet found their niche. Chefs were still investing heavily in out-of-season ingredients from faraway places. Then, in 2005, a Canadian couple introduced their 100-mile diet. To their great surprise and ours, it swept the North American food scene.
Although not entirely practical, the 100-mile diet started a trend that changed the way we produce and consume food in this country. The locavore was born, and City Palate Edmonton was there, celebrating local producers and a new crop of savvy homegrown chefs who were eager to work with them.
Along the way, vegetables were rediscovered. No longer stuck in the baby carrot/broccoli lane, we were introduced to pea shoots, heirloom tomatoes, varieties of squash we’d never heard of. Good God, is that kale on my plate? What next? Purees, foams and gastriques, that’s what. We had chefs who knew all about them, and in Bailey’s magazine, recipes from local experts were part of the deal.
The meat scene changed too. Several Edmonton chefs had discovered offcuts and began to use entire animals, nose-to-tail. In some kitchens there was even a ripple of interest in offal.
In 2010, Bailey decided to refresh her growing coverage of the food scene by re-naming her magazine The Tomato. The 2016 anniversary edition was a fat one including full-colour shots of The Tomato Food and Drink Kitchen Design Awards.
The Tomato’s contributing writers continue to examine local foodways. Craft beers, organic wines; a growing coffee culture; kitchen art and architecture; opinion and information. It’s all here.
But Bailey hasn’t settled for local. Twenty years later, she still wanders the globe like a hungry pilgrim. From Georgia to France, England to Italy, she eats and drinks on behalf of her readers. Long may she wander.