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Home cooking

Pinning down the iconic Manitoban food

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In the fantasy version of my ideal Manitoba, every small child heads to school in the morning with a sandwich of smoked goldeye tucked between two slices of North End-style rye.

Lake Winnipeg goldeye is one of the few foodstuffs cited as unique to this corner of the continent. But the sad fact is not many Manitobans actually eat it on a regular basis. Old-timers in Gimli pick the firm, fantastic flesh from the tiny bones often enough, but the rest of us just don't consume enough smoked goldeye to qualify it as the definitively Manitoban food.

No matter where you travel on the planet, you'll find foods unique to specific regions. And the truly great food destinations have more than one signature foodstuff, which tend to be derived from the local ethnocultural heritage as well as the immediate environment.

New Orleans, a Gulf of Mexico city with a Creole and Cajun heritage, has beignets, po' boys and crawfish. San Francisco, a Spanish-American city at the heart of California's most celebrated wine and food-growing regions, is the home of cioppino, the modern burrito and the organic micro-green salad. Miami, a Caribbean gateway city poised on the edge of a coral reef, has stone crab, Cuban coffee and key lime pie.

So what constitutes a uniquely Manitoban food? If you asked a Winnipegger to name the city's signature dish, you'd probably wind up with multiple answers. So that presents us with a challenge on this Louis Riel Day long weekend.

The young holiday has already spawned a few traditions, such as attending Festival du Voyageur on the Monday or otherwise celebrating some of the things that define us as Manitobans.

Personally, I'd love that list to include a consensually agreed-upon menu of distinctly Manitoban foods. But anything on the list must be part of the day-to-day Manitoban menu, as opposed to just something we tell tourists to eat or we only eat on special occasions.

As I mentioned right off the bat, goldeye is a great but imperfect candidate. It only lives in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. It's practically inedible if it's not smoked. And it's delicious if you don't make the mistake of freezing it and reducing the flesh to mush.

But not enough of us eat goldeye and the supply is sometimes lacking, at least in Winnipeg. So I would argue another fish should be our signature dish: the humble pickerel.

Pickerel, known as walleye just about everywhere else, is common enough to deserve signature status and mild enough to please even picky eaters who don't like fish. Even terrible cooks can pan-fry pickerel filets, which are cheaper to buy in Manitoba than anywhere else. And pickerel cheeks may be the finest flesh you can pull out of fresh water.

As an accompaniment, I'd place the humble perogy on the menu, as well. Perogies are omnipresent in Manitoba and not just in Eastern European homes.

Forget about the insipid potato-and-cheddar versions you find in supermarket freezers. Commercial operations like Anne's and Mom's make superior sauerkraut versions and every church basement in rural Manitoba hosts a fall supper where handmade perogies are the highlight of an otherwise unexciting meal.

At the risk of relying too heavily upon Manitoba's Ukrainian and Polish heritage, I'd also carve out a menu spot for kubasa (a.k.a. kielbasa). But it must be the coarse-ground, craft-made variety you find at better North End butcher shops, such as Tenderloin or Karpaty, and not the over-processed glorified hotdogs that tend to be full of bone grit.

Bannock also deserves a place on the menu. Fry-bread may not be unique to Manitoba, but what foodstuff better exemplifies First Nations cuisine?

Other indigenous foods, particularly bison and wild rice, deserve menu spots even though the former is usually prepared precisely the same way as beef -- as burgers, steaks and stews -- and the latter is almost always overcooked into oblivion.

Saskatoons must also be on the menu, even though the prairie fruit is too often consigned to pies. A more unique Manitoban dessert would be the shmoo torte, a caramel-covered, walnut-flecked sponge cake of possibly Jewish origin. Or even better, vínarterta, the Icelandic-Manitoban prune layer cake you can hardly find in Iceland.

Tourtière and maple pie warrant consideration, though Quebec would dispute any Manitoban claim to these dishes. I would also consider lumpia, the Filipino spring rolls that have started showing up on mobile carts at summer festivals, part of Manitoba's culinary heritage.

Obviously, this is not a definitive list. I haven't touched on many other ethnic contributions to the Manitoban menu and haven't considered quaffing any alcoholic beverages besides the obvious Half Pints and Crown Royal.

So you tell me -- what else must be on the Manitoban menu?

Write before the end of the weekend and I'll incorporate some of the better suggestions into a future column. I'll also send the author of the most thoughtful email a very lame prize.

If you have the day off tomorrow, consider spending it in your kitchen. It may have nothing to do with our madman-genius founder, Louis Riel, but it would make me happy.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 20, 2011 A4

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Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

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A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott.

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