Q&A: New York Times food editor Sam Sifton on Toronto restaurants and why the newspaper just did an entire section on Canadian cuisine
This week the New York Times devoted its food section to the Great White North, including features devoted to Toronto’s new Syrian restaurants, our national cocktail and the fiery debate around raisins in butter tarts. We spoke with NYT food editor (and raisin rejector) Sam Sifton, about all things Canuck cuisine and why a country’s food scene is about more than just what’s yummy.
An entire food section devoted to Canada. Why us? Why now?
The Times’ single largest foreign market is in Canada, and the fact of the matter is that our business is changing dramatically—moving away from being a national newspaper to an international newspaper.
I thought you were going to say it’s because our food is really good.
We’ll get to that. I’m just setting the table, as we say on the food desk. My travels around Canada over the years have indicated to me that this is a serious food nation. We hope to explain Canada to the States, and also to itself.
In one of the articles Toronto is described as a city “obsessed with anything edible.” Are we more food obsessed than most?
It’s interesting you point that out because I actually interrogated the writer on that point. During my time in Toronto I saw that there does seem to be a healthy obsession; a desire to eat well and try new flavours. Toronto is in a position that a lot of other cities are not—more than 50 percent of its population is foreign-born and that’s reflected in the restaurants that serve the city. And because of what you might call the radical acceptance of diversity, people are into it. They want to try Tamil food or Syrian food. I think it’s notable.
One of the stories was about the new Syrian food scene in Toronto. Why was that an obvious inclusion?
I believe that food is much more than simply, “golly guys, this is delicious.” Food is a way of understanding where we are as a culture and where we’re going. At a time when significant debates are occurring in the United States and Europe over immigration—to see a city that has so successfully opened its arms to immigration in general and Syrian refugees in particular, that’s worth pointing out. Soufi’s is not a restaurant out in the middle of nowhere that serves only the Syrian refugee community. It’s a hipster joint on a cool street.
For a long time the stereotype was that Americans don’t know anything about their neighbours to the north. Is that changing?
Oh, absolutely. The fascination that Americans are developing with Canadians has to do with the fact that you live in a land mass that is roughly the same as ours, but there’s ten percent of the people. That’s crazy. And we’re in debates over health care, over our president. I think that creates a sort of fascination with the promised land of Canada. Not to mention you’ve got this hot prime minister. I think an awareness of the pleasures of Canadian culture and civilization are increasing in the US, and that’s probably good.
The Times’ package brought up several age old Canadian foodie debates, so I want to discuss a few. Raisins in butter tarts: yay or nay?
Well I’m not Canadian, so I can’t really weigh in, but my family did come to the States via Canada from Ireland—so maybe I can. I love raisins, but I’m not a raisins-in-the-butter-tart guy. And I like a slightly runnier butter tart than most.
Caesar or Bloody Mary?
I prefer the caesar because I like that briny Clamato thing. The clam man—that’s freaking delicious.
What’s your take on the debate around seal meat?
It’s not just seal meat, it’s game meat as well. I think it’s a really interesting topic because there are a lot of issues at foot. There are those who believe we shouldn’t be harvesting these wild things. On the other hand, in a nation as big and as lightly populated as Canada, it would be interesting to see if you couldn’t educate people a little more than we have in the U.S. about the relationship between the food that we eat and the food that lives on our land. As a hunter and a fisherman, I know that eating wild food teaches you a respect for the protein in a way that going to the supermarket never can. That said, it’s surprising to see a company selling seal jerky as if it were a commodity product.
Isn’t part of it that seals are just so cute?
Of course. They look like Labrador retrievers. But you know, it’s all about what we get used to. Seals are really cute, but you know what else is really beautiful? The big, round, damp eye of a cow. It’s all about perception.
You were here in Toronto earlier this week. Where did you eat?
I was really just in an out, but I did get one meal the Oxley. It was pretty good. It was interesting because I had been having a conversation about the nature of French Canadian cuisine and how there is this British influence that has to do with Quebec being an occupied province. And then at the Oxley which is basically a British gastro-pub. I had a dish that amounted to bangers and mash, but the bangers were venison. You’d never see that in England.
Canadian chef you would most like to be BFFs with?
I’m a journalist, so I can’t be BFFs with any of these people. I will say we had a nice meal at Joe Beef after our event in Montreal.
I heard those guys know how to party.
Fuck, yes. They know how to throw down.