With the end of the winter semester just hours away, most University of Guelph students were too immersed in final reports Friday to notice much of anything extraordinary on campus – except for the surprise appearance of six-foot, seven-inch star chef Michael Smith.
The instantly identifiable and towering Food Network icon, known for shows such as Chef at Home and Chef Michael’s Kitchen, turns heads wherever he goes. On Friday in Guelph, that included a trip to Valeriote’s Market downtown for steaks and sausages, lunch on campus at Creelman Hall alongside all the regular patrons there, and a morning and afternoon immersed in research in the world-class McLaughlin Library Canadian Culinary Arts Collection.
The visit to Archival and Special Collections, which holds one of the largest collections of historical cookbooks and domestic manuals in North America, was the focal point of the trip for Smith and his three-person entourage, including his friend University of Guelph food laureate Anita Stewart, who arranged the visit. They spent the day literally spellbound on the library’s second floor, the welcoming new home of these collections, glued to the rich detail offered through the collection’s 18,000 volumes.
It’s part of their ongoing research for clues to help find what Smith calls “the intersection between agriculture and food.” He says that’s what he’s striving for at his PEI restaurant Fireworks, at the Inn on Bay Fortune.
“I want where the field ends and the kitchen begins to be seamless,” he said.
The Canadian Culinary Arts Collection, which include Stewart’s personal collection, contain cookbooks and domestic manuals from the 16th century to the present day, which provide recipes and general information about food preparation, social histories of food, food customs, etiquette, papers of famous food writers, and many other aspects of culinary arts and practices.
A special feature – one that particularly appealed to Smith and his interest in Canadiana – is the community cookbook collection from across Canada. It depicts regional, ethnic, family and societal traditions that helped shape Canada’s very development.
And with the increased interest in food, as well as unique twists on local food, this collection is thriving. It’s grown by nearly 7,000 volumes in the past five years. Special collections librarian Melissa McAfee helps professionals such as Smith and Stewart unlock culinary secrets of the past (this is the third group of chefs and other food professionals Stewart has introduced to the collection), as well as history students engaged in experiential learning projects.
Most lately, these student projects include Prof. Rebecca Beauseart and her food history class’s Tried, Tested and True: A Retrospective on Canadian Cookery, 1867-1917, and Extraordinary History of Stuff Recipe Pamphlet Exhibit, in which Prof. Kevin James and his class created a joint online exhibit on culinary ephemera such as menus, advertising cookbooks, pamphlets and labels.
A new site is being developed called ‘What Canada Ate’, in which Beauseart’s food history students have completely digitized and created a searchable online repository for 35 cookbooks. As part of the site, they are also working on a joint online class exhibit called More than Just Maple, a Collection of Canuck Staples.
Even for experienced foodies like Smith, Stewart, Smith’s chef de cuisine Chris Gibb and chef Pam Fanjoy of Fanjoy's in Hillsburgh, who recently won Chopped Canada, the collection offered some revelations.
Leafing through the pages of various tomes – which include manuscript cookbooks and personal cookbooks passed down through multiple family generations – they read about how to “carbonade” a goose (no explanation given about what carbonade means), how to candy a “sucket” (presumably, a section) of orange, and how to create turnip syrup. They also read about how to stew a carp, how to make vinegar and how to pickle walnuts “to eat like mangoes.”
Stewart offered some insight into what makes Smith tick.
“Great chefs are curious men and women,” she says. “There is very little that they enjoy more than diving into such extraordinary reference material… with a healthy appetite.”
Stewart says although Smith is renowned for his down-home country style and his approachable on- and off-air personality, there’s another reality – he’s also extremely well-read, and a brilliant innovator.
“That’s why the University of Guelph’s culinary collection is such a superb resource for him and for the myriad of other talented chefs who’ve graced our archives in the past few months,” she says. “They all echo that same desire to know and understand more about what our motto, improving life, is all about.”