Before Shakespearean plays were acted on the stages of the Canadian city synonymous with quality theatrical performances, Stone Age people and First Nations tribes hunted the land in Ontario that would become Stratford. Not until European settlers arrived, establishing farms, did a permanent community begin, but this came with the adverse effect of depleting the habitats available for hunting. These are some historical linkages that Steve Stacey makes in Stratford Food: An Edible History (The History Press, 2014, $21.99) as he sets the stage for the integral role food has played in the city’s development.
The Shakespeare Hotel, Stratford’s first permanent (and aptly-named) building, was erected in 1832 with the distinction of also having the town’s first vegetable garden. Aside from abundant crops on the surrounding farmland, gardening plays a vital role throughout Stratford’s history, with Victory Gardens planted in war times and school gardens supplying cafeteria food programs.
The Shakespeare Hotel also headquartered the Stratford Agriculture Society, formed in 1841, which established a livestock and crop exhibition. With such plentiful agricultural output, hundreds of farmers constantly travelled to Stratford to barter or sell their goods, or to utilise the railway passing through the city as their delivery method. The Market Square became the centre for trading in the 1800s, and countless restaurants, taverns, and saloons were supported by these farmers who needed places to eat and sleep. Since these earlier times, the modern farming community has flourished with specialty farms providing high-quality, unique products, like August’s Harvest that ships organic garlic across North America, Perth Pork Products that raises wild boar, and Soiled Reputation Farm that supplies organic greens to fine dining restaurants from Stratford to Toronto. Stacey writes, “Basically, if there is a farm-fresh product that a resident or chef in Stratford would like to find, there is in all likelihood a local producer who can supply it.”
The population of the city was 900 in 1852, rising to nearly 10,000 by 1884, but Stratford was still very much a farming community, with livestock mingling with human residents on the streets. It eventually reached its current population of 30,000 with world-renowned actors replacing the livestock on those streets. Stacey writes, “Without a doubt, it was the inception of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 1953 that influenced the development of the city as a culinary destination with opportunities for fine dining, more relaxed bistros and restaurants to suit virtually every taste and palette. The Stratford Festival brought diners in droves.” The number of restaurants increased from 18 in 1951 to 78 by 1989. Very important players in the restaurant scene — The Church, The Old Prune, and Rundles — were spawned during this insurgence that provided locals, theatre-goers, and actors with gourmet dining that put the city on the culinary map.
Another element solidifying Stratford’s culinary reputation was the establishment of the Stratford Chefs School in 1983. Fine dining restaurants not only offered their kitchens as training classrooms, but the chefs became instructors, which was an especially efficient use of the dormant resources of kitchens and staff during the downtime in the industry when the theatre shutdown for the season. Marking its thirtieth year in 2014, the Stratford Chefs School has accomplished its goal of populating Stratford’s restaurants with top chefs without having to recruit from outside its boundaries.
Stacey knows that food establishments cannot be talked about without profiling the cast of characters who established them: Katherine “Cowkitty” Bryden operated the first dairy farm in the 1800s; Donald McDonald was instrumental in establishing the first Market Square for citizens to procure the bounty of their area and vendors to sell it; chef Paul Finkelstein opened the Screaming Avocado Cafe as an alternative cafeteria where high school students prepare lunch for their teachers and peers. Another important individual is Danielle Brodhagan, the visionary behind the Savour Stratford Festival, which started in 2008 and has become the Canadian food event of the year. This capstone festival, full of high-profile attendees, along with other events like the Stratford Garlic Festival and the Ontario Pork Congress, highlight that the Shakespeare Festival is not the only show in town.
This robust food culture inspired Stacey himself to relocate to Stratford and, in five short years, make his own significant contributions to the food landscape. Stacey has the credentials to write about this topic not only at the heart of Stratford’s history, but also close to his own heart: he assisted Chef Finkelstein at the Screaming Avocado Café, worked at the Savour Stratford Festival, acted as Stratford’s official food blogger for the Stratford Tourism Alliance, and is now the executive director of The Local, the city’s community centre that puts all aspects of food, gardening, cooking, and education at the forefront for everyone in the city to access and enjoy. With these food-related endeavours supporting his Stratford Food research, Stacey highlights that the theatre may be the driving force behind this vibrant community, but the agricultural history started long before, and the restaurants, coffee shops, confectionaries, and markets have had a residual and influential impact on the economy and culture.
DARIN COOK is a freelance writer who keeps himself well read and well fed by visiting the bookstores and restaurants of London.