Friday, March 16, 2007

A Salute to Country Captain:

It seems that Mother Nature is determined to provide an authentic environment for the Canadian Feast on March 18th, and pounds New York with a late winter storm of snow and ice. I pick up several items at the supermarket – mostly fat and carbohydrates – for for the dinner, and must drag the grocery cart through a parking lot that is not yet plowed. It’s challenging, but like the Canadian Mounties who “always get their man,” I always get my ingredients.

Meanwhile, Jill has returned to Ottawa from sunny Florida, and is focusing on her final preparations for the American Feast in Canada, the centerpiece of which is poultry with a distinctly nautical flair. She writes:

Back from the South, and I see that you've plunged head-first into the stewpot of Canadian cuisine. While catching up with recent posts (and comments), I discover that there is some skepticism about the Caesar. My Canadian sensibilities are shocked! How could anyone doubt that a drink containing clam juice and Worcestershire sauce would be anything but delicious? Really, they are very good, especially with extra-spicy Clamato juice. I fully support your decision to stick with the traditional butter tart, so you know where my allegiance lies in the raisin/no-raisin debate.

You have certainly uncovered some things I didn't know, particularly with regard to pea soup. I had no idea that the soup pea capital of Canada is in Manitoba. In fact, I wasn't even aware that Canada had a soup pea capital. I suspect I'm not alone. I'm afraid I can't solve the mystery of the whole yellow peas, but I'll do some sleuthing from this end to see what I can uncover.

My American cooking investigation has moved to the next item on the menu you've put together - Country Captain. I first encountered this dish of chicken stewed with tomatoes, onion and curry years ago while working in an outdoor cafe that featured Chicken Country Captain on the dinner menu from time to time, so I'm familiar with it. However, I had always wondered about the origins and the story behind the rather jaunty name: what exactly is a country captain, and what does it have to do with chicken?

I delve into the recipe books, to discover that there is no one answer. According to legend (of which there are many variations), this popular Southern recipe originated in the late 1700s or early 1800s, during the era of ship trading between American ports and the East Indies. One colourful version of the story suggests that a ship's cook, tired of the bland fare on board, dipped into the cargo of spices to liven up the evening meal of chicken. The cook later recreated the meal in Savannah, a major port for the spice trade, with great success. Another variation proposes that a British sea captain who had been stationed in India shared the recipe with friends in Savannah.

Two things seem clear: the association with India, and with the shipping trade. So, the name could be linked to the notion of a ship's captain. But where does "country" come from? A little more research sheds some light. Various sources suggest that the dish originates from a Bengal curry or more likely, from a Madras recipe for spatchcock dressed with onions and curry. The Oxford Companion to Food describes Country Captain as a dish of "mysterious origin" and explains that the term "country" was used during the British colonial period to refer to anything of Indian, as opposed to British, origins. The "country" trade was conducted by "country ships", commanded by "country captains." However, "country captain" was also the name given to captains of Indian troops (or sepoys) employed by England. So, the dish may derive its name from the sepoy officers who likely introduced it to British tables, or from the ship captains who are said to have brought the recipe to England and the American South.

Whatever its true origins, Country Captain has become a Southern classic, although it has come in and out of style over the years. A 1991 New York Times article by Molly Stevens (excerpted on"") described the efforts of culinary maven and foodwriter Cecily Brownstone to promote and preserve authentic Country Captain, her favourite dish. She apparently "blew the lid off" the assumption that Country Captain was invented in the American South and crusaded for the inclusion of her favourite recipe in dozens of cookbooks, enlisting the support of her friend James Beard. She's also said to have chastised those responsible when she discovered variations in the recipe in restaurants or cookbooks. For my Country Captain, I decide on a version sweetened with currants and mango chutney, and topped with a generous amount of coconut and sliced almonds. Hopefully Cecily would have approved.

As the snow and freezing rain pelts the house, I’m now dreaming of a cruise to India and a spicy serving of Country Captain. But, I still have one dish left to research – the legendary Canadian Nanaimo Bar.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I know, that frigid weather we had yesterday was something else wasn't it? At least we had two days of almost spring beforehand!

Ari (Baking and Books)