By: Jill Tham
Food blogger with
a social conscience
“There is nothing better than the sense of pride you feel when sitting down to a good meal that you have prepared yourself,” states food blogger, Tiffany Mayer. Mayer began her blog, Eating Niagara, in 2009 when job cuts at her newspaper prompted her to take an interest in the internet. “At first, I approached my site from a journalist’s perspective, but over time it became more of a personal outlet,” she states.
Although Mayer grew up inspired by her mother and Oma’s love for the kitchen, Mayer first became interested in cooking while employed as an agricultural journalist. Shortly thereafter, Mayer began taking cooking classes and binge watching the Food Network. “Food is a passion of mine, it just made sense to blog about it.
Eating Niagara is chockfull of stories of the wonderful people that grow the bountiful harvests of the Niagara Region and with ideas of the many ways that people can eat locally. Mayer tells tales ranging from foraging for garlic mustard roots to the pleasure of receiving each season’s first basket from Tree and Twig Heirloom Vegetable Farm, a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
What are the important staples that Mayer keeps her fridge stocked with? “If you have potatoes, eggs, and kale you are set,” she adds. She loves cooking with chives and has secret collection of hot sauces stashed around the pantry. “I love anything with heat,” she states. “One of my favourite foods is potato latkes – it’s not glamorous or sexy, but I love them in the winter.”
Mayer’s passion for food and agriculture has grown into a desire to help those in need. She founded the “Garden of Eating,” a volunteer initiative that collects unwanted residentially grown crops from participants and donates the fruit to local food banks. “I started the initiative in 2009 and it has remained a food warrior thing,” states Mayer.
If you are the type that finds the kitchen a daunting place, then Mayer encourages you to take a course or pick up a copy of “The Joy of Cooking.” “It is a book everyone should have. When I became a vegetarian I realized what a great resource it is,” says Mayer. “So, find a simple recipe and give it a whirl.”
When Mayer gets down to work in the kitchen, there is one thing that gets her blood boiling. “A dull knife is my pet peeve,” she laughs adding, “My husband goes through a lot of band aids.”
This year, Mayer became a mother for the first time. She is realizing that the newborn stage can be hectic. “I don’t spend as much time in the kitchen as I would like to, but I wouldn’t change it for the world,” she states.
September will be an important time for Mayer as with it comes the release of her first book, “Niagara Food: A flavourful history of the peninsula’s bounty.” In her book, Mayer has compiled the history of our great region. The book highlights Niagara’s key players and retells their tales of the birth and struggle of Niagara’s agriculture and wine industry. “It was an honour to be asked to write Niagara’s story,” she states.
As Mayer takes in the success of her book release and enjoys the love of her daughter she will continue to amuse us with tales on her blog while planning her next move.
For more information about Mayer and her quests visit www.eatingniagara.com/ and http://www.thegardenofeating-niagara.com/
What is your favourite restaurant?
“The Supper Market in Niagara-on-the-Lake is an experience all on its own. That is how community comes together over food,” states Mayer. “My favourite chef is Adam Hynam-Smith from El Gastronomo Vagabundo Food Truck. If I were on my death bed I would want him to make me my last meal.”
What is your biggest food flop?
“Those are usually ones I don’t use a recipe for and I am just trying to wing it. Since becoming a vegetarian, I have lost my touch for barbequing meat. I can grill a mean asparagus – If that makes up for it,” she states.
Where are your favourite places to shop in Niagara?
“I love fruit stands and farmer’s markets because I tend to find the grocery store uninspiring,” Mayer states. “I love looking in international food and health food stores, such as Dinh Dinh Asian Foods and The Peanut Mill Natural Foods Market in downtown St. Catharines, for things you won’t find at a chain grocery store.”
Green thumb, number cruncher, the Midas touch or jack of all trades. All great idioms, but what term would describe someone who is an accomplished baker? If one does exist, it would suit Fabiola Gabriel to a tee.
Gabriel, a chef by trade, started her website Shamecake: the good the bad and the ugly; adventures in baking, after friends and family kept nagging her to cough up her recipes. “I believe in cooking at home, experimenting with food and sharing it with others, so I thought it would be good to blog about my good and bad adventures,” says Gabriel.
When Gabriel’s parents gave her the advice to pick a career that would make her happy, she thought of cooking. “I liked to cook with my mom and I knew I could make a career out of it,” states Gabriel, who excelled in the culinary program at Niagara College earning herself a “Red Seal.” “Things just snowballed from there,” says Gabriel.
Each time Gabriel has worked in a restaurant setting, her coworkers and bosses saw her in the same light – the baker. “I hated baking at first, but then it grew on me and I realized I was good at it,” she says. Gabriel was never formally trained in baking, nevertheless she is a prime example of natural talent.
Although she has proven she can work as a team in a fast paced restaurant, she isn’t pleased when her work space becomes crowded or unorganized. “I hate when people start cutting my grass, so to speak,” she laughs.
Gabriel finds inspiration for new recipes from Niagara’s prosperous agriculture. “I love Niagara in the summer because when something comes into season you try new recipes with it,” she states. “I’ve made a tomato cobbler and it’s a great year for asparagus, but no one wants to hear about asparagus,” Gabriel says. When Gabriel saw cherries at the farmers market she went back to Station One Coffeehouse, where she is currently the baker, with one thought; when life gives you cherries make cherry pie. “I love to bake with fruit,” she adds.
Experimenting in the kitchen is an important aspect of baking for Gabriel. While she uses a lot of natural foods and gluten free options, she loves to cook with alternatives and substitutions such as maple syrup, coconut sugar, and cinnamon. This year, she became a new homeowner and planted her first garden. “I’m looking forward to making tomato sauce with the four different kinds of heirloom tomatoes I planted this summer,” Gabriel states.
Shamecake is full of step by step photos of Gabriel’s baking, making her recipes easy to follow for even the most novice of bakers. “I wanted my site to be a place for learning and sharing whatever funny events happen,” she states. Her user friendly site takes the guesswork out of baking. Gabriel will not only have you in stitches with her humour, but she will inspire you to break out a set of mixing bowls.
Gabriel recently left her job at a bustling restaurant, with a demanding 60 hour work week, to focus on her long time goal of owning her own business. “I’d love to do something with bread. It involves a lot of patience, but making bread is such a basic heartfelt way of creating something so substantial from almost nothing,” she says. “The undeniable smell, texture, and taste makes it all worthwhile.”
In the meantime, while Gabriel explores new business opportunities and chronicles her adventures in the kitchen, her family and friends will continue to bask in the love and warmth of her baking. While her dream is to one day spend her time crafting glorious loaves of crusty bread, Gabriel is content, for now, to let them eat cake – her famous cheesecake to be exact. http://shamecake.com/
Your worst flop?
“I am really bad at anything that is a quick bread. I can do it, but it always makes me scared. You can’t overwork the dough,” she says.
What is your favourite restaurant?
“Toi in St. Catharines and Garrison house in Niagara-on-the-Lake are very up there on my list,” says Gabriel.
Where do you like to shop?
“My favourite place is the Grimsby farmer’s market and VG Meats in Stoney Creek,” states Gabriel. “The coffee shop I work at, Station One Coffeehouse, sells local cooking oils and purchasing local products is very important to me.”
Ah the foodie. They host dinner parties, read about nutrition and fads, attend food events, watch cooking shows, drink properly paired beverages and sample all types of trendy food. Where does the creativity and drive come from for the average foodie? In the case of this particular foodie, the inspiration came quite naturally.
Hailing from Niagara Falls, ON, Natalie Spagnol appears reserved, but underneath her sweet exterior lurks the Food NA∙RC. Get her in the kitchen and she is a force to be reckoned with. Her blog, Food NA∙RC: Food is our drug of choice, that she created with her partner, Marc Hodges, is certainly a tribute to her talent in the kitchen. Her no guff approach has garnered her a feisty reputation in the food blogging world.
As a young girl, Spagnol spent her days climbing trees to pick fruit and playing in the chicken barn of her grandparent’s farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Her maternal grandparents owned Stewarts drive in restaurant, also in Niagara-on-the-Lake. “It was a family style drive in restaurant,” says Spagnol. “They served burgers and roast dinners.” Growing up around these strong culinary influences has given her a solid foundation in and around the kitchen.
Spagnol is quite the food blogger junkie. She not only has her own blog, but reads and follows a plethora of other food bloggers, the majority of which focus on clean living. Spagnol and Hodges live by the 80/20 rule. “We eat healthy 80% of the time and treat ourselves 20% of the time,” says Spagnol.
Food NA∙RC, a play on their first names, is more than just a compilation of tasty recipes, it will educate you on the do’s and don’ts of cooking food and kitchen etiquette. From food storage to wine pairings, her website is a wealth of knowledge. Their site even features friendly competition in the form of dinner parties.
With a Master’s degree in Art History, Spagnol has spent the past eight years as a curator of an art gallery. She recently left that career and accepted a position with the head office of Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, in hopes of expanding her skill set and keeping her and Hodges in High Park, their favourite little hamlet in Toronto. “I have apartment style appliances and little counter space,” says Spagnol. Although Spagnol describes the lack of space her biggest pet peeve, she doesn’t seem to let it deter her from finding ways to make apartment living food friendly. “Our balcony is covered in plants such as tomato, basil, thyme, oregano, and mint,” says Spagnol. “We make do.”
Spagnol and Hodges work with simple ingredients. “I can’t live without basil and there is so much you can do with just salt and pepper,” states Spagnol. When going to a dinner party, Spagnol never leaves the house without her kale Caesar salad and eggplant parmesan. “The eggplant parmesan is my mom’s recipe – she gets full credit for that,” she says.
In the kitchen, just as in life, Spagnol expects a great deal of turbulence. “You can’t come up with a recipe unless you fail,” she says. “Today I made granola and burnt the first batch, but with some trial and error, the second batch came out perfect.” Spagnol warns new foodies, “You can’t get discouraged when you try a new recipe and it is completely awful.”
To inspiring chefs, Spagnol stresses the importance of reading the recipe over in full before starting the cooking process. “I hate prepping ingredients ahead of time because it creates a ton of little dirty bowls, but it is necessary to ensure you have all the ingredients.”
Purchasing fancy equipment and gadgets is not important when following Food NA∙RC or experimenting on your own in the kitchen. “I use a $20.00 blender from Walmart,” she states.
Although Spagnol currently reside in the big city, her playful and down to earth approach to blogging and being a diehard foodie goes to show, you can take the girl out of the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the girl. To visit Food NA∙RC go to http://foodnarc.ca/
Your worst flop?
“I have flops all the time! I made this cauliflower soup once, it turned out inedible. Marc ate it anyway, but he pretty much eats anything,” laughs Spagnol.
Where do you like to shop?
“When I go home, we go to Lococo’s. I think it is a fantastic resource for local people,” says Spagnol. “My grandma lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake, so we hit up local food stands like The Fruit Shack.”
What is your favourite restaurant?
“I really like the Yellow Pear Food Truck and if someone asked me to go to the Blue Turtle, I would never turn them down for brunch,” says Spagnol.