TV host takes an up close look at what’s on our plates

Garlic is a building block of cuisines around the world. It's a flavour staple, its presence lurking in more soups and stews and sauces and sautes than many of us realize.

Garlic is a building block of cuisines around the world. It’s a flavour staple, its presence lurking in more soups and stews and sauces and sautes than many of us realize.

But despite its ubiquity, garlic production is intensely concentrated: 75 per cent of the world’s bulbs come from China, and of the garlic consumed in North America, 45 per cent comes from just four companies in California.

Beyond the garlic industrial complex, there’s a growing array of backyard garlic growers, garlic festivals, garlic-obsessed chefs, and heirloom garlic farmers – and their stories will be told in a special screening of a food-focused television series, this weekend in Whitehorse.

Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System airs on Toronto’s iChannel. Each episode focuses on a single, crucial food: There are episodes devoted to eggs, wheat, garlic, tomatoes, honey, and pork. The show is hosted by its writer and producer, Jon Steinman, who will be on hand at the Old Fire Hall Saturday night to answer questions, give a short presentation, and screen two segments of the show.

Steinman, who’s based in Nelson, B.C., is a longtime food enthusiast. He grew up in Ontario, and completed a bachelor of commerce degree at the University of Guelph with a focus on hotel and food administration. “That’s kind of where my whole food journey began,” he says. “I realized at the end of those four years that I didn’t necessarily receive the entire story. I was missing out on a big piece, which was the story of where the food is actually coming from.”

After university, Steinman got work in the restaurant industry, in a variety of managerial and supervisory roles, and he landed at several places that had unique ties to their suppliers – restaurants that worked directly with farmers to source their food, for instance. After his move to British Columbia, he did a stint at the restaurant at Mission Hill Winery, where the staff actually went out in the fields and helped harvest the crops that went into the kitchen’s dishes. Eventually he moved into serving – he liked talking to people best, he realized.

He moved to Nelson in 2004, and in 2006 he put his gift of gab to work, hosting a show on Kootenay Co-op Radio. It was called Deconstructing Dinner, and it used interviews to explore the ways we interact with our food.

“The idea was to go behind the scenes of our food system and look at the ways in which food gets from the farm to the plate, and to understand all the food systems, whether they’re economic, or political,” he says. “And then on the flip-side we also looked at how people and communities are reconstructing the food systems.” The radio show, which was eventually accompanied by a syndicated newspaper column, aired for four years.

Not long after stepping away from the radio show, Steinman met award-winning Toronto-based television producer Declan O’Driscoll. O’Driscoll had just wrapped up work on Milk War, a documentary about an Ontario raw milk farmer’s battle to legalize his product that would go on to win a James Beard Award. (“They’re the Oscars of food,” Steinman says.)

The pair decided to transform the Deconstructing Dinner concept into a television series, swapping out Steinman’s more freeform radio interview approach for a tighter model. The emphasis on just one specific food per episode allowed them to tackle broader issues – breeding practices and biochemistry in the tomatoes episode, for instance – while maintaining a focused storyline.

Choosing the six foods that the show would focus on was a challenge, Steinman says. They started with a list of 26, narrowed it down to 13, and eventually chose a final half-dozen.

The cuts he regrets most? Salmon and salt. And his preferred episodes? “The one that’s most personal to me is the wheat episode,” he says. “That’s one that actually tells a little bit of the story about a project I was involved in.”

The garlic episode, he adds, is a favourite too. Garlic is also one of his favourite foods.

He’s also “a sucker for venison,” he says, as well as other wild meats. He can’t get enough of salmon, honey or maple syrup. And he’s especially fond of huckleberries.

Steinman is being hosted in Whitehorse by the Potluck Food Co-op, a recently launched member-owned grocery store that connects Yukoners to local, organic and sustainably grown foods. At home in Nelson, Steinman is on the board of directors of Kootenay Co-op, Canada’s largest independent consumer food co-op, and before the screenings he’ll discuss his role there and the work that the co-op is doing. He’ll also take questions, and the Deconstructing Dinner episodes devoted to garlic and tomatoes will be shown.

The event takes place at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 29 at the Old Fire Hall. For anyone interested in getting involved, the Potluck Food Co-op will also be holding its annual general meeting there at 6 p.m.

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