Bobcaygeon might soon be famous for more than being the title of a 1998 hit single by the Tragically Hip. If resident Elaine Fritz gets her way, the pretty Ontario town situated on the Trent-Severn Waterway will go down in history as the home of the woman who got her fellow Canadians eating strawberry shortcake from coast to coast every July 1. The patriotic 65-year-old, who once planted 5,000 red and white petunias in the shape of a 23- by 31-m Canadian flag in her field, has been campaigning since 1991 to make the classic confectionery the official birthday cake of Canada Day. But it wasn’t until last May that her efforts went into overdrive: Fritz mailed out 307 postcards, with a photo of her strawberry shortcake on the front and a plea neatly typed out on the back, to nearly every member of Parliament, plus one to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, asking them to declare the cake Canada’s national dessert: “What could be a more patriotic candidate? It is delicious, red and white and in season for Canada’s birthday. It can be as ethnic as anyone desires because almost all nationalities have their version, but over it we are joined to each other by a creamy coating, all under the Canadian flag.” And one footnote: “As a taxpayer, I would like to see the government ship and distribute strawberries to the remote areas of Canada for July 1, every year.”
The former factory worker, mini-doughnut maker and science enthusiast received four responses, including one from then-MP Robert Oliphant of Don Valley West, who wrote that he would support the move if Fritz could convince her own MP, Barry Devolin, to present a private member’s bill. Oliphant even promised to bake Devolin a shortcake “if the ball gets rolling.” Fritz also made a few follow-up calls to other MPs. “I spoke to what I’m guessing was an assistant because I wanted to see what they thought of the idea. And do you know what they said? ‘We’ve got to be politically correct and what about all the blueberry farmers?’ I mean, I just got a headache.”
While Fritz won’t confide to Maclean’s the name of the MP for whom the assistant worked (“I have faith that strawberry shortcake will become Canada’s national birthday cake and that person will feel glad that they were never named.”), she volunteers that she paid Devolin a visit at his office—armed with strawberry shortcake. “They really enjoyed it,” Fritz says, “but when I couldn’t understand why my efforts weren’t moving along, Barry explained that we just can’t declare it Canada Day cake; we have to get a groundswell. That’s why I went on Recipe to Riches.”
This February, Fritz, along with her husband of 42 years, John, and her best friend of 25 years, Shirley, loaded up a cooler with a large strawberry shortcake plus a few smaller ones, and headed to Toronto to audition for the Food Network show that premieres this fall. (The premise is to showcase Canadian home cooks’ recipes in the style of live-audience reality television shows like So You Think You Can Dance.) Although she didn’t make the cut, Fritz’s red-and-white dessert elicited an enthusiastic response: “When I came out on stage they all sang O Canada! Oh golly, that was so unexpected, to get all that support.” After a thoughtful pause, Fritz continues: “In fact, I haven’t met anyone who’s negative about it.”
For Fritz, who has two grown children, that includes a very supportive family: “It’s my niece’s favourite dessert and it’s my sister’s favourite dessert,” she says. Plus, her church group often requests it and so do her friends, specifically the ones with whom Fritz makes a pilgrimage every July to the annual Collingwood Elvis Festival. “After you go to the Elvis concert you go back to the hotel room,” Fritz explains scrupulously, “and you get a big plate of strawberry shortcake and a nice hot tea and just unwind and recap the evening’s events.”
“That shortcake’s been everywhere,” including Denver, where Fritz would often fly with her sister to the late singer John Denver’s environmental symposiums in the 1980s. She also took the cake as a gift for Roy Romanow’s commission on health care held in Sudbury, Ont., in April 2002. “The staff there asked me for my recipe and they were raving about it. It’s just a natural.”
In fact, Fritz’s recipe, which she’s been tinkering with for several years, is more natural than you might think: it’s made with mostly organic ingredients. “If I’d given you the recipe in the ’70s you’d have had to go to a health food store,” says Fritz, who used to be nicknamed “the health food freak” in her youth, “but now it’s so easy to find organic stuff.” The starting base “was just my mom’s regular white cake and that goes back 60 years. The recipe was finalized just a few years ago. That’s when I settled on three eggs.” It’s also when she nailed down the size: each of Fritz’s strawberry shortcakes are made in a nine- by 12-inch pan, which makes “for a nice proportionate flag.”
Her recipe—a moist white cake topped with fresh strawberries sweetened with sugar, a layer of whipped cream, crowned with the Canadian flag mapped out in dried strawberry fruit strips—may be a far cry from the more traditional biscuit version, which Fritz doesn’t care for, but that hasn’t deterred her one bit. “One of the judge’s comments on Recipes to Riches was that she was used to the biscuit version, but everyone I’ve given my strawberry shortcake to loves my version.”
In one form or another, North Americans have been enjoying the dessert at summer tea parties and church socials since the 1850s. (The earliest recipe for “strawberry cake” comes courtesy of Miss Leslie in The Lady’s Receipt Book from 1847.) And even though gastronomes like Alan Davidson may disagree—he writes in the Oxford Companion to Food that, “No alternative version can match the excellence of the [biscuit] original”— the underlying message of Fritz’s cake crusade is that strawberry shortcake is adaptable. “Underneath, everybody can have their own ethnic cake—the British can have their biscuit and I can have my version. That’s the whole essence of the thing: we’re all different underneath but we’re all under the Canadian flag. It just seems to be so fitting for Canada’s birthday cake. It’s just tasty, tasty, tasty.”
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