The Archaeology of Culinary History Symposium

report by Maggie Newell
Maggie, CHO's Secretary, is the Program Officer at Historic Zion Schoolhouse, where she assumes the role of a schoolmistress from 1910.

Archaeologists, friends of Montgomery's Inn, and culinary historians gathered at Montgomery's Inn on Saturday, 21 February, 2004 for this day-long symposium. Participants enjoyed the hospitality of the Inn, with homemade muffins to start the day, an appropriate 19th-century lunch, and a beer tasting to finish. When we weren't eating and drinking there were seven informative speakers who took us in chronological steps from prehistory to the present.

The speakers reinforced the connections between material culture research and culinary history. Historic recipes only tell part of the story of food history. This report will focus on the morning sessions in the expectation that the CHC members who presented in the afternoon will have their papers published in future issues of our newsletter, Culinary Chronicles.

In the first session Paleoethnobotanist Rudy Fecteau introduced us to evidence of aboriginal foodways in the form of carbonised plant remains found in an archaeological context. An experienced teacher, he first engaged our senses of taste and smell and boosted our blood sugar, by providing the cornmeal muffins and maple syrup to enjoy with our morning coffee. Corn and maple syrup have been used in North America since prehistoric times.

Rudy demonstrated the flotation method used to reclaim carbonised plant materials from an archaeological dig. Very simply, bags of soil are dumped in water, and the floating carbonised material is scooped off the top for further analysis. Carbonisation – or exposure to fire – preserves plant material, such as seeds, that would not otherwise survive in the soil for hundreds of years. Proximity to fire also often indicates the plant was being used as food; either the seeds have fallen out of the cooking pot, or they are in the general area of the cooking fire.

Charred wood associated with cooking fires can reveal the types of trees and shrubs used as fuel and provide clues to the local forest ecology and plant food resources. Archaeological remains in Ontario point to the availability of black walnuts, butternuts, hickory nuts, and fleshy fruit with pits, such as plums.

Corn, beans, and squash are known as the ‘three sisters' in Native culture; they are the traditional agricultural staples that sustain life. All three were introduced into Ontario from the south. Archaeological evidence shows that corn was introduced by 500 AD and was cultivated all over the province by the 15th century. Sixteenth-century accounts describe cornfields with plants tall enough for European travellers to get lost in.

The introduction of both corn and beans resulted in increases in human population in Ontario . Corn alone provided a more reliable food base than hunting and gathering. Corn and beans together combine complementary amino acids to form protein. This nutritional advance had the power to move people beyond subsistence into a more secure footing in their environment. The traditional reverence for these foods reflects their importance to the survival of the Native Peoples.

In the second session Heather Henderson introduced us to French foodways in 17th-century Nova Scotia, as revealed by faunal remains from Fort Ann, Annapolis Royale. The animal bones disposed of in a midden, or kitchen garbage pit, can reveal a good deal about the food that was prepared in the kitchen. Bones from various classes are distinct, and an expert can determine whether the bones are from a mammal, bird, fish, or a reptile. The presence of immature or uncalcified bones can point to the age of the animal at the time of consumption, and therefore the season of slaughter, if the life-cycle of the animal is known. Patterns of butchery may be indicated by cuts to the surviving bones.

All these factors were considered in analysing the remains from this site to try to discover ethnic food preferences, as well as the availability of certain kinds of animals for food. The remains from this dig indicated that the French families at Annapolis Royale in the 1630s regularly consumed imported domestic cows and pigs, and only occasionally ate more exotic local fare. Despite their proximity to water, fish was rarely consumed.

Other archaeological evidence points to the use of pewter, tin-plated dishes, china, and green-glazed earthenware, all imported from Europe. The picture that emerges from the evidence at this site is of the French inhabitants trying to recreate their familiar ways of life on foreign soil. They introduced animal species they were familiar with, and butchered and cooked them in their customary way, to eat them off imported dishes.

In the third session Dena Doroszenko told the story of Inge Va. The biographical information and the archaeological evidence are both important to understanding this heritage property in Perth Ontario. Lucy and Thomas Radenhurst married in 1834 and settled into Inge Va to raise a family. This was a family of quality and quantity. They had ten children by 1846, and expanded their home in the 1840s.

A series of archaeological digs unearthed fragments of 54 named china patterns. The large collection shows the availability of a great variety of quality ceramics in Ontario in the mid-19th century. The earliest set of china was likely the most expensive, and might represent their wedding china. This set was manufactured in Japan and hand-painted with gilt paint. The named patterns from the digs include Dresden Spring, Castle, Mandarin, Blue Willow, Persia, and White Wheat. Types of ceramics include blue edgeware, banded wares, mocha ware, yellow ware, and red earthernware.

Identifiable objects include everything from chamberpots to children's plates and mugs. These latter objects are the most poignant in this massive collection. Three children in the household died between 1866 and 1873 and tuberculosis was diagnosed as the cause. The archaeological remains reveal a domestic tragedy, as it seems that the family threw their dishes in the pit and buried them to stop the spread of this dreaded disease.


These three sessions gave participants an excellent cross section of the kinds of information that archaeologists can discover. We were taken from basic nutrition, through preservation of cultural identity, to human tragedy in one morning.

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