Beyond Gingerbread and Hot Cider: Food and Drink Interpretation at Montgomery's Inn  

Saturday, April 24, 2004 members of the Culinary Historians of Canada and Friends of Montgomery's Inn gathered at Montgomery's Inn for a lecture and dinner exploring the origins of the food-history program at this restored historic inn and City of Toronto museum.

The introduction to the lecture was given by Liz Driver, President of the Culinary Historians of Canada and the Program Officer in charge of Foodways at Montgomery's Inn.

Liz spoke of how the people who start an institution set the tone. Liz observed that the work of Phil Dunning, as the first curator, and Tina Bates as one of the first historic cooks, continues to resonate at Montgomery's Inn. Tina's publication Out of Old Ontario Kitchens continues that resonance throughout the province.

Tina Bates, who was an Interpreter at the Inn from 1975 to 1978, began her comments by expressing her amazement that it was almost 30 years ago that she began exploring food history at the museum.

When she arrived at the Inn, the kitchen was furnished, and pots and pans and glassware were all in place, but the “world was open” in terms of cooking programs. Tina began by consulting with other sites and reading published sources; next, manuscript cookbooks from the Archives of Ontario and period newspapers were consulted for references to foods that were available at the time.

After a certain amount of information was collected, Tina and the other staff began using the historic recipes and appropriate technology to try to recreate the kinds of foods available in Ontario in the mid-nineteenth century.

The practical skills of working in the historic kitchen were discovered by trial and error. The cooks kept in mind that they were “trying” and not experts with all the answers. Sometimes a simple direction in a period source led to more questions; for example, having been instructed to store dried herbs in a paper bag – the modern interpreter needs to know – “What did a paper bag look like in 1850?”

Phil Dunning began his presentation on a humorous note, speaking about the difficulty of getting equal status for beverage history. The general public, it seems, were not prepared to accept museum employees sitting drinking in the bar room as a valid form of interpretation. He introduced the term “Boozeways” to describe his parallel work on the history of beverages served at Montgomery's Inn in the 1830s and 40s.

Thomas Montgomery's papers formed a foundation for Phil's research at the Inn. Mr. Montgomery recorded credit transactions in the bar room, tracking the local folks that had a drink and promised to pay later. Glasses of whiskey and glasses of beer make up the majority of drinks recorded.

When the Pilgrims arrived in North America they drank ale and beer. In England beer was a staple, regarded more as a part of the diet of the working man than as an intoxicating substance. Rum entered the North American market as a result of the sugar-cane industry in the West Indies. Surplus sugar-cane molasses was distilled into rum. When the Loyalists arrived in Ontario, they brought their taste for rum with them.

Phil argued that the settlers in Upper Canada had sound economic reasons for converting their surplus crop, in this case grain, into alcohol. The distillation process guaranteed that alcohol did not spoil on its long journey to market back in England. Furthermore, a shipload of barrels of whiskey was far more profitable than a shipload of grain.

Thomas Montgomery also sold the occasional brandy, wine, peppermint, shrub, and “spirits”. Brandy and wine would be imported goods, and they were significantly more expensive than the local product. Thomas's papers include a recipe for “peppermint” which starts with 10 gallons of whiskey. Essentially, it is a watered and sweetened flavoured whiskey. Shrub is made by blending flavoured spirits and is intended to form the basis for a punch. A recipe recently used at Montgomery's Inn is from Eliza Smith's “Compleat Cook” and calls for brandy steeped for several days with the rind and juice of lemons, then strained and sweetened with sugar and “diluted” with wine.

Although Phil and Tina are no longer working at living-history sites, they continue to be involved with re-enactment groups. Phil is particularly proud of his role as a “Suttler,” a sort of freelance bar keep, setting up his stall at re-enactments. In this role he helps re-enactors recreate authentic hangovers.

A meal based on recipes from Out of Old Ontario Kitchens followed the lectures. Diners enjoyed Curry Soup, Tea biscuits, Medley Pie, Potato Balls, Spring Greens, and Bread and Butter Pudding with sauce. Although appropriate beverages were available before and during the meal, I, for one, suffered no evil side effects, except perhaps the mild discomfort of having eaten too much and too well. I suspect that, too, is an authentic historic food experience.

report by Maggie Newell,
CHC Secretary

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