“Come Again Tomorrow, Whim Wham, and much more for 7s 6d”: A Georgian Gentlewoman’s Culinary Journey from Charlottetown to Dundee
Report by Amy Scott.
On Robbie Burns’ Day, January 25, members of the Culinary Historians of Canada, Friends of Etobicoke’s Heritage, and members of the general public gathered to hear a fascinating lecture by Mary Williamson, a long-standing member of the CHO. Before Mary’s talk began, CHC President Liz Driver presented her with an Honorary Membership in CHC for her many and varied contributions to the organization over the years.
Canadians are used to learning about Europeans who immigrated to our country or the United States, but this evening we learned about a woman who was born and raised in British North America and emigrated to Great Britain. Catherine Callbeck was born in Charlottetown to a prominent PEI family. Her father was the Attorney General and served as interim governor. In 1808, in Charlottetown, she married Peter Dalgairns, the younger son of a wealthy Scottish family. Her husband experienced variable financial fortunes in his various business pursuits. Eventually they moved to Dundee, Scotland. She had lived far fewer years in Scotland than in PEI when the cookbook was first published.
Most Scottish cookbook authors of the 18th and 19th centuries were women who, after time in domestic service, ran cooking schools where they mainly instructed the daughters of the gentry. Their cookbooks seem to have been written as textbooks for their students. Mrs Dalgairns was an exception – she was a gentlewoman. In the introduction to her Practice of Cookery Adapted to the Business of Everyday Life, first published in 1829, she said that her recipes were not original, but from internal evidence it is apparent that she did cook and test the recipes, probably in co-operation with her female cook, and adjusted them accordingly.
Mrs Dalgairns appears to have been encouraged to publish a cookbook by Captain Basil Hall, a Royal Navy officer whom she may have known when he served in the Maritimes. Captain Hall traveled widely, including throughout North America, with his wife in the late 1820s, and published several very popular books on his travels. As he had served in India, it is possible he contributed many Anglo-Indian recipes to Mrs Dalgairns’ cookbook, which includes a chapter exclusively on curries! Her cookbook went through many editions, and continued to be reprinted long after her 1844 death.
One of Mary’s main points was that Scottish, British and British North American cookery was already cosmopolitan and international, drawing on recipes and ingredients from all over the world. Written for the gentry, the Practice of Cookery included sophisticated recipes for elaborate entertainments, as well as plainer dishes for family meals. The foods that are considered national dishes today generally originated as peasant fare, such as haggis and oatcakes in Scotland. The middle and upper classes had access to a wider range of ingredients and cooking expertise; meals among wealthy families in Scotland, England, and North America would have been similar in their breadth and sophistication. “Whim Wham,” one of the dishes mentioned in the lecture’s title, is a form of trifle, which with its many ingredients (several imported) and complex composition was very much a dish for an upper class dinner party.
Mary illustrated this international character of upper class cuisine by bringing us back to Canada and Ontario to discuss foods served at a St Andrew’s banquet in Kingston and a Burns’ Supper in Toronto in the mid-19 th century. The Scots have had a strong influence and involvement in the development of Canada and Ontario, with many settlers of all classes originating from Scotland. This cookbook, which has both Canadian and Scottish roots, and which was advertised for sale in Quebec during the 1830s, is a valuable resource, and we can be grateful to Mary for repatriating it!
The evening closed with a selection of delicious cakes and cookies from the cookbook, prepared by Mary and by CHC member Mya Sangster.
Mrs Dalgairns’ Practice of Cookery has been transcribed on the Internet, and is accessible at: www.electricscotland.com/food/cookery/index.htm. The web site says that the book transcribed is 1840, but Mary says it is actually a later edition of the book ca. 1859; in particular, the third appendix was not written by Mrs Dalgairns, but added after her death from some other source. An article by Mary titled “The Publication of ‘Mrs Dalgairns’ Cookery’: a fortuitous 19th century success story” will be published in the Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada 45/1 (Spring 2007).