Recipes from Below Stairs at Dundurn Castle, a Historic Cooking Workshop

21 October 2006

report by Ed Lyons,
an experienced period cook and a member of CHO’s Newsletter Committee

Sixteen eager cooks gathered at Dundurn Castle in Hamilton on 21 October for "Recipes from Below Stairs," a hands-on cooking workshop on the kinds of food that 19th-century servants might have eaten in a wealthy Canadian household.

We were split into groups to prepare Soupe Maigre, Turnips in White Sauce and Potato Rissoles (all from Beeton’s Household Manual, 1861), simplified Hodge Podge (Canadian Housewife’s Manual, 1861), Winter Squash Pudding (AmericanCookery, 1796), Plain Buns (Cook Not Mad, 1831) and Apple-Pie (Female Emigrant’s Guide, 1854 [1855]). Where possible, the ingredients came from the Castle garden. Our hosts and helpmates – Janet Kronick, Historic Kitchen Co-ordinator, and Adam Jablonski, Historical Cook Demonstrator/Interpreter – ensured we had the materials and equipment for our assignments and were always there to help with problems of recipe interpretation.

After considerable frenzied activity, about noon we sat down for our meal. Janet explained that in practice this was an unlikely occurrence because, while the cook and butler would set the staff meal times, some servants were away attending their duties. Our food was very good. The buns were the only disappointment because they were a little tough since they had insufficient time to rise properly. Everything was well accepted; the most appreciated dish was the hodge podge, an excellent stew, though some pastry lovers demurred, contending that the deep-dish apple pie was the best. While we were making merry over our lunch, several groups of Castle visitors who came through the kitchen must have been jealous of our high jinks at table. I think they might have been surprised to learn that everything was washed down with non-alcoholic cider.

After eating, Janet toured us around the Castle, something I have done many times and always enjoy. This time, I made sure to check the exact number of kitchen bells. This was important to me because, when I interpret Spadina's kitchen, I like to mention that there are only four bells, while at Dundurn there are more, eleven actually, plus an extra one that rang up in the butler’s pantry. (I also like to ask our visitors what would befall the poor servant who was tone deaf.)

Dundurn (Gaelic for "fort on the water") was completed in 1835 as a Regency-style villa for Sir Allan Napier MacNab (1798–1862), a typical rogue of the early Victorian period in Upper Canada, but has been restored to circa 1855. The appellation "Castle" was added by Hamiltonians in the 19th century. Janet pointed out that Dundurn servants were privileged to work in a basement area with many windows – most unusual for the period. Evidently, Sir Allan was a model employer for the time. (On the other hand, he might have been shrewd enough to know that he’d save a bundle on candles!)

I remember visiting Dundurn during the 1940s when it was a typical small-town museum with glass cases, with the usual two-headed calf, old family diaries and hymnals, bibles, and my Uncle Archie's World War I medals. The City of Hamilton is to be commended for its foresight in restoring this beautiful mansion to its former glory.

Participants in the Dundurn workshop.
(Courtesy of Ed Lyons)

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