Celebrating the Culinary Heritage of Peterborough
24 September 2005
report by Maggie Newell
Maggie is CHO’s Secretary. She often reports on CHC events for Culinary Chronicles.
On Saturday, 24 September, over sixty fans of food history gathered at St Andrew’s United Church in Peterborough, Ontario, for the symposium “Celebrating the Culinary Heritage of Peterborough and Area.”
The Culinary Historians of Canada were invited to Peterborough by Gale Fewings, Curator of Hutchison House Museum. The concentration of famous pioneer authors in the Peterborough area gave the symposium organizers and speakers a lot of material to consider, in the form of published books, personal correspondence and recipes.
Our day began with refreshments based on recipes from Catharine Parr Traill’s Female Emigrant’s Guide (1854). After sampling Plum Jam, Damson Jam, and Melons Preserved spread on Common Bush Tea-Cakes, Plum Cakes, Abernethy Biscuits (like hardtack), and Potato Bread, all washed down with tea, coffee and apple juice, we settled in the wooden pews of the 120-year-old church for a morning of intellectual nourishment.
Our keynote speaker was Michael Peterman, Professor of English at Trent University, and Principal of Catharine Parr Traill College at Trent. His talk was “Better Bread or Better Books: or Why Our Pioneer Writers Matter.” His title was based on an incident described in Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush, in which Tom Wilson, a failed emigrant staying with Susanna and J W Dunbar Moodie in 1832, encouraged Mrs Moodie to make leavened bread for the first time. There is a great fuss – acquiring the yeast and the instructions for making the bread from a neighbour, and employing the bake kettle. The resulting bread was a decided failure, at which Tom Wilson said, “Oh, Mrs. Moodie, I hope you make better books than bread.” Writing about this incident Mrs Moodie says, “For myself, I could have borne the severest infliction from the pen of the most formidable critic with more fortitude than I bore the cutting up of my first loaf of bread.”
Mrs Moodie’s misadventure highlights a theme recurrent throughout the symposium: the parallel endeavors of these early Canadian women as writers, domestic managers and cooks. Their literary pursuits had to be fitted in around their domestic duties, and their domestic duties informed their literary pursuits.
Professor Peterman went on to discuss Anne Langton’s journals, not written for publication beyond her family circle at home in England. When she feels she has run out of other material to write about, Anne expresses regret at being “reduced to” telling her audience about dinner. Culinary historians are happy to read her descriptions of dinner, how ingredients were procured, and how it was prepared. For her contemporary audience Anne feels it is necessary to apologize, perhaps with a twinkle in her eye, for the unworthiness of the topic.
This contemporary ambivalence about food as a topic for serious writing was also reflected in the day’s second paper, Jodi Aoki’s “Culinary Themes in the Writings of Frances Stewart, Genteel Pioneer of Douro Township,” reprinted in Culinary Chronicles No. 46 (Autumn 2005), pp 3–7. We were fortunate to see a jug recovered from an archaeological dig at the Stewart homestead, Auburn, on loan for the day from the Peterborough Centennial Museum.
Alison Norman, PhD candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, presented a paper titled “‘It is fit for the table of the most fastidious epicure’: Culinary Exchange between Natives and Settler Women in Mid 19 th Century Upper Canada.” She explored the fascinating topic of the cultural and culinary exchange between settlers and the native people they encountered. Backwoods women sometimes found they were physically closer to Native women than their European neighbours. First contact with the indigenous people did not always create a positive initial impression for our pioneer authors. Anna Jameson and Mary O’Brien sought out their first contact like tourists seeing the sights of the New World. However, with continued contact they adopted many Native tools, foods, and cooking methods. Moccasins, canoes and snow shoes enhanced their movement around the country. Fish, wild rice, berries, venison, duck and maple sugar enriched their diets. Catharine Parr Traill collected recipes using native ingredients such as corn, squash, and pumpkin, and published them for the use of new settlers.
Before lunch, CHC President Liz Driver presented “Eating History: The Meaning behind Today’s Lunch.” Liz described the process of meeting with representatives of St Andrew’s United Church Women to select recipes for our lunch. Meeting these volunteers led to an exchange of ideas, and the recovery of two recipe books produced at St Andrew’s. Among the lessons learned, the UCW ladies discovered that food history does not need to be about recipes from the distant past. Symposiasts learned that potluck suppers are a significant part of the social life and fellowship at St Andrew’s.
Our lunch featured Easy Oven Stew, Tea Biscuits, Cabbage Salad with Cooked Dressing, and Gingerbread with Apple Sauce from local apples. Delicious! During the lunch break some participants took advantage of the opportunity to tour Hutchison House, while others lingered over their tea and coffee, and conversation. Co-Founder and Past President of CHC Fiona Lucas presented “A Mini Reassessment of Catharine Parr Traill’s Female Emigrant’s Guide, 1854.” Fiona presented the idea that the Guide uniquely combines four genres in one: an emigration guide, a housekeeper’s manual, a cookbook, and a kitchen garden guide. She alluded to the special status that Traill enjoys among historical interpreters when she stated that Mrs Traill “taught” her to make candles. She taught me how to make pumpkin pie and gave me new ideas on flavouring an apple pie. The Female Emigrant’s Guide represents an accumulation of knowledge drawn from Traill’s years of experience, and her conversations with other women. It is the first cookbook written by a self-identified Canadian for other Canadian women.
Shelley Boyd, a PhD candidate at McGill University, presented the final paper of the day: “‘ The Change in Soil and Situation’: Catharine Parr Traill’s Kitchen Garden.” Mrs Traill declared a garden indispensable. Her Guide defends the significance of the kitchen garden and gives many practical suggestions for establishing a garden, with seeds from the old country and transplants from the bush. Shelley observed that gardening is a collaborative enterprise between culture and nature. Perhaps the best symbol of this collaboration is “Mrs Traill’s fence,” a “bush fence” made of stumps planted with climbing vines. As children, the Stricklands, later Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie, had chores to do in the garden. Gardening for Ladies, published in 1840, presented the benefits of working in the flower garden while recognizing that vegetable gardening might be too much. In the New World Mrs Traill grew onions, herbs and potatoes, and traded this produce with the Native peoples for venison, fish and baskets. Her book prepared the groundwork for the female emigrant, making the case for clearing land for a garden when the men of the household were preoccupied with clearing the land for crops.
Culinary historian Dorothy Duncan summarized the day’s presentations and introduced us to the delights yet to come. Dorothy reflected that the pioneer authors often teach lessons based on their failures. These authors also inform us about the contacts between newcomers and the Native peoples, and the lessons learned through this exchange. Quoting an 1872 source, Dorothy quipped that it is “much better to talk scandal in the garden than over the tea table.”
Gale Fewings had the final word, inviting us to a garden party at Hutchison House Museum. The weather was exquisite, perfect for a garden party that concluded a thoroughly enjoyable and educational day.