Picnic on the Grand: Exploring Food History at Ruthven Park

19 August 2006

report by Eva MacDonald,
CHC member and archaeologist with a special interest in food history

What might a shopping list for a picnic to which 150 guests had been invited look like? I can tell you it included 13 dozen boiled eggs because I helped peel them to make devilled eggs for the “Picnic on the Grand” at Ruthven Park National Historic Site in Cayuga, Ontario, on Saturday, August 19, 2006. The event was a successful collaboration between the Culinary Historians of Canada and the Lower Grand River Land Trust that administers Ruthven. It hardly seems that it was two years ago when CHC was invited by Marilyn Havelka, the Chief Administrative Officer, to brainstorm the possibility of staging a food-themed event for Ruthven Park, with emphasis on the culinary traditions of the Thompson family, who lived there from the 1840s to 1993. The house is still full of the family’s furniture and art.

If you have never been to Ruthven Park, then you do not know how perfectly the extensive grounds lend themselves to a summer picnic. Despite the opulence of the Thompson’s 1840s mansion with its commanding view of the Grand River, the family had simple tastes. This was demonstrated in a 1916 letter by Colonel Andrew Thompson that praised a picnic hamper from his sister that contained cold chicken, a jar of Aunt Mary’s famous green sauce (the Ruthven variety), cake, and grapes. It is not hard to imagine the colonel enjoying the menu for August 19 devised by CHC member Mya Sangster that was inspired by his letter, and which included cold chicken patties, cheese straws, devilled eggs, pickled cauliflower, prune tarts and lemonade, among other delicacies.

The lion’s share of the baking and cooking was done ahead of time in Historic Fort York’s catering kitchen by the core members of CHO’s Outreach and Education Committee: Amy Scott, Rosemary Kovac and Mya Sangster, who cheerfully served the appreciative guests on the big day with help from Joan and Mike Derblich, Edwin Rowse, several Ruthven volunteers, and myself. Tours of the Ruthven mansion were enhanced by stops in various rooms where CHC presenters explained a particular aspect of food history, including Fiona Lucas on Canadian Centennial cookbooks in the vibrant turquoise ’60s kitchen, Rosemary Kovac introducing a formal Edwardian dinner party in the dining room, and a sneak peak at the open hearth and bake oven in the original basement kitchen with Liz Driver. Local re-enactor Ben Mayville also gave an interesting talk on World War I army rations in Ruthven’s laundry cum barracks building. Outdoor tours were ongoing throughout the day with two of the experts involved in the property’s restoration, Edwin Rowse, principal of ERA Architects, and landscape architect Wendy Shearer.

Despite the miserable rain, the local community came out in force. A grand day was had by all!

Liz Driver in the original open-hearth kitchen
Fiona Lucas in the 1960s kitchen

Rosemary Kovac in the dining room

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