Christmas Food in Historic Riverdale

Report by Fiona Lucas, Editor of CHO’s Culinary Chronicles.

In the Parish Hall of St Matthew’s Church in Toronto’s east end, the Culinary Historians of Canada and the Riverdale Historical Society joined in an evening program on November 28 in anticipation of Christmas. More attended than expected, so a dozen more chairs had to be set out.

Riverdalian and retired U of T professor Gerald Whyte set the scene by talking about the local food stores, market gardens, and dairies of the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian eras. I was interested to know that nearby Withrow Park had originally been a dairy farm. Riverdale – originally called Riverside – used to be full of market gardens, which were slowly replaced by factories and housing for the factory workers, starting in the early 20th century.

CHC President Liz Driver traced the evolution of Victorian Christmas food, including references to three historic cookbooks from the Riverdale area. Although Christmas feasting dates back many centuries, at the beginning of the 19 th century Christmas dinner was a low-key event; by its end it was highly ritualized. Today it is hard to appreciate the seasonal excitement of ships arriving in port laden with exotic raisins, prunes, crystallized plums, spices, marzipan, oranges and lemons. Liz commented that the rich plum puddings, fruit cakes and mincemeats that use these ingredients are on the verge of dying out because we do not give ourselves the necessary time to mix them, let alone slow bake the cake or steam the pudding all day. Much effort was once required to prepare them, and time was allowed. Raisins, for instance, had to be individually stoned, sugar pounded and spices ground, then sifted. Fruit cakes are lightened with baking powder today, to enhance all the eggs, which are beaten in a mixer rather than laboriously whisked.

We learned a bit about three local cook books. North Broadview Presbyterian Church Cook Book is undated, but assigned to 1912 by Liz in her bibliography, Culinary Landmarks. It features several iconic recipes meant to be shared together in fellowship. Its “Carrot Pudding,” notably based on grated raw carrots and potatoes, was taken verbatim from the one attributed to Mrs McMaster in the Home Cook Book of 1877. This pudding, although not unique to Canada, was much more popular here than in England, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand; and in fact, Liz informed us, it rivalled plum pudding because it appeared in every well known Canadian recipe book of the time. We Entertain, compiled by the Women’s Association of North Broadview Church in 1935, was noticeably different for it had many refrigerator desserts in it. The third book, Treasured Recipes, was published by St Matthew’s on the occasion of their centennial in 1974 and included a special section on Christmas foods.

As we usually do at CHC events, we concluded with treats, this time Christmas treats prepared by Riverdale Historical Society volunteers from the three Riverdale cookbooks. My particular favourite was the Marzipan Bar.

Gerald Whyte and Liz Driver

(Photo courtesy of Edwin Rowse)

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