Before we were born, before microwave ovens, before Feminism, before automatic washers and dryers and even before indoor plumbing, there were women who were new here; brave women who accompanied their husbands and families to a far away, unknown and rugged place. I would like to believe that their hearts and minds were filled with hopes of a better life. In history class we read about the men and their struggles to build roads, towns and governments; history was primarily written by men about men. But women, their history, their stories are told through the food they prepared. And hat is why I collect old manuscripts, diaries and cookbooks; they are so important, as they are the female voices of the past, especially in North America, the first American cookbook was written by a woman whose name was Amelia Simmons in 1796. Diaries are rare, pioneer and immigrant women had little free time, but there are books written by women that speak both eloquently and factually about life in Canada, women such as Catherine Parr Traill and her sister Susanna Moodie, although Catherine seemed to be happier with her new life in Canada than her sister. As the 19th century progressed there were cookbooks that were written in Canada for Canadian women who were familiar with local produce, its seasons and the availability of grocery items such as sugar, raisins and chocolate. These cookbooks gave recipes, techniques, and hints about how to not only cook the food, but how to grow it, kill it, sometimes skin it and then store it all for the dark, winter monthes ahead.
When I read these books, the recipes and their accounts of their lives, I am in awe. How were they able to bake bread, cook three meals a day, make clothes and candles, clean, tend to gardens, milk cows and birth babies, often all in the same day?
I am so guilty of romanticizing the past; for me, a less complicated, quieter time, with beautiful furniture and gardens of roses, peonies and sweet Williams. That’s what I want to think. However, that was rarely the case, Loyalists and other settlers coming to Ontario in the early 1800’s often had to live in rustic (a nice word for crude) one room cabins,( which makes you wonder how babies were ever born anyway with the whole family living in one room) often miles from other people, towns and doctors, that they were able to survive it speaks clearly to their strength, resilience and determination.
To honour these women and to celebrate their lives, every now and then I will share some of their sage advice, helpful suggestions and a some of their “receipts.”
In 1851, Catherine Parr Traill writes a book entitled The Canadian Emigrant Housekeeper’s Guide, a manual based on her own experiences of emigrating to Canada. It is a book of tips, recipes and fore warnings. “Cooking, curing meat, making butter and cheese, knitting, dressmaking and tailoring-for most of the country people here make the every-day clothing of their husbands, brothers or sons-are good to be learned…My female friends must bear in mind that it is one of the settler’s great objects to make as little outlay of money as possible.” She continues this serious tone, “there should be no wavering on their part (women); no yielding to prejudices and pride. Old things are passed away. The greatest heroine in life is she who, knowing her duty resolves not only to do it, but to do it to the best of her abilities, with heart and mind bent upon the work.” her book is very earnest, and extremely Victorian with its emphasis on hard work and God, yet it is also beautifully illustrated, by the author herself.
She offers her recipes written as narratives, in this one for Buckwheat pancakes, she lets the reader know that is neither American or Canadian.
“Buckwheat Pancakes-The usual mode of preparing this favorite article of food, which the Americans and Canadians consider a national dainty, is as follow:- Take about a quart or three pints of the finely sifted flour(buckwheat), mix to a batter with warm milk or water, a teaspoonful of salt, and half a cupful of good barm (is a home made leavener): beat it well for a few minutes, till it is smooth, and leave it in a warm place all night, covered in an earthen pot or tin-pail, with a cover. In the morning have ready your griddle or frying pan, wiped clean, and some lard or butter, made quite hot; into this drop a large spoonful or small teacupful at a time, of your light batter, till your pan be full, but do not let them touch: if the lard be very hot, the pancakes will set as you pour them in, and be well shaped and as light as a honey-comb: fry of a light brown, and turn them; lay them on a hot plate, and serve quite hot, with maple molasses, treacle or butter…Buckwheat pancakes are a favorite breakfast-dish with the old Canadian settlers.” Not only is she giving a receipt (recipe) for buckwheat pancakes, but she is also subtley telling the new comer, how to fit in.
I love reading this book, it is a clear and unromantic window into life in the early to mid 1800’s in what was then called Canada West. The work was arduous and seemed to never end, yet, every now and then, she pauses, and basks momentarily in delight on the bounties and joy that her new home has to offer.