Of course there was a time before the internet and our information on demand mentality, before we could Google the weight of an egg or at what temperature should we cook a ten pound turkey and for how long, or why do hard boiled egg yolks sometimes turn green, someone somewhere had to have the answers. Information has become easy to find, click, click, click and there it is, no brain work required, but knowledge is a different thing. Information is like an adjective, often quick, useful and succinct. But knowledge is like a good short story, it requires time to read, digest, and reflect upon. Often our mothers and grandmothers had this knowledge and would pass it on. Old cookbooks, let’s say pre-1976 assumed that their readers had the basic know-how that was necessary to run a household, but, there were always things that could be improved upon or made easier…in case they didn’t know; women to other women trying to make their lives easier.
But what if you were a new immigrant to Canada or what if your Mother had died when you were young or what if you were a war bride just arrived In Canada with a baby on your hip and and a Canadian husband who expected his wife to cook just like his Mama did? Where’s a girl to turn?
Since 1831 Canadians have been writing and publishing cookbooks that were intended to impart knowledge. The early books were rarely illustrated, not well categorized, and serious in tone, but they were full of things that a woman needed to know in a time when running the house was solely a female’s job.
In honour of these strong and rarely celebrated women, I offer a few helpful hints.
From The Cook Not Mad pub.1831, Kingston ( a plagiarized version of an American book of the same title published earlier just across the St Lawrence river in Watertown New York) However, since there were no copy right laws at the time, it does stand as our earliest published cook book,; it has a great title, interesting recipes and lots of advice.
“No.258 To sweeten musty tubs or casks.
After scalding and otherwise washing the cask clean, capsize it over a portable furnace or kettle, containing charcola newly set on fire, anf let it stand eight or ten minutes, or until partially dried. Let the cask be raised a little so as not to smother the fire. If several casks are to be rectified, throw some small bits of coal on the furnace each time.”
“No.260 To take mildew out of linen.
Take soap, and rub it well: then scrape some fine chalk, and rub that also in linen; lay it on the grass; as it dries, wet it a little, and it will come out at twice doing.”
“No.262. Eggs to keep.
…Put into a tub or vessel one bushel of unslacked lime, thirty-two ounces of salt, eight ounces of cream of tartar, and mix the same together with as much water as will reduce the composition, or mixture, to the consistence, that it will cause an egg put in it to swim with its top just above the liquid: then put, and keep the eggs therein, which will preserve them perfectly sound for the space of two years at least.”
From a more modern Canadian cookbook, the Halifax Infirmary Ladies Auxiliary Cook Book, pub.1956, Mrs Andrew Abbott (apparently from a time when women didn’t have first names…) offers the following advice;
#1. A few drops of turpentine added to the starch water will prevent the pieces from sticking while being ironed.
#2. Boil hard paint brushes in vinegar to soften.
#3. Dingy lace or muslin curtains will look fine when boiled 1/2 hour in a solution made from equal parts of milk and water with soap or washing powder added.
And finally, one of my favorites, from a Barbour’s cookbook. Barbours was an East Coast purveyor of grocery items such as spices and teas, they published their own cooking phamphlets filled with pictures of their products and useful cooking tips, such as this one;
Sugar Cured Pork (For 100 pounds)
Meat must be fresh, free from blood and not frozen.
1 1/2 qts. No. 1 coarse salt; 1 qt. brown sugar; 2 oz. pepper; 1 1/2 oz. saltpetre.
Method; Mix salt, brown sugar, pepper and saltpetre together and rub meat until the mixture is all rubbed into meat. Place meat into a barrel or jar. Rub again in seven days with the liquid that is in the container. Hang to drain for four days. Then smoke three days with corn cobs, maple or beech bark.
To be honest, I can’t imagine ever having “preserve eggs” or “cure 100 pounds of pork” on my ” to do” list, it make me lazy just to think about it. But, hats off to the women who did all of that and more so that they could feed their families.