Catherine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide, and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping: A Brief Introduction

Catherine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide, and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping, published in 1854, provides a fascinating look at the 19th century diet of rural Canadians. In this work, we find recipes for pancakes, jellies, pies, and meats. Traill wrote the book for women who were planning to emigrate to Canada in order to advise them as to the conditions that they would find as farmers. As women coming from England often lived in cities with bakers, tailors and other amenities, they often lacked the household skills that were required in order to survive in the backwoods of Canada. Traill explained how to harvest and refine North American plants, with which all emigrants from the British Isles would be equally unfamiliar, from “Indian-corn” to the sap of the maple tree. She also provided a list of what to expect in the months of the year, comparing the typical weather conditions of each month to those with which emigrants from Britain would be familiar.  Traill also took  for granted that her readers already had prior knowledge to certain culinary techniques, such as how to bake a pie crust, and thus did not provide any guidance on these matters. Heeding Traill’s advice, this month, the members of the Historical Cooking Group have tried to enter the mindset of mid-19th century settlers encountering a mix of foreign and familiar ingredients as we try out her recipes.

More than providing hints on how to make soap and coffee substitutes, however, The Female Emigrant’s Guide shows that Traill believed that life in Canada would lead to personal development for women. The book was  therefore an instrument for the empowerment of the women who emigrated to Canada in the mid-nineteenth century. As we cook through the recipes in 2013 has the meaning of the recipes changed?  Does cooking from this 19th century text allow us to better understand and connect with Canadians of the past (an especially difficult question as Traill refers to herself and readers as English throughout her book)?

Stay tuned for upcoming posts to see how our group fared with these recipes! On Tuesday Carolynn McNally will explain her adventures with Traills’ pie recipes.

(This post was cowritten by Kathleen Gudmundsson and Alex Ketchum)