As a newcomer to Canada, I think a lot about the weather. So far, there have been no chilblains or frostbite, but as someone who grew up five minutes south of the Mason Dixon line, I do worry. When I hear tales of “hitting the ditch” and of eyelashes freezing, I always wonder: why did the earliest settlers (not counting First Nations) decide to come here? Why? Did their ship get blown off course? Were they allergic to sweat? Perhaps they found eyelash icicles attractive. Whatever it is that made those brave, cold immigrants stay here, and what’s more—actually survive—they have my eternal admiration.
Catherine Parr Traill was one of those early emigrants, who in addition to surviving also managed to retain enough body heat to write several books, such as Backwoods of Canada, The Canadian Crusoes, and The Female Emigrant’s Guide and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping. As a female emigrant myself, I thought I could brush up on my Canadian housekeeping, adding a few recipes to my only other domestic achievement: owning an aloe plant. Parr Traill’s book has an efficient, matter-of-fact tone that addresses an audience that Traill assumed was equally capable in the kitchen—a host of bad-ass Canadian pioneers.
Her “Table of Contents,” while neatly organized, reveals some grim truths about early settler life: nestled between “Dairy” and “Dying of Wool, &c” is the dread “Dysentery,” which you wouldn’t think belongs in a recipe book, but there it is. Oh, Canada. In the entry, Parr briefly mentions that she lost two children to the disease and that she saved the life of her third child with spikenard, a sassafrass-like plant that, if you don’t know it from biblical references, you may know from perfumes. On the bright side, I found an entry for “Poetry” between “Peaches” and “Poultry,” so it’s clear that ‘hope springs eternal’ in 19th century Canada, even if the ‘spring’ from which ‘hope’ wells has frozen over.
Now, to the food porn. Unfortunately, as this was my first foray into historical recreation, my recipe was far from successful. I decided to make “Preserved Tomatoes,” a recipe that was only two sentences long (including a deftly-employed semi-colon) and required only a few ingredients. Parr, the pioneer woman states:
To three pounds of fresh ripe tomatoes, add the juice, and finely cut peeling of two
lemons; boil together with some sliced ginger for one hour…
Which is of course a little scary, because Parr seems to have begun the recipe in medias res—do the tomatoes cook first alone? How much sliced ginger? How sliced? Also, surely fresh ginger did not grow in Canada, but then again perhaps trade with the Caribbean would have supplied the north. I could feel Parr’s icy disapproval as I began my hand-wringing, so I quartered my tomatoes like a weathered pioneer and set them to medium heat on a naked pot. No butter, no oil, because this is the frontier.
I did my best attempt at finely cutting the lemon peel.
And the ginger, although you’ll see that I executed a rather rough chop instead of any fine mincing. Life was rough-hewn back then, right?
After an hour, when my preserved tomatoes smelled like a zingy an extremely odd tomato sauce, I looked at the last clause in Parr’s sentence:
Then add 4 lbs. of lump sugar, and boil half an hour longer.
This I did not have. Nor could I quite stomach the thought of adding more sugar than tomatoes. Instead, I threw in a handful of cubed sugar (cubed, lump—so much for historical accuracy) before abandoning the pot to the cruel gods of Canada.
Needless to say, my tomato “preserves” did not have nearly enough sugar to come anywhere close to being jam. Rough-hewn chunks of lemon rind and ginger bobbed uneasily in the saccharine broth. People at the Historical Cooking Group regarded the bowl with suspicion. “Is it ketchup?” asked someone hopefully. Parr writes that this dish “looks like a fine West India preserve,” but to our post-colonial eyes it looked like terrible, terrible salsa.
I learned a few lessons from my first foray into historical cookery. The first being: follow the recipe. I also learned that if I ever get dysentery, I will go find some spikenard.
Hannah Smith-Drelich recently moved to Canada and has wholeheartedly embraced Montreal customs, such as making poutine a daily occurrence and pretending to have known Grimes before the fame, eh? She is currently working towards a master's in English Literature at McGill, focusing on material cultures in the Early Modern period. She has a background in Food Studies from NYU, although from her atrocious historical re-creation cooking skills you would never know it.