Paul Provencher: coureur des bois québécois and the making of a survival guidebook

The Historical Cooking Project began as a website documenting the endeavors of a multilingual (primarily english and french) historical cookbook club. Our first book was Catherine Parr Traill's The Female Emigrant’s Guide, and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping (1854), which provided a fascinating look at the 19th century diet of rural Canadians.

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 in their new homeland. 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.

My personal fascination with Traill's text and desire to attempt the recipes described has not abated (and is probably why we have published more than 15 posts talking about the text!). Cookbooks such as Traill's do not just provided tips for cooking a dish, they provide a recipe for life. In this way, cookbooks are a kind of survival guide.

While Traill's text is notable in Canadian and American food and immigration history, her decision to write a guidebook speaking to life in the backcountry is not unique.

Within my personal and every-growing collection of cookbooks and survival guides, Woodswoman  (1976) by ecologist Anne LaBastille is one of my favorites. On a 20-acre parcel of land in the Adirondack mountains on Black Bear Lake,  LaBastille built the log cabin that became her permanent home. In her survival guide/memoir, she considers human survival holistically and dependent on connecting with her other living creatures and people.

 LaBastille chronicles what it takes to survive (and thrive) as a woman living alone in the wilderness. Amongst other topics such as how to build your own cabin (blueprints included, p.19), she details how to pack food and cooking equipment for long hikes in her capacity as an Adirondack Guide (p.98), how to maintain a clean supply of drinking water throughout the year (p.24), how to fish passively by setting up lines and leaving them (p.171), and how to plant food to supplement gathering techniques. Her ruminations on access to food and what is entailed in its preparation thread throughout the story. She also maintains an awareness of how her relationship to the land for most Americans harkened to a different time, including notes like "then I remembered the pioneers again" (p.17).

This fascination with the pioneers was not unique to LaBastille. North of the Adirondacks, and a few years prior, Paul Provencher wrote Le manuel pratique du trappeur québécois (1969), a survival guidebook focused on the skills he learned primarily from the Montagnais Algonquin peoples while working in the forests of Quebec. Born in 1902 and trained as a forest engineer, Provencher managed forest operations for the Quebec North Shore Paper Company. Through his work, he learnt how to trap, hunt, fish, and ferment foods, such as sour caribou paunches (1974, p.47). He shared this knowledge in a series of books he wrote in the last thirteen years of his life. However it was in 1908, when Provencher who was raised in the city of Trois Riveries, Quebec, first discovered a love of the wilderness. His family fled a fire and encamped in the countryside at his uncle's home near Saint-Angèle de Laval. In his memoir co-written with Gilbert La Roque, Provencher: le dernier des coureurs de bois (1974), he recounts how he was shaped by these early days spent in the wilderness and by his favorite readings at school that were about the tales about the adventures of the pioneers (14).

By the time he died at the age of 80 in 1982, Provencher had written seven books about survival and life in Quebec's forests (Le Guide du trappeurLe dernier des coureurs de boisVivre en forêtLes mammifèresMes observations sur les poissonsMes observations sur les insectesMes observations sur les oiseaux). For the purposes of this post I have decided to focus on three texts: his memoir, Provencher: le dernier des coureurs de bois (1974); his guide to trapping (1969); and his observations on birds (which was part of the same collection as his observations on fish, mammals, and insects and was published towards the end of his life in 1977). Most information about Provencher is only available in french so I have chosen to write this post in english in order to bring his work to new audiences.

Like previous coureur de bois (essentially French Canadian woodsmen, fur traders, and trappers of Quebec who learned their skills from the indigenous peoples of the province), Provencher attributes his knowledge to what he learned from the Montagnais Algonquin peoples of Quebec (1974, p.29). He particularly credits much of his knowledge to Uapistan, the former guide for Georges Boisvert of the Quebec North Shore Paper Company stating: "it was Uapistan who taught me all about the woods- how to survive in them, and above all how to live in them" (1974, p.68 translated).

Food dominated Provencher's survival discourse. Both the trapping guide and memoir describe various techniques to make fires (1969, p.13) in order to cook. For easy access to calories, Provencher packed banique (70), a hard bread eaten by the Algonquin peoples (but not exclusively) made of flour, water, salt, and baking powder. Some of the most exciting descriptions are of his hunting and trapping techniques.

Most of his guidebook to trapping focuses on elaborate descriptions of the various kinds of traps one must set for various wildlife. Are you curious how to catch lynx, squirrels, rats, black bears, weasels, skunks, raccoons, hares, wolves, otters, beavers, or mink? Well, Provencher described how to do it and included a diagram for the best way to catch and then skin and prepare that animal. Some of these traps are quite complicated. His memoir also includes a long section on fishing.

Provencher also includes information about how to backcountry cook in  Le Guide du trappeur (1969, p.16-21) in a section entitled "The Cauldron of the Trapper" (Le Chaudron du Trappeur). He instructs readers how to boil fish and smoke trout. Why not prepare caribou by also boiling it and then seasoning it with salty lard, onions, potatoes and afterwards adding salt and pepper (20)? Unsurprisingly he included a recipe for banique bread (18), but he also included his friend Wilfrid's crêpe recipe (21). This is the first book I've studied for The Historical Cooking Project that included a recipe for preparing bear. Shocker- he suggests boiling the meat. Provencher admits that he enjoyed the Montagnais peoples' techniques of braising and smoking bear meat, as well, yet seemed to rely personally on his boiling techniques.

While reflecting on his life, Provencher remarked, "However I feel myself fortunate to have lived through and above all to have been able to record on film, the end of an era which forms part of Canada's history- the era of the true Canadian coureur de bois. It represents a page of our history which has now been turned- the end of an era which will never return" (1974, p.59, translated). As public historians Pierre Frenette and Jeannine Ouellet argue, Provencher has made an important contribution to the ethnology of Quebec (“Paul Provencher Dans Les Forêts Du Nord,” Histoire Québec 15 (2): 2009, p.33, translated). Through his writings and photography we are able to learn much about Quebec's wildlife, cooking traditions, and relationships between settlers and indigenous peoples.

If anyone is looking for a great MA thesis or PhD dissertation topic, Provencher would be a fascinating case study. By exploring the life of this explorer and woodsman, one could delve into topics such as: the ways that Quebec identity relies on historical connections to ideas of wilderness; indigenous and settler relations and knowledge exchange and extraction; a history of woodsmen's relationships with indigenous peoples, including men like British conservationist, Grey Owl who pretended to be indigenous; or a history of national survival guides that is far more in depth than this post. Provencher's photographs are available at the Archives nationales du Québec, à la Société historique de la Côte-Nord, and in the archives of several journals: Forêt québécoise, le Poste d'Observation, and Chasse et Pêche.

Survival guidebooks are often not considered part of the cookbook genre, but I think this is a mistake. As scholars such as Laura Schenone have explained, cookbooks have been a way to access that have been often overlooked, particularly women's voices (A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A history of American women told through food, recipes, and remembrances, 2004). Survival guidebooks provide researchers with materials to better understand other marginalized populations in addition to histories of national identity, human relationships to the land, and ideas of precarity away from urban centers. 

One final note: I highly recommend diving into Provencher's work. While reading Provencher's descriptions of his time in the woods, you may be reminded of Canadian folk singer Wade Hemsworth's song "Black Fly." Enjoy: