When Your Biscuits Are Like Rocks: Including Imperfection in Historical Interpretation

Canada Part 2: 19th c. Ontario Cooking featuring Immigrants from the Isles

Selected Recipes
New Cock-a-Leekie Soup
“Excellent Hot Tea Cakes”
“Cranberry Pie”

If you’ve ever watched “Chopped: Canada”, you can sympathize with me when I say that I would be first on the chopping block. Do I cook with enthusiasm? Heck yes! Bravery? You betcha! Skill? Eh….in time, I tell myself, in time.Many times over this Historic Kitchen project I have looked askance at my final product….doubting that I have made it correctly. I would bet good money that my attempt at Patina of Pears would make even the dour Cato the Elder roll over laughing. The difficulty with creating recipes of unfamiliar dishes is that you have no ideaif you are wrong, or how you are wrong. Just that unpleasant niggling sensation that something must be different….since “there is no way this thing should be so jiggly/…neon…/crunchy/[insert questionable adjective here]!”

On my quest to make dishes from 19th century immigrants, I once again encountered the issue of producing questionable products. But instead of despair over my rock-like biscuits, I thought, “well who said everyone in the 19th century made PERFECT biscuits? Everytime???” They didn’t. Human error is an entirely everyday phenomenon that we cannot exclude from our historical narrative or interpretation simply because it doesn’t look nice when staged. “Ugly” food or brick biscuits are just as representative and informative of their lives as elegantly plated and fluffy cloud-like rolls!

This second edition of Canadian cooking shall feature Immigrants from the British Isles in 19th century Ontario cooking! All recipes are sourced from Beeson, P. (1993). Macdonald was late for dinner: A slice of culinary life in early Canada. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Press.

Montgomery's Inn kitchen
Working historic kitchen at Montgomery’s Inn, interpreted to the 1840s. Photo: Leena Kilback.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with our MMSt colleague Leena Kilback, who is a former intern and current volunteer at a local historic kitchen from the 19th century. Montgomery Inn’s is one of Toronto’s Historic sites, interpreted to its heyday of the 1840s. It was a tavern, assembly hall and boarding house during a time when European travellers and settlers of English, Irish, and Scottish origin were flooding to the area. Before the multinational wave of immigrants in the early 20th century (and steadily onwards), Ontario received most of its immigrants from the British Isles (which include the islands of Great Britain, Ireland, the Hebrides, and many smaller islands). It would not be until closer to the turn of the century that immigrants of Polish, Italian, Russian, and American (such as the Pennsylvania who settled in Markham) ethnicity would rise in number.

Today, Montgomery’s Inn continues its tradition and practice of hospitality, not only as a rentable venue, but also for hosting events and food programs around the history and context of 19th century Toronto. The Inn hosts a weekly tea service, a monthly “Thirsty Thursday” pub night, and bakes bread using historic Ontario stone ground mill flour for their weekly food market. As practiced as their cooks are, mistakes or sooty ovens still happen! However, guests and customers are treated to only the successful food items. The rare misshapen jellies or sooty loaves of bread are given to volunteers to enjoy. Display and acknowledgement of less-than-perfect food is one thing. Serving it is another entirely.

School programs allow children to help bake molasses cookies by hand grinding nutmeg and grinding cone sugar using a mortal and pestle to demonstrate labour of 19th century cooking. Holiday and themed events allow for lavish table settings consisting of historic recipes, using modern adaptations of shrimp inside moulded gelatin, christmas cakes, holiday cookies, autumnal pies, and various arranged platters of period themed food. Leena described the tireless research she conducted into table settings and displays so as to authentically present the visual splendour of parties in this era. (Even though the Inn hosted boarders, not parties, it takes advantage of the opportunity to interpret both!)

“The Morrison family -Came from South Uist to Canada in 1887 and settled in Grand Valley, near Cochrane. Image courtesy of Glenbow Museum.” Source.

In the 19th century the publication of cookbooks became more common as households of recent immigrant and working families turned to economy. Cookbooks were being written for those who were not professional cooks or living in wealthy homes, but women who’s primary role was seen as manager of the household. As found in the preface of this 1868 Dominion Home Cookbook, it was written for “practical utility” and economy. Such cookbooks served as manuals for household economics, but also as bastions of cultural cuisine from their communities of origin. In this Sophie Coe Prize-winning Essay, the author uses an 1840 era French Canadian cookbook to demonstrate how foodways, and the act of compiling a cookbook, were utilized to promote and preserve (or “fossilize” as the author so puts it) the traditional 17th century French cooking amongst the presence of so many identities in the Canadian landscape. Similarly, cookbooks of Scottish, English, or various other cuisines served the same purpose.

New Cock-a-Leekie Soup

The Canadian Housewife’s Manual of Cookery, Hamilton, 1861


2 lbs veal cutlet or fowl
1/2 cup butter
2 onions, sliced
1/4 lbs lean bacon
3 cloves
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup and 10 cups water
2 lbs leeks
16 cups water
18 fresh prunes

Cut the meat into pieces. Put in pan with butter, onions, bacon, cloves, salt, sugar, pepper and 1/2 cup water. Cook, turning over until a white glaze appears on the bottom. Add 10 cups of water, and simmer for 30 minutes. Pass through a sieve and save the best pieces of meat.

In another pan blanche the white parts of the leeks for 10 minutes in 16 cups of water, then drain. Boil the stock and half the leeks together till reduced by half. Add the other half of leeks, meat and prunes. Simmer for 30 minutes and serve.

During this influx of immigrants from the Isles, Hamilton became heavily populated with those of Scottish ancestry. This soup, sometimes called Scotland’s national dish, is a nice example of something they would have eaten in this time. (Interesting to note, it was one of two soups for lunch on the Titanic the day it sank!) I loved the added depth from the prune flavour, and thought this soup was quite good! Beeson notes that the inclusion of prunes reveals this dish to hail from Edinburgh in particular. (My own research has revealed that prunes are considered a traditional method that fell out of favour in the mid 19th century in some parts of Scotland, and remained in practice in some areas to this day. The reason for citing Edinburgh has remained elusive!)

Dundurn Castle, Hamilton ON. Source.

One of the famous Canadian figures of Scottish ancestry is Sir Allan Napier MacNab, whose stately home our MMSt Class is visiting today! During the 19th century, important visitors to Niagara Falls would reside in the halls of Dundurn Castle. Among these guests are such names as Lord and Lady Dufferin, who visited in 1872, and the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) during his tour of Canada in 1860. MacNab served as Premier of the Province of Canada (the united Canadas before Confederation) from 1854-1856.

Catharine Parr Traill’s “Excellent Hot Tea Cakes”

The Canadian Settler’s Guide, C.P. Traill, 1860

“Adamantine Hot Tea Cakes” Source.

Whoops! Wrong photo! 😉

“Excellent Hot Tea Cakes.” (Veritable bricks that they were.)

2 cups flour
2 tbsp butter, softened
1 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 tsp baking soda
milk to mix

Grease baking sheet. Sift flour, cream of tartar, and baking soda. Rub in butter with fingertips. Mix with milk to form a soft dough. Roll to 1 inch thickness. Cut out with a tumbler. Bake at 400F for 20-25 minutes. Serve hot.

I learned something valuable about historical reinterpretation of foodways in this dish. I debated not including this recipe, as the biscuits could’ve built houses. “I didn’t make them right, they aren’t the real thing!” Yet, who says imperfect biscuits aren’t just as faithful to historic interpretation than exquisitely crafted ones? Didn’t historic cooks also turn out burned pastries, tough biscuits, overdone meat, deflated soufflé, and overly salty soup? Of course they did! “Perfect” and artistically staged dishes in historical reinterpretation of foods is actually less authentic than the messy, maybe burnt, products of a busy and hectic working kitchen. It is important to remember when we walk through historic kitchens and dinning rooms that the clean, quiet, warm, and organized spaces are falsely represented as such.

This recipe comes from Catharine Parr Traill, a famous Canadian author and botanist who wrote extensively about her immigration from England, settler life in the ‘backwoods’, and new life in Peterborough, Ontario.

Cranberry Pie

Mrs. McMaster, The Canadian Home Cook Book, complied by the Ladies of Toronto and Chief Cities and Towns in Canada, 1877

20160207_140542 (1)

4 cups of cranberries
juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 cup sugar
puff or shortcrust pastry for 1 pie
icing sugar if short crust

Pick over and wash berries. Put in a dish with lemon and sugar. Cover with pastry and bake at 350F for 45 minutes. If short crust used, take from over 5 minutes early, cover with icing sugar, return to oven, and complete baking.

The McMasters have a strong legacy in Ontario. Known for her “will of unbending steel,” Mrs Elizabeth McMaster served as one of the founding members of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, whose establishment helped Toronto’s child mortality rate to plummet. She served as Treasurer for the new Hospital, and started a wildly popular cookbook fundraiser, The Canadian Home Cook Book, complied by the Ladies of Toronto and Chief Cities and Towns in Canada. McMaster wrote the preface and contributed a few of her own recipes, including the above (delicious) Cranberry Pie. A huge success, the book would come to run over 80 editions (eventually dropping “Canadian” from the title for American audiences). Her husband headed the Bank of Commerce and founded McMaster University.

You may notice Beeson has written options for both puff pastry as well as short crust. Short crust is a more crumbly, tough pastry that is more liquid resistant than puff pastry. It is commonly used in the bottom of quiches and heavy pies that have runny fillings. Puff pastry is the delicate light and flaky pastry used in pies and light pastries. I include this for any cooks who want to add pastry terminology to their Trivial Pursuit arsenal!

Next time on Historic Kitchen:

The 20th saw a diverse set of cooking practices, from Wartime cooking to Centennial celebrations, as well as modern First Nations cuisine!

Originally published on Musings on February 19, 2016.


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