Halifax woman preserving African Nova Scotian culture through food

Wendie Poitras is working to preserve her African Nova Scotian culture by cooking up and sharing traditional recipes passed down through her family.

'We do have a very unique culture and collection of foods that we are very interested in passing along'

Wendie Poitras fried up salt cod fish cakes with curry mayonnaise for her Grade 3 class at Duc D'Anville Elementary School. (Amy Smith/CBC)

When Wendie Poitras was growing up in north-end Halifax, Sunday dinners were special.

Her dad would be in the kitchen, cooking up boiled dinner with pig tails instead of the traditional corned beef. There would be corn bread, root vegetables, as well as beet greens and Swiss chard cooked in bacon fat and pork trimmings.

Blueberries, which could be picked for free, were turned into a version of blueberry grunt for dessert.

It's that part of her African Nova Scotian culture she is trying to preserve. On this day, she is frying up another family recipe — salt cod fish cakes with curry mayonnaise — for her Grade 3 class at Duc D'Anville Elementary School.

Wendie Poitras recently coordinated an event at The Company House in Halifax in collaboration with EDNA restaurant that featured an African Nova Scotia menu. (Amy Smith/CBC)

"It's something that we're just starting to talk about and publicize it and make people aware that we do have a very unique culture and collection of foods that we are very interested in passing along to our children," she said.

"Just because of the history and how we came to this province and how we came to this continent we lost a lot and so doing things like this is us trying to get it back. Trying to reclaim our culture."

Poitras said many of the recipes are similar to those found in church cookbooks around the province, but with a twist, bringing in elements from Africa and the American South.

Collection and fusion

"It's the collection and the fusion of the food that makes it special," she said,

She would often teach her daughter the baking techniques her mom taught her. Now she is passing the love of African Nova Scotian cuisine to her classroom.

Her students were eager to dig in to the fish cakes.

"They smell pretty good,"  Katelynn Harpelle said with a grin. "I can't wait to get my hands on one."

Fellow student Rami Awad said he is always up for trying new food.

"Super excited," he said. "Because I really want to try other people's things because if they are yummy I can make more of them and eat them."  

It's that kind of enthusiasm Poitras hopes to spread.

Sunday dinners

Recently Poitras coordinated an event at the Company House in Halifax in collaboration with EDNA restaurant featuring an African Nova Scotia menu.

Diners happily dug in to fish cakes, baked beans, boiled dinner with ham hocks and sweet potato pie.

"The recipes are there. People have been cooking them for generations," Poitras said. "It's collecting the recipes and having that common body of knowledge where people can actually come to."

In keeping with her family tradition, she's now the one cooking up Sunday dinner when everyone gets together,

"I usually try and do up a big feed for them and they are always requesting those traditional foods like the fish cakes and the chowders and the boiled dinners," Poitras said.

"Not so easy to get pig tails any more, but you can get them from the butcher. But you are not going to see pig tails in the grocery store."

About the Author

Amy Smith

Host

After spending more than a decade as a reporter covering the Nova Scotia legislature, Amy Smith joined CBC News in 2009 as a host for the supper hour and 11 p.m. news. She is also one of the hosts of the CBC show At The Table.

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