From generation to generation, some recipes and cookbooks have become treasured family heirlooms.

The Nova Scotia Archives has scores of them in its personal collections, and has created a digital exhibit featuring hand-written and early printed recipes, some dating as far back at the 1700s.

Archives director Lois Yorke says most recipes in the What's Cooking? Food, Drink and the Pleasures of Eating in Old-Time Nova Scotia exhibit were found in the collections of private individuals.

"We knew that we had a huge collection of recipes, scattered everywhere," she says. "[It] took a long time to find them, but we drew them out of the holdings, digitized them, put them online."

Back in the day

The exhibit shows how inventive Nova Scotians have always been about their food, Yorke said.

"It is fun to look at," she said. "There are photographs in there — dozens of photographs — historical images of Nova Scotians buying food, cooking food, enjoying food."

Hand-written index from cookbook

A page from the index of a hand-written cookbook, circa 1902. (Nova Scotia Archives)

Fully 1,000 recipes have been posted on the archives' website, many with ingredients and cooking directions that would mystify the modern cook. Some recipes call for pearlash (baking power), saleratus (baking soda), or a "gill" of milk, which is about half a cup.

"Cooking, at the time, was intuitive and many of the women who were cooking could not read," Yorke says. "So it was learned, it was passed down from mother to daughter. There were no written directions for many of them.

"You simply make something, you stir it up, you add ingredients that are strange today. You add them in strange amounts because it's not given in modern measures and when you have everything in the pan or the bowl, you mix all and you bake in a large cake on tin plates."

From then to now

Perhaps the strangest recipe is one from 1849 about how to cook and preserve a "stinking bird." Yorke says no one at the archives has quite figured out what it's all about.

"You sort of put them in water and I think you boil them for quite some time and then you put some butter over them," she said. "It doesn't sound at all appetizing, and again, you can never tell from these recipes." 

While archives staff haven't tried their hand at "stinking bird," they have tested about a dozen other recipes to see if they could recreate them using modern ingredients and equipment.

"Chocolate cake, I remember, was tried three times," she said, "and they finally said, 'It won't work. I'm not bringing it in. You are not having it!'"

With about half of the recipes, though, the testers had success in approximating the finished dish.

"We did work out the modern ingredients, the oven temperature, the length of time and we sampled them. They were delicious," Yorke said.

Those have been added under the "modern methods" header on the exhibit webpage.

Hand-written recipe for raspberry wine

A hand-written recipe for raspberry wine, circa 1816. (Nova Scotia Archives)

Yorke said the ubiquitous Nova Scotia lobster was as common on the table 200 years ago as today, and the archives found "lots of lobster recipes."

Those recipes may be among the few that have not changed much over the centuries.

"You just put it in the pot. You add lots of water and you throw in lots of butter eventually and you add cream. Sort of the standard recipe."

With files from Information Morning Cape Breton