Kitchener-Waterloo

Historians crave more culinary history of early Black settlers: Andrew Coppolino

The food history of a community can often reveal so much about the people who lived and worked there, but when it comes to the culinary history of early Black settlers in Waterloo region, Guelph and area, local historians are still trying to find more information.

'I think people sometimes don't realize what they have,' Denise Francis says

Denise Francis is president of the Guelph Black Heritage Society. She handwritten notes or recipes are key to the forgotten Black culinary history of this region. (Devi Thompson/D3vi photography for the Guelph Black Heritage Society)

There are only scant traces left of the food and culinary history of Black communities in southwestern Ontario, a mere glimpse into what was known as The Queen's Bush Settlement.

The settlement was a large tract of unsurveyed land, that reached roughly between then-Waterloo County and the eastern shore of Lake Huron. 

Established in the 1820s to 1830s, The Queen's Bush Settlement became home to approximately 2,000 Black settlers, many of whom were former slaves in the United States. But by the 1860s, many of the settlers had dispersed.

A few published sources document the people and the era: Joanna Rickert-Hall's Waterloo You Never Knew: Life on the Margins and Linda Brown-Kubisch's The Queen's Bush Settlement: Black Pioneers in 1839-1865.

But they only touch on culinary history.

This isn't a surprise to Densie Francis, president of the Guelph Black Heritage Society.

"It's the whole concept of the absence and erasure of Black history. It's not unique to Wellington County. It's something that's unfortunately been happening all across Canada," Francis said.

To document that history, the society has been contacting museums and archives as well as local families who go back generations in this area.

Francis says finding and documenting family recipes, cookbooks, and culinary notes are key to writing this missing history.

"We're hoping to make connections and get copies of pictures, documents and other items to increase our resources," said Francis.

Cookbooks and recipes both present the food, ingredients and techniques of the community but also reveal the time period, the heritage, and the sense of place and its history.

The Guelph Black Heritage Society will accept cookbooks, newspaper clippings or any historical information. (Tiffany Mongu/CBC)

Farmers, butchers and coffee shop owners

One story Brown-Kubisch has tracked down in Black Pioneers in 1839-1865 is John Little's arrival in Canada from Virginia and how he settled in The Queen's Bush in the 1840s.

While in Hamilton, Little bought plates, knives, forks, an iron pot, a Dutch oven and "fifty weight of flour and twenty pounds of pork."

The farming he and his wife would do in Wellesley Township once produced "one hundred bushels of potatoes on land which we had cleared ourselves, and cultivated without plough or drag," Brown-Kubisch writes. 

An Emancipation Day celebration in 1863 in Hawksville, about 25 minutes from Kitchener, saw a large gathering of "Blacks and whites alike" for a dinner of roasted whole ox, reported a local newspaper.

The account continues that "several little six-weeks old porkers appeared here and there in capacious white platters along the entire length of the viand-laden tables." The dinner cost 25 cents per person.

The story of Peter Edward Susand, who opened the Meridian Coffee Shop in downtown Berlin, now Kitchener, is told in an article in The Record, written by Rickert-Hall in 2020.

Susand, born in 1803, was a slave who came to Oakville from New Orleans in 1837, via the Underground Railroad. A few years later, he was farming in Wellesley Township with his wife Elizabeth and their children.

Eventually, they ended up in Berlin, and the coffee shop became quite popular, according to Rickert-Hall.

Susand also sold what was called "butcher meat," according to a newspaper advertisement dated September 10, 1856: the ad notes, quaintly, that Susand had "made suitable arrangements for procuring the very best kinds of meat and always in season."

'Actual recipes are elusive'

Rickert-Hall adds that, after a marital separation of some sort, the Susand children and  Elizabeth were successful in selling her "Susand's Taffy" at the train station.

Another Black settler, Minnie Lawson, lived in Glen Allan (between Elmira and Listowel) in the early-1900s. Lawson fed an itinerant threshing team after completing a harvest, including what were apparently, says Rickert-Hall, excellent pies.

"The actual recipes are elusive. It's not certain what kind of pies, but apple would have likely figured very heavily in terms of local fruit in the fall," Rickert-Hall explained in a telephone interview.

Such newspaper clippings, notes, recipes cards, cookbooks and of course oral histories are key to helping write the neglected history of these communities, according to Francis adding that there is precedence elsewhere. 

"Over in Buxton (south of Chatham, Ont.), they put out a cookbook, and its recipes that have been passed down through generations. I've got a cookbook from Africville in Nova Scotia, and when you read through these books, the recipes that were passed down tell so much about what ingredients were widely available to our community, what their diets were like. It tells so much about history and culture through the food," Francis said.

She says finding old cookbooks and worn recipes and notes from communities that lived here in the late-1800s to early 1900s will go a long way toward piecing together and writing a Black history.

"Those old documents are the most fascinating," she says. "Even when I look at things from my own family, the recipes that my grandma used to make, those are things that are really special. I think people sometimes don't realize what they have is of importance. I think of it as history."

Francis encourages people to not toss items they may think aren't valuable. Instead she recommends they reach out to local Black historical societies, like hers.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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