Montreal

Recipes older than Confederation: Lessons from a 160-year-old cookbook

A recipe book that is older than Confederation still has a few things to teach the modern audience. Catharine Parr Traill's The Female Emigrant's Guide, first published in 1855, is a dense and witty collection of guidelines on how to make bush tea cakes, flavour black squirrel, and survive in the Upper Canada's backwoods.

First published in 1855, book includes Victorian-era recipes from Upper Canada’s backwoods with modern touch

A settler family undertaking their annual harvest of maple syrup and sugar. (Submitted by Toronto Public Library)

A recipe book that is older than Confederation still has a few things to teach the modern audience.

Catharine Parr Traill's The Female Emigrant's Guide, first published in 1855,  is a dense and witty collection of guidelines on how to make bush tea cakes, flavour black squirrel, and survive in the Upper Canada's backwoods.

At that time, making food meant getting your hands dirty.

"Quite a lot of information in here is how to adapt to a rougher, more difficult and labour-intensive discipline," Nathalie Cooke, co-editor of a new annotated version of the book and associate dean at the McGill University Library, told CBC Radio Montreal's All in a Weekend.

Parr Traill was especially impressed with the selection of sweet cakes available for a customary tea-table, dubbing Canada "a land of cakes."

The 550-page cookbook was born out of Catharine Parr Traill's daily challenges to adapt to a new environment. (Submitted by Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University Library)

From genteel to an 'up and doing' lifestyle

Having settled in what's now the Peterborough, Ont., area from agricultural England in 1832, Parr Traill talks about everything from bread fermentation, soap-making to, of course, the stillness and silence of Canadian winters.

In their introduction, Cooke and co-editor Fiona Lucas describe Parr Traill as very practical, eager, and a great stateswoman. Despite the harsh climate, she lived for 97 years.

Despite Parr Traill's eagerness to begin a new life in Victorian-era Canada, she also respected her Anishinabek neighbours. (Submitted by Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University Library)

In a way, the 550-page cookbook was born out of Parr Traill's daily challenges to adapt to a new environment. One of them was leaving behind the traditional family mindset and genteel ways.

"Much more than in Britain, the women had to take a hand in tasks that would be normally considered the men's tasks," Cooke said.

"The separate sphere philosophy really had to break down in the backwoods."

That is partially why Parr Traill's book often reads like a word of caution to those considering a move to Canada.

"It's better to be up and doing," she advises her contemporaries.

Exchange with Indigenous neighbours

Parr Traill was eager to begin a new life in Victorian-era Canada, but she also respected her Anishinabek neighbours.

She incorporated many of the Indigenous ways into her cooking, using ingredients such as cranberries, masquinongé, and wild rice.

One of her favourites was something that had yet to come a Canadian staple — a candy called maple sweeties, made with maple syrup, butter and flour.
The editors offer suggestions for substituting common 19-century foods that may today be considered somewhat extravagant. (Submitted by Toronto Public Library)

As Parr Traill watched her Indigenous neighbours sugar off, she became thrilled with finding a readily available sweetener, otherwise a rare treat.

"The efficient way of making maple syrup is actually collaboration between the settlers and the Indigenous population," Cooke explained.

Local produce first

Cooke and Lucas's biggest contributions to the 2017 edition is a 220-page glossary, outlining for contemporary readers the ingredients that are considered unhealthy today and those that are hard to come by.

But while some recipes get modernized, it's her appetite for fresh greens that will resonate with contemporary food lovers.
One of her favourites treats was maple sweeties, a treat made from maple syrup. (Submitted by Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University Library)

"She's very big on local produce," Cooke added.

"It's very much in keeping with the way we think of healthy eating, through eating locally."

With files from All in a Weekend

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