Nova Scotia

A taste of the past: Chefs recreate 200 years of Nova Scotian recipes

You can taste roughly 200 years of history in one bite of warm potato pudding. The Nova Scotia Archives has teamed up with food editor Valerie Mansour and local chefs to reinterpret historical recipes that showcase the province's culinary evolution.

Food editor found archival recipes and got local chefs to modernize them in an upcoming cookbook

Chef Ben Kelly recreates a salmon croquettes recipe from 1921. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

You can taste roughly 200 years of history in one bite of warm potato pudding. 

The recipe, captured in Fanny Wentworth's curled handwriting, acts as a portal to another time, letting diners sample exactly what would have graced the table of Government House when Wentworth lived there with her husband.

But if potato pudding from 1786 doesn't suit your palate, the Nova Scotia Archives offers a modern twist. The agency teamed up with food editor Valerie Mansour and chefs across the province to reinterpret historical recipes that showcase the province's culinary evolution — alongside local staples like lobster, blueberries and apples. 

"Some of the original recipes were so basic because people didn't have a lot," Mansour says. "They had what they could grow, what they could fish, what they could hunt." 

If you look closely, you'll see flour was apparently spelled flower in this pancake recipe. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

How food preserves a moment in time

The recipes change over time, mirroring the incremental effect of globalization as ships began carrying the dried peppers and curries that would be sparingly used to spice up fish and local vegetables.

"It's a picture of what was going on historically," Mansour says. "That's what made it so interesting." 

The picture that quickly develops shows that the average person — or the average woman, at least — knew how to cook.

This twist on salmon croquettes lightens them up with some egg whites. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

And that's why many of the recipes on yellowed paper are missing a critical section: the method.

"They'll say cook until done, don't let it boil or various vague instructions," Mansour says. "I think people just knew how to cook and a lot of it was just passed down through families." 

Luckily, modern chefs like Ben Kelly have taken the guesswork out for those who may be a little less comfortable in front of the stove.

People back then were cooking their whole lives so it was all about feel and taste and sight.- Chef Ben Kelly, Kitchen Door Catering

He's put his own spin on a 1921 smoked salmon croquettes recipe, even pulling out a whisk instead of egg beaters to add to the authenticity. 

But the chef at Halifax's Kitchen Door Catering says he's not surprised at the lack of direction from his culinary predecessors. 

"People back then were cooking their whole lives so it was all about feel and taste and sight," he said. "It wasn't about a teaspoon and a tablespoon; it was never that specific."

Chefs from around the province have recreated Nova Scotian dishes dating back to 1786. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

From military rations to newspapers

Kelly's six twists join about 75 others in Nova Scotia Cookery, Then & Now, which is being released Thursday by Select Nova Scotia. The recipes' source material ranges from military diaries to newspaper clippings, all of which are part of the public archive's digital collection. 

The cookbook marries Kelly's passion for food and for history, he says. 

"A lot of people, when they think of Nova Scotia or Canada ... don't think of us as having a real food identity," he says. "But I think that this book kind of disproves that."

With files from Colleen Jones