Eat Like a Canadian

Canadians at Table – A Culinary History of Canada
Dorothy Duncan

When I was in junior high school, I was very excited about taking history class. That was until I got to that class and realized “history” was really all about who won what war, and not about how people really lived. Feminists would interject here and mention that what I really was interested in was “HERstory”, and I guess to some degree, that would be right. Because what really turned my crank was learning about how people lived, and most of that centred around women. How did the pilgrims keep their teeth clean? What did the Egyptians use in place of pads or tampons? How did cooks make all of the things we cook today without the convenient appliances we take for granted?

This interest was so intense that it almost led me to become an archaeologist, until I learned that archaeologists spend an awful lot of time digging in the dirt under the hot sun. Turns out what I really wanted to be was an anthropologist, but by the time I figured that out, I had moved on to wanting to be a fashion designer, and my interest in history got set aside until I got into the study of food.

I’m guessing author Dorothy Duncan felt the same way. Starting out as a teacher, it wasn’t until she became a teacher-guide and curator at Black Creek Pioneer Village that she put together her love of history and her love of food to become a food historian.

Canadians at Table is really the culinary history of Canada. Starting with the foodways of the First Nations peoples, Duncan traces her way through each new wave of explorers, fur-traders and colonists from the fishing outposts of Newfoundland to the logging towns of British Columbia. Vividly describing the near-famine conditions many settlers were faced with;

One settler describes the daily round as “working from dawn to dark and then walking three miles to the river, catching fish by the light of the ‘fire jacks’ using the bone of a pike as a hook.” The fish, buds and leaves of trees, and milk from one cow brought from New Brunswick kept the family alive until August when a little crop of spring wheat headed out sufficiently to allow a change of diet.

Duncan also explains in detail the rather arduous and forbidding task of supplying and transporting foodstuffs to all of the fur trading posts located through the country.

As the book progresses, she discusses the Victorian influence on how Canadians ate and cooked, and explores in depth the reach of recipes and local cookbooks, as well as food-based community gatherings such as potlucks and oyster suppers, festivals featuring local produce such as agricultural fairs and either blossom or fruit festivals that took place in localized growing areas, such as the Apple Blossom Festival in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. She also explore the influence of the various mail-order catalogues and how they helped to expand the palates of non-urban Canadians.

Duncan doesn’t ignore the huge role played by farmer’s markets either, and talks about these in some depth. Toronto’s Kensington Market gets only a passing comment, which is too bad, for it’s an excellent example of not only the cultural shifts in our city and country but the foodways of these cultures as well. There’s a whole chapter dedicated to the role food has played in traditional celebrations from Hogmanay to Diwali.

In the later chapters, she discusses how progress such as electricity, refrigerators, prepared foods and microwaves have all had an influence on our changing diets. Duncan mentions the trend toward returning to the older style of eating with less processed foods, and a focus on fresh produce. There’s even a reference to the 100-mile diet – a trend today where people eat foods sourced from within a hundred mile radius of home, something the early settlers would have had no choice but to do.