Book Review: Aubrey McKee by Alex Pugsley

Aubrey McKee
Alex Pugsley

This collection of stories about a well-to-do kid from Halifax’s South End is apparently meant to be the first in a 5-part fictionalized autobiographical series. This book covers Aubrey’s childhood and teenage years in the 70s and 80s, and includes a cast of characters that range from his parents’ friends to drug-dealing ruffians from the poorer parts of town, to a collection of eccentrics and misfits who are the early adopters of Halifax’s vibrant punk music scene in the early 80s. But Aubrey’s life is pretty insular and posh. Private school, tennis lessons, and yacht clubs all play a role in his development and it’s only when another character tells him off and points out that his life is nothing at all like that of other Halifax youth (a refreshing twist, because I wasn’t sure the author actually had that self-awareness up to that point and was beginning to think he might be an awful jerk), that it became clear that somebody had the great good sense to consider Aubrey a poncy twat, and to call him on it.

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Book Review — Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide: Cooking with a Canadian Classic

Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide: Cooking with a Canadian Classic
Edited by Nathalie Cooke and Fiona Lucas
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017

In our easy 21st century life, we think we’re “roughing it” when the power goes out for a few hours. But the first emigrants to Canada not only didn’t have power, they also didn’t have roads, running water, nearby stores and shops, or shelter… until they built it themselves.

Catherine Parr Traill (and her sister Susanna Moodie) were part of the early waves of colonial settlers who cleared and farmed land in (then Upper) Canada, and Traill especially documented what her life was like, including the many recipes (receipts) used for daily meals and medicines, as well as instructions on how to do just about anything, from building a fence to making butter.

Originally published in 1855, The Female Emigrant’s Guide was written especially to offer advice to new settlers, explaining what to bring on the crossing, what to buy, and offering myriad tips and instructions on how to set up a homestead in the middle of the woods and not die in the process.

This hefty edition is more interesting than Traill’s own work, however, because of the massive amounts of research and supporting documents Cooke and Lucas include. At 608 pages, the authors include not just the original work by Traill, but a biography, a publication history of the work (it was printed in different editions, with changes and corrections to each version), and then an extensive section called “Guide to Traill’s World” that includes typical seasonal menus, modern interpretations (with measurements and cooking times) of recipes in the guide, a primer for fireplace cooking at home, plus an extensive look at cooking measurements since most recipes of the time didn’t include standardized measurements and when measurements were includes they might be metric, imperial, avoirdupois, Winchester, wine, or apothecary. Or you know, an actual teacup and teaspoon, regardless of how they compared to any official system.

A massive glossary of food and cooking terms might be unnecessarily completest; some entries are for things not actually referenced in Traill’s work but the editors have included them because they were in popular use elsewhere at the time.

Which is to say, that this is a definitive work on both Traill and her life.

The editors avoid delving into the political issues provoked by Traill and other settlers; that is, the outright theft of First Nations land by colonial settlers, other than to point out that they have reproduced the original work as it was written, including the use of terms that are now out of use or considered offensive. Traill and others like her believed themselves to be entitled to Canadian land, and certainly we wouldn’t be here without their efforts, but the general treatment of First Nations peoples in the effort to colonize North America is a shameful bit of history that is vaguely romanticized when admiring Traill’s work.


Book Review – Pizza Cultura: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Dish

Pizza Cultura: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Dish
Mark Cirillo
Italian Chamber of Commerce of Ontario/Mansfield Press, 2017

How did a simple street food eaten by Napoli’s poor become beloved around the world as one of our favourite treats?

Food writer Mark Cirillo traces the history of the pizza pie back to Roman times where various areas of Italy had their own version of a flatbread that was baked and sold as a quick snack. It took the discovery of the new world and the importing of tomatoes to Italy (and then the perfection of the San Marzano variety) to start to create what we now know as pizza. The creation of the bread, tomato, and cheese concoction, baked quickly at a very high heat, can be traced to Naples in the mid-1800s. From there it spread across Italy, with regional variations based on dough, tomatoes, and cheese. For instance, even though the ingredients are essentially the same, pizza from Naples is different from pizza made in Rome.

It took until World War 2 and US forces stationed in Italy to truly spread the love of pizza to North America, but once those soldier returned home, their love of pizza grew, with more regional variations and styles popping up in North America.

Cirillo traces all of this, with an emphasis on Ontario and Toronto-area pizzerias, and charts the current trend away from a preference for a more fast-food style, manufactured product to authentic pizzas in the style of Naples or Rome, right down to the inclusion of custom-made ovens by a bespoke artisan from Italy.

This book is fascinating in the way that it delves into the specifics of the products; Cirillo looks at the various pizza-like flatbreads from across Italy, but also explores the different methods and ingredients that so minutely affect the final product such as type of flour and even the day-to-day minutia of how the weather might change the texture of that day’s dough.

He interviews the owners of Canadian pizza chain Pizza Nova; the man considered to be Italy’s best pizza maker; and the artisan who builds the stoves that are so important to a perfect final product.

There’s a section of equipment and what it’s used for, and a really interesting chapter on the various kinds of pizzas based on topping that will cause readers to laugh out loud, likely in confusion — while pizza Napoletana and Pizza Romana are typically used to describe the style of crust (and style of pizza overall), there is a specific set of toppings (tomato, anchovy and oregano) that is called “Napoletana” in most of Italy, except in Naples where it is called “Romana”. No wonder Canadians just order Hawaiian and have done with it.

Pizza Cultura will most definitely make every reader crave pizza, whether it’s their favourite American-style fast food version or a gourmet pizza cooked in a 900°F oven for 90 seconds. This is a must-read for pizza lovers everywhere.

Book Review – Oyster: A Global History

Oyster: A Global History
Carolyn Tillie
Reaktion Books, 2017

Consider the oyster. No, I mean really. Having existed for 234 million years and having been consumed by humans in quantity for 164,000 years, they are our oldest food. Oyster shells have been found in excavations of ancient Troy and the first reference to oysters in a cookbook appears in the third century AD.

Carolyn Tillie fills her book about oysters (part of the extensive Edible Series about different foodstuffs) with a monumental quantity of facts about the history of the humble oyster, from cultivation and use, the globalized system of farming, the role oysters have played in cultures around the world, oysters as aphrodisiacs, and even how oyster farming has affected population and culture.

Once considered the food of the poor, as oysters became depleted in certain areas due to over-farming and pollution, the bi-valve rose in popularity as a food of the rich. German-Jewish immigrants to North America also broke kosher laws to enjoy oysters, justifying their indulgence with the theory that oysters were considered treyfe (forbidden) because the oysters in Palestine grew in waters that were extremely polluted.

Tillie has thoroughly researched her subject matter here and this little book is full of awesome facts and anecdotes about everything to do with oysters, often correcting common misconceptions. For instance, the “rule” about only eating oysters in a month with an “r” in it comes not from the theory that the waters might be polluted during the summer (although they might in certain places) but from the fact that oysters spawn in the warmer months and thus are less plump and flavourful. Or the incorrect theory from olde tymes that a squeeze of lemon on an oyster would kill off water-borne diseases such as typhoid or cholera.

The final chapters offer tips on buying, storing, and shucking oysters, as well as a selection of classic recipes if you’re inclined to cook your oysters rather than down them raw. Also, wonderfully, there’s a selected bibliography, a page of websites and blogs, a list of oyster-related apps, a list of oyster bars and farms, and finally an international list of oyster festivals. Phew!

Reading Tillie’s delightful work on oysters has made me feel much more knowledgeable and confident on the subject of the world’s favourite bi-valve. It’s also left me craving oysters, a problem I’ll need to do something about forthwith.

Book Review — Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture

Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture
Megan J. Elias
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017

The history of the cookbook is long and varied, but can often be used to trace the overall history and social norms of a specific culture. In Food on the Page Megan J. Elias, a historian and gastronomist from Boston University’s Metropolitan College traces American culture through the first domestically-published cookbooks to present day.

Cookbooks became prevalent in the 1800s, when community-based compendiums were a way for the contributor to show social status by offering recipes for unique dishes. Elias points out that for a long time, the most-contributed pie recipe was lemon, questioning the idea of apple pie as the epitome of American desserts.

Cultural changes eventually reflect in how we cook, and Elias demonstrates the great “whitewashing” of southern cookery books that never mention the slaves who would have actually been cooking the dishes included, or which refer to a romanticized Mammy-figure with love and cake for all.

She addresses the trend for slimming in the early 20th century and the misogyny of food writing after the wars when publications such as Gourmet forced a divide between masculine and feminine cooking and dishes that still exists to some extent today.

French food and its many fans also feature in chapters about how chefs and writers such as Julia Child and MFK Fisher turned Americans against their own local and regional cuisine in favour of complicated French dishes under the guise of sophistication.

I’ll admit that I found the chapter on the counter-culture cookbooks of the 60s and 70s a bit of a bore, not due to Elias’ writing but what with all the references to earnest hearty breads and cakes laced with pot, hippies were and continue to remain tiresome.

Moving on to present day, Elias takes on Michael Pollan and the sustainable food movement, which has inspired a whole new trend in chefs and cookbooks, meant to inspire the home cook to think about where their food comes from.

Finally Elias addresses the popularity of blogs and sites such as Instagram as a more current way of sharing recipes and food stories. Of course, the ultimate goal for a food blogger is still a book deal. Even if more people might visit your blog than buy your book, there is still a seriousness to the physical cookbook that cannot be replicated online.

Food on the Page is extensively researched and is informative and intriguing as both a history of food trends, but also as a series of snapshots of the United States and wider western culture.

Book Review — The Greedy Queen – Eating With Victoria

The Greedy Queen – Eating With Victoria
Annie Gray
Profile Books, 2017

Queen Victoria was one of the most interesting characters in history, whether you look at her from the perspective of royalty, parent, or politician. But what about Victoria’s life in food? She certainly did love to eat, as food historian Dr. Annie Gray points out in this detailed work about not just Victoria’s own meals but about how food was procured, prepared, and eaten within the royal palaces during the Victorian era.

From corruption and theft to kitchens that often flooded with backed-up sewage, right down to the variance in menus for staff, courtiers, and the royal family (the kitchens sometimes needed to turn out thousands of meals per day, most with extensive multi-course menus), Gray covers it all, from Victoria’s first meal as Queen to her last.

Along the way, Victoria, like many women of her day and for every generation since, struggled with her weight and her heavy, multi-course meals caused her endless indigestion and weight gain as she aged. Despite the many dishes, plus an omnipresent groaning sideboard -— you know, an extra roast or two, just in case you’re still a bit peckish — accounts of dining with Victoria don’t sound particularly pleasant; she reportedly wolfed her food and wasn’t a great conversationalist.

Gray offers extensive exploration of the royal kitchen accounts, including the difficulties in keeping quality staff, and spends a good amount of time discussing farm and garden initiatives implemented by Victoria and Albert at all the castles, including the Swiss Cottage built at Osbourne for the royal children with its own smaller-scale working kitchen. Food was obviously important to Victoria.

There are places where Gray seemingly contradicts herself — Victoria was a daring eater, with a love of Indian food and and a willingness to try new things, or she was set in her ways (it took her decades to agree to change from French service to the now-standard Russian, she ate lamb or mutton at most meals) — but there was undoubtedly a lot of information, menus, and recipes to sift through.

Gray includes a collection of recipes for some of Victoria’s favourite dishes, modernized, thankfully for current kitchens and palates.

While The Greedy Queen can get a bit dry in places, it’s mostly a fun look at Victorian kitchens, cooking techniques, and trends. The insight into Victoria herself is less revealing, but I’m not sure that matters much.

Book Review — Nova Scotia Cookery, Then and Now: Modern Interpretations of Heritage Recipes

Nova Scotia Cookery, Then and Now: Modern Interpretations of Heritage Recipes
edited by Valerie Mansour
Nimbus, 2017

As long as people have lived in Nova Scotia, there has been a need to cook and thus, a need for recipes. While many cooks of the past needed no written instruction, keeping all the details in their heads, once the popularity of cookbooks grew, plenty of regional recipes were shared through books (both mainstream and community publications), newspapers, and on scraps of paper, either handwritten or typed.

The Nova Scotia Archives has, well, an archive of old recipes, from handwritten notes for a lemon pie to the mass quantity recipes used at the old Moirs’ chocolate factory. Editor Valerie Mansour has compiled a collection of these, dating back nearly 200 years from 1786 to the 1970s and arranged chronologically. For a fun twist, the recipes were passed on to various Nova Scotia chefs who then analyzed the recipe and made their own version.

In some cases they stuck to the original recipe and in others the chefs deviated far off track because the original was just too scary or unworkable. Each entry includes an image of the original recipe in its original form, the revised recipe developed by the chef, and the chef’s comments, as well as a splendid, mouth-warering photo by Len Wagg.

The collection includes expected favourites such as rice pudding, devilled eggs, seafood chowder, rappie pie, and ginger beer, but there’s a Thai peanut soup recipe from 1910, and a Mulligatawny recipe from 1922 that reveals a worldly sophistication not typically ascribed to Nova Scotians of the time.

Recipes range from cocktails and cider to hearty entrees, side dishes, and desserts, and every Nova Scotian will find an old family favourite among the pages.

While some of the chef’s might have taken more artistic license with their dish than was absolutely necessary, this is a fun and interesting collection that offers updated versions of classic dishes that are within the grasp of the majority of home cooks. Some of the best reading in the book is the detailed archival citation of each recipe in a section at the back which cites the sources for each entry, and references community cookbooks, private collections, and publications ranging from promotional corporate cookbooks to community fundraising books.

As an ex-pat Nova Scotian, this book is a delightful taste of home, but it is also a wonderful resource for anybody interested in food history or Nova Scotian cuisine (past and present) in general.

The Long Road to the Pot of Gold

When I came up with the idea to write a book about the Halifax Explosion, back in 2004, I didn’t think it would be a 13-year journey. The bulk of the writing was done in ’04-’05, but just as I was getting ready to send the manuscript out to agents, I took a header on the front walk and ended up with a broken arm. By the time I had healed I was working on two different food-writing gigs and so set the MS aside. I had been advised by a friend within the publishing industry to get my name out there by doing some other writing, that it would be an encouragement to potential publishers, so I did that.

Fast forward to 2014 or so, and after writing a different book, editing a collection of other people’s writing, and generally writing about the Toronto food scene for a decade, I thought it might be time to dust off Pot of Gold. I had always thought to publish it closer to the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, which is an anchoring event within the plot, and so, after a few more drafts (making the final version maybe the 10th draft overall) I sent it out into the world. 

Except the timing of the mainstream publishing industry is slow like a molasses-covered turtle, and with each agent taking months to reply/reject, by the beginning of 2017, I realized that it wouldn’t get published in time unless I did it myself. Which is never ideal because there’s no promotion, it’s not on store shelves… but the explosion is such a major part of the book — even though the bulk of the story is set more than a decade later — and I really want to acknowledge what was, for me, a big part of my childhood, and something that I think every Haligonian has as part of their own family history in some way. So even if I don’t sell a single copy, at least I know I did it and that it’s out there, as my tribute to the city I grew up in and the people who lived and died during this devastating event.

Over the years I have read every single book published about the explosion, it’s a topic of fascination still. There are a number of non-fiction works that delve into minute detail of the events of December 6th, and in recent years the number of fiction titles has grown as well, adding different voices and points of view to the two “classic” (tired, cliched, misogynistic) titles that for years were the only works of fiction about the subject.

I hope that, some day, Pot of Gold stands proudly with those other works as yet another voice, another point of view, about the horrific events that destroyed the lives of so many innocent people.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, I have included the relevant chapter here for free. While the rest of the novel takes place between 1929 and 1945, the prologue and the explosion establish the characters, their relationships, and many aspects of their lives.

Please visit the Pot of Gold book page to read the prologue.

She Ain’t So Sweet: Book Review – Rejected Princesses

Rejected Princesses
Jason Porath

The premise – all the women in history who would never in a million years have a Disney movie made about their (real) life exploits. The gals whose work was ignored, overlooked or stolen, or those ladies who kicked ass, fought tooth and nail and severed some heads. You know, like Boudica or Elizabeth Bathory.

Porath does extensive research on each woman he covers, and he manages to find historical women from all over the globe. Each entry includes a graphic (the project started when he was an animator at DreamWorks), a fun and witty bio of the gal’s exploits, and some entries include notes on the artwork (ie. why Boudica is dressed that way, who are the people in the background, etc).

While Rejected Princess might seem like an inspirational book for girls, readers should be forewarned, these ladies would never get the “princess treatment” (have a blockbuster movie made about their life) for a reason. Many of them are inspiration but maybe kind of boring (Ada Lovelace), and some of them are just straight up evil (Elizabeth Bathory… but wait, Porath reveals that she probably wasn’t as evil as she’s been made out to be.) Porath is good enough to give each entry a maturity rating, so if you are reading this book with your kids, you can choose what level to stop at. He also flags each entry with other details such as abuse, sex, violence, etc.

This is a super fun collection that makes it clear that women in history were not all demure sweetness. They often fought for what was rightfully theirs, outshone their male peers at many endeavours, and could even be violent terrorists.

Porath has a huge but easy to navigate website that is updated regularly, and which includes many of the entries from the book (a heavy tome with over 100 bios), but also many that aren’t; a search function to find your favourite rejected princess, and an extensive shop with everything from shirts to phone cases to calendars. He’s apparently got a backlog of women to write about, but there’s a place to make suggestions, and a fun FAQ page where he explains his decision to include women with violent histories as well as the good girls who are more inspiring.

This is a great book, perfect for not only your favourite badass gal, but for any lady person (okay, really for anybody… guys need to see women kicking ass, too) over the age of 12.


Awesome Thing – A Floating Historical Garden


Barges used to make up a large percentage of England’s boats. Used to haul pretty much everything up and down the interior waterways of the UK, the bottoms of these flat boats would be filled with ballast (rocks, earth, etc) to weigh down the vessels when they docked. This ballast was often dumped, leaving behind large quantities of plant seeds, many non-indigenous, that were preserved in the river beds.

Turns out “ballast seed” stays preserved pretty well. So well that designer Gitta Gschwendtner and artist Maria Thereza Alves have created this floating garden on an old barge in Bristol England, made entirely with non-native seeds dug up from English riverbeds, creating an interactive and natural bit of history.

The Ballast Seed Garden is located on Bristol’s Floating Harbour.

Full story at World Landscape Architecture. Discovered via Messy Nessy Chic.