The Way We Ate

From the ortolan pâté of New France to Alberta’s prairie oysters, Canadians have long enjoyed a rich culinary history

Written by Fiona Lucas

December 13, 2016

A salad bowl may symbolize Canada’s multicultural society, but a bowl of greens doesn’t go far when describing this country’s culinary history. From the imported haute cuisine favoured by the upper crust of New France to the throw-it-on-the-fire chuckwagon cookery of the lonesome prairie cowboy, there’s a lot on the menu when it comes to Canada’s food heritage. The way we ate says much about who we were, where we came from, and how we adapted to new circumstances. In early Canada, food was central to building and maintaining community.

In the stories on the following pages, we touch down on four culinary moments in the vast tapestry of Canadian historical life: early New France, late eighteenth-century Nova Scotia, pre-Rebellion Ontario, and Alberta in the 1920s. The cast of characters in these diaries and letters may be mostly fictitious, but the contexts of their food-ways are real. Correspondents in genuine reports were similarly eager to provide information about food for the folks at home in the old countries.

Canadian women’s two prime daily activities, as seen in the fictional accounts by “Janet,” “Ellen,” and “Maude,” were raising children and ensuring sustenance. And the story of Claude—an actual soldier in early French Canada who describes a sumptuous Christmas feast—reminds us that early Canadian cookery sometimes went far beyond the basics.

The way we eat is central to understanding ourselves as members of distinct social cultures. Newcomers to Canada sought continuity as best they could by planting seeds carried from home, or baking favourite breads, as the “Fraser” family does with their oats, or making a common item such as jam with a newly met fruit like prairie saskatoon berries, or invoking famous cooks like Vatel, the renowned seventeenth-century French chef.

One way to understand Canada is to read about our foodways. These accounts from some of Canada’s historians of food give a glimpse into part of that culinary heritage.

Haute Cuisine in New France

A Christmas dinner in Montreal, 1665

Early Fusion in Pictou

A family of Scots immigrants in Pictou, Nova Scotia, welcomes new arrivals to Tatamagouche in 1786

Food Fit for an uprising

On the eve of the 1837 Rebellion, a Toronto inn feeds the concerned citizenry

Beef & Berries on the Prairies

Ranch living in the 1920s

Fiona Lucas, co-ordinator of The Way We Ate, works for Museum and Heritage Services of Toronto, has an MA in Canadian history and is co-founder and president of Culinary Historians of Ontario. She’s also the author of Hearth and Home: Women and the Art of Open Hearth Cooking (J. Lorimer, Toronto, 2006).

This article originally appeared in the December 2007 - January 2008 issue of The Beaver.

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