A Short History of Food and Foodways in Nova Scotia
As an appetizer — or perhaps a digestive — to accompany the many recipes, cookbooks and culinary images showcased in the other sections of 'What's Cooking', a brief introduction to typical foodstuffs and consumption in Nova Scotia over the years is perhaps in order. We could never do this subject the justice it deserves, but nevertheless....
The French were the first Europeans to establish a permanent settlement in present-day Canada, when they built a trading post on an island in the Saint Croix River, now part of the boundary line between New Brunswick and Maine. The first winter in this outpost, 1604-05, was disastrous, with many men dying from scurvy. The settlement was dismantled the following year and moved across the Bay of Fundy to a new location named Port-Royal, on the shores of what is now the Annapolis Basin in Nova Scotia.
Survival remained a challenge in the new location, and for Europeans the winter weather was brutal. During the winter of 1606-07, the colonists cheered themselves up by founding L'Ordre de Bon Temps ('The Order of Good Cheer'), North America's first social club. Samuel de Champlain, leader of the settlement, proposed the idea and later wrote that the winter passed pleasantly enough, with good food "which everyone found beneficial to his health, and more profitable than all sorts of medicine we might have used."
There were less than seventy colonists, all men, at Port-Royal, and the founding 'Chevaliers' of the Order were the fifteen senior-ranking settlers. Each day a different Chevalier was appointed Chief Steward, and since there were fifteen of them, the cycle repeated every fortnight. Prior to his appointed day, the Chevalier would go hunting or fishing and return with some delicacy, to be served in addition to the ordinary fare.
The Chief Steward oversaw the cook's preparations, then marched in with a napkin on his shoulder, the wand of office in his hand, and the collar of the Order around his neck. He was followed by all the members of the Order, each carrying a dish. At the end of the evening, the Chief Steward of the day handed over the collar of the Order to his successor, and both drank a goblet of wine.
Marc Lescarbot, writing in The History of New France, listed a wide variety of meat and fowl served at these banquets — ducks, grey and white geese, partridge, larks and other birds, moose, caribou, beaver, otter, bear, rabbits, wildcats and raccoons. Sometimes the menu also included up to half-a-dozen sturgeon. According to Lescarbot, "of all our meats none is so tender as moose-meat (whereof we also made excellent pasties), and nothing so delicate as beaver's tail."
Mi'kmaq men, women and children frequently attended these banquets. Chief Membertou, and any other chiefs present, dined at the table with the members of the Order, while the remaining Mi'kmaq, as many as thirty at a time, watched from the sidelines and were served bread. Lescarbot noted that whenever Membertou and the other chiefs were not present, "their absence saddened us; as happened three or four times when they all went away to the places wherein they knew there was hunting."
Writing a few years later in 1616, Father Pierre Biard, a Jesuit priest at Port-Royal, made note of the annual hunting and fishing calendar followed by the Mi'kmaq — January (seals), February-March (beaver, otter, moose, bear and caribou, the latter "an animal half-ass and half-deer"), March (smelt), April (herring, large duck, sturgeon, salmon, bird's eggs), May-September (cod, other fish and shellfish, goose, partridge, wild pigeon, rabbit and hare), September (eel), October-November (moose and beaver), and December (dog fish or tom cod).
Over a century later, Nicolas Denys (1598-1688), a French colonizer and trader based at Saint-Pierre (St. Peter's, Cape Breton Island), wrote in his Description géographique et historique des costes de l'Amerique septentrionale (1762) that the Mi'kmaq diet included various animals, fish, seals and whales. Meat and fish were roasted or boiled. The meat was filleted and placed on a split stick in front of a fire, each person having their own stick. When one side was cooked, that side was eaten by biting into it, aided by a bone sharpened on a rock to give it a cutting edge. Fish was roasted flat, frequently over coals, or on split sticks which served as a grill.
The Mi'kmaq also cooked with big, hollow wooden kettles, in which water and meat were placed. Large red-hot stones from the fire were added to boil the water, and were continuously replaced until the meat was cooked. Other cooking methods included roasting over coals, or using a cord made from tree bark and attached to a pole stretched across the top of the wigwam, or from one tree to another, or stretched between two forked sticks in the ground. Meat was attached to the lower end of the cord, and a stick was inserted through the meat and twisted several turns. After being released, the meat turned in circles, like on a spit, many times on both sides, back and forth over the fire. When the meat no longer moved, the cord was again twisted, and the manoeuvre was repeated until the meat was cooked.
Wilson and Ruth Wallis, writing in The Micmac Indians of Eastern Canada (1955), included a section on native foods, and noted that the Mi'kmaq gathered the nesting eggs of geese and ducks, boiled salt water until a thick layer of salt remained, and boiled and ate 'wild potato'/ 'wild carrot' which grew in the marshes and along the edges of woodlands. Their diet included beechnuts, huckleberries, blueberries, and Indian pear or service berry. Cranberries, blueberries and huckleberries were gathered, then boiled three or four hours, compressed into disc-shaped cakes, and dried in the sun. Tea was made by boiling twigs of yellow birch, roots of Labrador and sassafras, winterberries, waxberries, spruce leaves, tips of young maple trees, leaves and barks of hemlock, or chips of rock maple. Spruce tea or spruce beer and maple sap were also consumed as beverages, and maple sap was boiled and reduced to small hard loaves.
Another French merchant-trader named Dièreville spent a year in Port-Royal during 1699-1700, gathering plants and observing the colony and its inhabitants. His Relation of the Voyage to Port Royal in Acadia or New France (1933) noted that the Mi'kmaq food supply included bear, elk, caribou and moose. The latter, he observed, "is one of the finest prizes an Indian can secure; the meat is eaten fresh, or smoked, & it is very good"; and, if properly cured, it could last an entire year.
Dièreville also wrote that the colonists of Acadia, as the French colony was then known, grew fields of cabbages and turnips; both vegetables were always cooked together, including in nourishing soups which also benefitted from the addition of a large slice of pork. Dièreville observed that the Acadians never tired of eating pork, which according to him they willingly consumed twice a day.
On their farms they raised pigs, poultry, sheep, and cows prized for their milk; other cattle were killed occasionally for their meat, which was then salted. As well, the Acadians hunted duck, teal, wild geese and small birds such as sandpipers, curlew, snipe, plover "& a thousand others." The colonists frequently collected birds' eggs from an island near Port-Royal, living on them "for a considerable length of time, & they are better than those of their own Hens."
The Acadian diet included an abundance of fresh and saltwater fish; many of the latter were caught in weirs, depending on the season. Dièreville identified smelt, flounder, gaspereau, mackerel, shad, sturgeon, bass, eel, sardines, trout and salmon, and noted that the Acadians spread the gaspereaux on their wooden roofs so that the fish would dry in the sun. Dièreville also identified cod — eaten salted or dried at every meal during Lent — as an object of his particular dislike: "how much I suffered."
Cod was normally cooked and eaten with oil rather than butter, which was in short supply because most Acadian households preferred to drink the milk produced by their cows, rather than churning it into butter; in any case, Dièreville considered the colonial version of butter to be much inferior to that produced in France.
Like the Mi'kmaq, the Acadians also ate fruit and berries. They had varieties of apples which overwintered in their cellars, and they picked blackberries, raspberries and strawberries. To sweeten the berries, they added sugar "produced in the Country", i.e. maple sugar. This was done by tapping the sugar maple trees in late winter and early spring, collecting the sap each day, and boiling it in a large cauldron until "as it condenses little by little, it becomes a Syrup, & then a reddish Sugar which is very good."
Two very old and popular potato-based dishes — poutines râpées (pork, salt and grated and mashed potatoes) and pâte à la râpure or 'rappie pie' (chicken, pork, salt, pepper and onions, with grated and mashed potatoes) are still favourites in Nova Scotia's Acadian communities. Recipes for these unusual dishes are given in Vera Daye's article, "Poutines râpées hamburgs hot dogs: The story of a favourite Acadian delicacy," in The Atlantic Advocate (Sept. 1963).
Louisbourg, founded in 1713 as a strategic French military, commercial and fishing base on Ile Royale (Cape Breton Island) remained a significant French presence until its final capture by the British in 1758. The diet of its residents included fish, which were abundant in the seas off Ile Royale, fruit and vegetables grown in their gardens or picked in the woods, and imported foods such as coconuts, grapes, coffee, chocolate, wine and bandy. Cod was a staple, but other fish and shellfish included herring, sole, mackerel, halibut, salmon, eel, lobster, oysters and mussels. Bread may have been 'the staff of life,' but Louisbourg gardens also yielded abundant root vegetables such as carrots, turnips and parsnips, plus a variety of other vegetables including peas, beans, cabbages and salad greens.
Vegetables were cooked in broth or water and served with meat. Herbs such as mint, sage, parsley and green onion added flavour to soups, meats, stews, pot-pies, fish, salads and eel pâte, a delicacy. Like the Acadians on the mainland, the French at Louisbourg also depended on apples, juneberries, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and cranberries. Anne Marie Lane Jonah and Chantal Véchambre have provided an excellent history of Louisbourg foodways and recipes in French Taste in Atlantic Canada 1604-1758: A Gastronomic History/Le goût français au Canada atlantique 1604-1758: Une histoire gastronomique (2012).
Possibly the best surviving information about 18th century food and foodways in English-speaking Nova Scotia has been provided in the diary of the Reverend John Seccombe (1708-1792), a Congregational minister who sailed from Boston to Chester in late July 1761, bringing his family with him. The diary is brief, ending on 31 December of the same year, but Mr. Seccombe obviously enjoyed eating and took detailed notes of the dinners, suppers, and even the occasional breakfast served to him, focusing primarily on his favourite foods and beverages.
For example, on most days he mentioned only tea and/or coffee for breakfast; on other days, however, he carefully recorded more substantial morning meals that included 'dessert-like' items such as cake, apple pie and a gooseberry tart (8 and 9 August); and broiled bacon, apple pie and cheese (9 September).
Fish and pork were the most frequently mentioned dinner and supper items. Between 13 and 28 August, Seccombe's daily meals varied only by the type of fish — fried and 'soused' (pickled) eel, salmon, fried or broiled cod, perch and mackerel. The diary also mentions cod tongues and 'sounds' (cheeks), haddock, halibut, trout, lobster for supper one evening, and chowder on another occasion.
Between 10 August and 9 September, he ate pork on fifteen days. Although many vegetables were mentioned in the summer, none surpassed fresh cucumber, which was eaten with meat or fish on twenty days between 15 August and 15 September — particularly when mackerel was also part of the meal.
It was not uncommon for two or more types of meat, fowl or fish to be enjoyed by Seccombe at the same meal — for example, tom cod, 'cunner' (perch) and pork; soup (fowl) with dumplings, roast leg of mutton, roasted pigeon and boiled pork; and broiled salmon, boiled pork, moose steaks and sea duck. Fruit, vegetables and nuts were also served — squash, peas, carrots, turnips, potatoes, cabbage, corn, pumpkin, celery, apples, quinces, pears, watermelon and chestnuts.
Many meals included gooseberry tart, cake, apple pie (frequently), apple tart, cranberry pie, mince pie and cheese. Seccombee mentioned assorted puddings — 'buckwheat hasty,' apple, Indian, plum, cranberry, whortleberry, and pudding with raisins and plums. The hasty pudding was made with New England meal, which he noted was "a great Rarity in these parts." Drinks included tea, coffee, cider, wine, "good claret," beer, spruce beer and lemon punch.
Meals were often repetitive, since they were based on seasonally available vegetables, fruit, berries and meats. On 21 November, for example, his supper included moose steak. The following day, local Mi'kmaq brought in another moose killed that morning; accordingly, Mr. Seccombe dined at mid-day on broiled salmon and moose steak, and in the evening on moose steak yet again. Two days later, the dinner menu was stewed moose head — "very good ye best of meat." Moose appeared again on 25, 26 and 27 November, and once more on 1 December.
When Seccombe visited Halifax in October, he was invited to dine with the colonial governor, Jonathan Belcher. There the menu included salt fish, roast goose, broiled beef steaks, apple pie, English cider, "Frontenac" and other wines, tea and coffee.
Many foods in Seccombe's diet are unfamiliar to our 21st century tastes — halibut fin, head of moose, coot (any black aquatic bird), beaver tail and baked beaver ("extraordinary good"), squab (young pigeon) and pigeon — but they were common then and much enjoyed. Seccombe's diet was definitely varied, with food supplied from the forest, farm and sea — and he obviously enjoyed every mouthful of it.
Boston King provides us with very different observations, two decades later. King was an African American who came with the Black Loyalists to Birchtown, Shelburne County, where he was a preacher, carpenter, boat builder and fisherman. Economic conditions in Loyalist Nova Scotia, particularly in the newly-settled rural communities, were harsh and bleak. The Methodist Magazine published King's memoirs in 1798, and in them he recalled that ten years' previously, people sold their best gowns for five pounds of flour to sustain them — and that when they had nothing left to sell, several of them fell dead in the streets from starvation.
Around 1790, King worked briefly on a vessel fishing for herring off Nova Scotia's Eastern Shore. At the end of the season, each crew member was paid £15, and King also received two barrels of fish. He was then able to clothe his wife and himself; his winter food supply included one barrel of flour, three bushels of corn, and nine gallons of treacle (molasses). During his absence, his wife had planted seed potatoes which yielded twenty bushels, and according to King, "this was the best Winter I ever saw in Birchtown."
King's experiences and observations are in marked contrast to the good-and-easy life written about by William Dyott, a British military officer who arrived in Halifax in July 1787. The next month, he and eight others sailed down the harbour one morning in a large boat, accompanied by a smaller one carrying their edibles. They anchored about two miles offshore and began fishing. Dyott was amazed at the quantity of haddock — in ninety minutes they caught 150. They then proceeded to Cornwallis (McNab's) Island where Mr. Roberts of the 57th Regiment supervised the preparation of chowder, because "the principal thing in these parts is to eat chowder."
The feast was ready at 4:00 p.m. and Dyott noted that "of all the dishes I ever tasted, I never met so exquisitely good a thing as the chowder….the best thing I ever ate." The ingredients included cod, haddock, pork, onions, sea-biscuits, butter, and a large quantity of cayenne pepper. Of course, the chowder was perhaps so delicious because each man had consumed a bottle of Madeira beforehand, and some very good lime punch with the meal. They returned home at 9:00 p.m., with Dyott thinking he had never spent a more pleasant day, and noting with anticipation, "There are frequent parties of this kind."
Fish chowder has long been associated with Nova Scotia cuisine, just as gingerbread and rice pudding are traditional and popular desserts; recipes for the latter two were printed in The Halifax Gazette on 28 November 1765, under the heading 'Approved Receipts' — the earliest recipes we have been able to find in Nova Scotia's culinary repertoire.
Fifty years after Dyott's diary entries, another military officer, Captain William Moorsom, recorded his observations on local food in Letters from Nova Scotia (London, 1830). Trade with the West Indies ensured there was always an abundance of rum, sugar and molasses. According to Moorsom, rum was sold at a low price and molasses was consumed extensively, especially "among the American part of the population." Many poorer people used molasses in place of sugar, while others diluted it with water for a beverage. The availability of fresh fruit from the West Indies fluctuated: "sometimes pine apples are almost rolling about the streets of Halifax," he wrote, but at other times it was impossible to purchase a lemon.
Flour in barrels was imported from Boston and southern American ports. Moorsom observed that local farmers grew wheat, oats, barley, peas, buckwheat and rye. Potato was the main vegetable, although large quantities of Indian corn were also raised. According to Moorsom, beans and cabbage were seldom grown. His English upbringing was revealed in his amusement whenever children were asked to go out and pick a basket of strawberries, raspberries or gooseberries — not from the garden as one would in England, but from the woods where they grew wild in abundance.
John McGregor also observed the edibles available in early 19th century Halifax in his Historical and Descriptive Sketches of the Maritime Colonies of British America (1828). He noted that the Halifax markets had an abundant supply of butcher's meat and other provisions, but fresh vegetables were available only in summer and autumn; root vegetables such as potatoes, cabbages, turnips and carrots were staples for winter. Fish was a far different story because, as McGregor noted, "The fish market is the best supplied of any in America: I have heard it said, of any in the world. Fishes of different kinds, and of excellent quality, are brought by the boats every morning from sea…."
By the mid 19thcentury, the Reverend John Sprott and his third wife, Jane, maintained a "snug farm" in Nova Scotia's Musquodoboit Valley. Mrs. Sprott, writing to her brother in Scotland in 1841, mentioned that they had a house, field and flock, and that the farm yielded bread, beef, butter and "almost every thing we need." Visitors were served ham, eggs, rice pudding and water, and if they came later in the day, tea, butter and bread.
An evening party was quite different, for then one would see raised bread, rolls, twisted cakes and biscuits, gingerbread, apple, pumpkin and other pies, strawberry and raspberry jelly, cranberry and stewed plum preserves, good mutton-ham and "mount guard." Mrs. Sprott noted that "mount guard" was served only in her home, and that although people were fond of it, they "cannot understand what sort of meat it is." Neither can we.
During Joseph Howe's career as a newspaper publisher, he took several excursions around the province, calling them "Western Rambles" and "Eastern Rambles" and publishing descriptions of them in the Novascotian, 1828-1831. The issue of 27 July 1831 featured an article describing the area around Lochaber and Sherbrooke, in present-day Antigonish County. Howe stopped at an inn operated by the Archibald family at the Forks of St. Mary's River, where he was served good tea, homemade bread, fresh eggs, and a slice of fine fresh salmon caught in the lake less than two hours before, all on a clean tablecloth — such a meal, Howe noted, was "not to be slighted by the wayfarer after a six hour's fast."
A few years later, Lieutenant Campbell Hardy described a typical fishing expedition in his Sporting Adventures in the New World (1855). When Hardy and a fishing comrade heard "from reliable sources that the sea trout were running in great force," they left Halifax for the Musquodoboit River and stayed at "Roland's Inn" in Musquodoboit Harbour, where George and Catherine Rowlings were the hotel-keepers.
Elsewhere in his book, Hardy wrote that invariably, the main items on every menu in every Nova Scotia inn were ham and eggs. Their evening meal at Roland's was no different — but also included a basin full of boiled eggs, piles of buttered toast, 'slap-jacks' (a kind of shortcake) hot from the oven, a tart of preserved blueberries, and a towering dish of wild strawberries with fresh cream.
The next day, Hardy and his companion caught a dozen sea trout before breakfast; their meal was the same as the previous evening, with the addition of a couple of trout from their catch. Hardy commented that tea was served at breakfast, dinner and supper, and was always good. It must certainly have been strong, since he noted that if consumed by "persons of a nervous tendency, it requires considerable dilution."
Hardy also commented on the wild berries which grew everywhere in Nova Scotia, on barrens and around lakes. In late summer and autumn, "many varieties of delicious berries," including huckleberry, raspberry, blackberry, gooseberry, blueberry and cranberry, were picked. The latter two grew in great quantities, and were routinely harvested and preserved. Hardy noted especially that in Hammonds Plains, the African Nova Scotian community just outside Halifax, the residents picked hundreds of bushels of blueberries for sale to city housewives, who then preserved them.
Frederick S. Cozzens, author of Acadia; or, A month with the Blue Noses (1859) once took a trip to the Chezzetcook area, just beyond Dartmouth. He stopped en route at William Deer's inn in Preston, where the inscription on the swinging sign caught his attention:
WILLIAM DEER, who lives here,
Keeps the best of wine and beer,
Brandy, and cider, and other good cheer;
Fish, and ducks, and moose, and deer,
Caught or shot in the woods just here,
With cutlets, or steaks, as will appear;
If you will stop you need not fear
But you will be well treated by WILLIAM DEER,
And by Mrs. DEER, his dearest, deary dear!
The reverse side of the sign was perhaps a pictographic pun on Mr. Deer's surname, because it showed a stag with antlers. Although Mr. Deer had been trout fishing earlier that day, he had caught nothing, and both moose and deer must have been out of season, because regardless of the sign's promise, Cozzens was served only the inevitable bacon and eggs.
The Reverend Richard John Uniacke (1807-1887) served many years as the rector of St. George's Anglican Church in Sydney. His Sketches of Cape Breton (1865) provide a glimpse of agriculture as practised on the island at that time. Uniacke observed that seeds were planted in late April or early May, new potatoes were dug in early-to-mid-August, and oats were reaped in September. Uniacke maintained that Cape Breton oats were "remarkably fine, and oatmeal of the finest description is often brought into market principally by the Scotch settlers, who raise a large quantity of it for their own use as well as for sale."
Potato crops fell victim to blight in the mid-19th century, resulting in devastation for farmers who had relied heavily on the vegetable, not only for human consumption but also to feed their livestock. Uniacke identified various types of potatoes grown by local farmers, including the celebrated 'blue-nose' (which has given its name to the inhabitants of Nova Scotia) — it grew about 3 or 4 inches long with a blackish skin, "and when cut is seen intersected like marbles with broad deep blue lines, the tips or ends are quite blue. It is otherwise white and mealy, and of a most agreeable and delicate flavour."
Cape Breton farmers also raised large quantities of pumpkins and Indian corn, usually planted together in the same fields. After the corn was harvested, pumpkins remained to ripen in the glorious autumn sun, and often reached immense size. Uniacke, who had studied at Oxford University in England, believed that "notwithstanding English prejudice, it [pumpkin pie] is a dish by no means to be despised." The pulp was boiled, then beaten; milk, eggs, cream, sugar and nutmeg were added, and the whole was "formed into a gigantic yellowish looking cheese cake" and served at tea and dinner.
Although Captain Moorsom reported that cabbage was rarely grown by Nova Scotia farmers, he must never have visited Lunenburg County, because Mather Byles DesBrisay, writing in the History of the County of Lunenburg (1895), remarked that the region was celebrated for the abundance and quality of its cabbages. Indeed, schooners transported entire cargoes of the vegetable to foreign ports.
Big Tancook Island was especially noted for the size of its cabbage heads: in 1894, Sylvester Baker pulled two immense ones from his field — one was 25½ pounds, and the other 23½! DesBrisay further noted that cabbage "is a staple article of food, especially among the people of German descent; and when made into sauerkraut, is also very much used." And very much liked, to this day.
Beatrice Shaw, writing in Nova Scotia for Beauty and Business (1923) identified the local produce then generally available. Farmers in the Annapolis Valley grew asparagus, sugar-corn, tomatoes, peas, beans (scarlet runner, string and butter), lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, squash, vegetable marrows, beets, sea kale, parsnips and a variety of other vegetables. Apples, plums, peaches, pears, cherries, strawberries and other small fruits grew in the orchards and fields. The Atlantic side of the province had neither sufficient heat nor length of growing season to sustain certain vegetables and fruit as easily as in the Annapolis Valley, but Shaw noted that nevertheless, raspberries, wild strawberries, cranberries, foxberries, currants, blackberries and hardy vegetables grew well.
In the Acadian Recorder of 29 June 1822, Halifax surgeon and druggist Samuel Head advertised the various spices he had recently received from London, for sale at his drugstore on Granville Street. They included nutmegs, cloves, mace, cinnamon, cassia (similar to cinnamon), ginger, pimento, sago (similar to tapioca) whole and in canisters, isinglass (precursor to gelatin), fine oatmeal, arrowroot, rose and orange flower water, licorice ball or refined licorice, white and brown sugar candy, candied horehound (a plant), best and common sweet oil, portable soup, essence of spruce and pearlash (leavening agent like baking powder).
When exploring the range of cooking equipment and tools available to household cooks in the 18th and 19th centuries, probate records are a useful source of information. Samuel Archibald died on 15 July 1774 in Truro. An inventory of his estate, taken on 14 August 1775, included the following kitchen items: 1 chimney crane, 2 dog irons, 3 barrels, 1 churn, 1 bag, 1 table, 1 great chair, 5 small chairs, 3 chests, 1 pot, 1 tea kettle, 1 teapot, 1 dozen pewter plates and basin, 3 small basins, and 2 pewter dishes.
As Carol Campbell and James F. Smith describe in Necessaries and Sufficiencies: Planter Society in Londonderry, Onslow and Truro Townships, 1761-1780 (2011),
[Archibald's widow Eleanor and her daughters] cooked the family's meals, adjusting the height of heavy iron pots suspended from a 'Chimney Crane'. On busy days, a whole meal could be boiled in one large iron pot: meat, vegetables and perhaps some barley. In the winter, she tied dried peas into a bag that was lowered into the same pot. This 'pease pudding' not only made a hearty addition to the meal, but could be eaten later as a cold dish. For a tasty dessert, Eleanor placed a second bag in the pot, a hasty pudding, made with molasses, flour, a leavening ingredient, a few spices and maybe a couple handfuls of fresh or dried fruit. Being a competent and experienced housewife, she then gauged the amount of wood to place on the 'dog irons', used her shovel and tongs to get the fire going well and then went about her planned schedule....
Similar cooking equipment was still in use when Ann O'Leary filed papers to settle the estate of her husband John, who died 16 February 1846. Although O'Leary was identified as a farmer, he was undoubtedly a fisherman as well, because he owned two boats and a herring net. The inventory was compiled on 16 April 1847, listing the contents of his house at 'Noody Quaddy' (Newdy Quoddy) on Nova Scotia's Eastern Shore. Kitchen-related items included 1 'sad' iron, 1 coffee mill, tongs, shovel, poker, pair of bellows, iron dog, stove drag, scales and weights, 3 shovels, 1 chest, 1 wooden tub, 2 decanters, 2 brown dishes, 1 dish and scissors, tin ware, crockery ware, glass ware, 26 knives, forks and spoons, 2 pine tables, 5 chairs, 2 benches, 1 iron kettle, 1 tea kettle, 3 iron pots, 7 baskets, 7 kegs, tubs and buckets, 4 barrels, 2 churns, 1 cupboard and 1 chest. His livestock consisted of 1 pair oxen, 1 pair young oxen, 1 heifer, 2 cows, 13 sheep, 11 young sheep, 4 pigs, 3 geese and 7 fowl.
Neither Eleanor Archibald nor Ann O'Leary were able to sign their names; instead, each initialed the documents with the letter 'X'. Although they could not write, they could perhaps read — but more likely they were so experienced in household management that they had committed all their recipes to memory and had no need of written directions. They knew exactly what to do in the kitchen.
Whenever special meals or foods were prepared, however, cooks may indeed have needed to turn to a written recipe. In the collections of the Nova Scotia Archives, there are many examples of handwritten recipes (mostly undated) and a variety of published cookbooks, plus newspaper clippings, miscellaneous print material, and memorabilia also including recipes. Dating many of the unpublished items is an exercise in approximation.
The Order Book for the Horton Militia, 1812-1829, for example, includes recipes added after the last written entry (1829), but exactly when is unknown. The Militia Laws of the Province of Nova Scotia (1828) — an unlikely source for culinary assistance — includes various recipes written on loose paper and then glued in at some unknown date. Similarly, loose handwritten recipes for homemade beverages such as blackberry, currant, ginger, plum, raisin, raspberry and rhubarb wine, raspberry cordial, barley and ginger beer, and brandy were recently found by archivists, tucked into a scrapbook of newspaper clippings; some of the clippings date from 1874, but nothing is known about the age of the recipes.
Although early newspapers and almanacs frequently included miscellaneous recipes, Nova Scotia's first documented cookbook did not appear until the Church of England Institute Receipt Book, published in 1888. Co-authored by Mary Jane Lawson and Alice Jones (both well-known local writers) the Receipt Book was a fundraising venture for the Church of England Institute then under construction, and still standing today, at 1588 Barrington Street in Halifax.
Elizabeth Driver, writing in Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949 (Toronto, 2008) identifies some eighty Nova Scotia titles published before 1950; sixteen of these, including the Church of England Receipt Book, have been digitized from the Archives' holdings and are featured as part of this web resource.
Food, and all kinds of it, has always been central to special occasions and community events, from birthdays, weddings and family gatherings, to religious days, 'socials' and picnics. Countless descriptions of these celebrations can be found in archival records. For example, The Diary of Adolphus Gaetz (1965) noted that in Lunenburg on 5 April 1858, the Ladies' Bazaar opened at noon in the Temperance Hall. In addition to fancy items, there was for sale, and presumably for consumption onsite as well, a quantity of cakes "of all descriptions, from the best of pound Cake to the common Gingerbread; also pies and other Confectionery, with the more substantial articles of food, Roast Beef, Hams, etc., etc."
Maurice Harlow, a 21-year-old farmer in North Brookfield, Queens County, gathered with other family members at his grandparents' house for Christmas dinner in 1880. Although the goose was "very tough," the meal also included beef, pork, beets, turnips, plum pudding, mince pies and "many other things." As is all too common at Christmastime, Harlow "Ate till I was filled to my utmost capacity."
Annie Butler was not as fortunate, as she noted in her diary while at sea on 3 January 1871. She longed "for a piece of Mama's bread & butter [but] we have been eating bread made up with washing soda for we used our saleratus [baking soda] up long ago and I wanted a piece of her plum pudding too; but alas no plum pudding for this child Christmas or New Year's."
Family and group picnics were popular in Victorian times and into the early 20th century. In July 1847, the Dartmouth Mechanics' Institute hosted a picnic on McNab's Island in Halifax Harbour. The broadsheet advertising the event specifically stated that dogs were not permitted on the island, by express orders of the proprietor, and "if found in the boat they must be thrown overboard." The Acadian Recorder subsequently reported that the picnic attracted "a large assemblage" from the city; the dogs were presumably left at home.
The Pleasant Harbour correspondent for The Truro Daily News, reported in the issue of 14 September 1909 that a group of about 35 individuals sailed to Borgal's Island for a picnic. They deposited their baskets at Mr. Lundstrum's summer house before setting out to enjoy the afternoon. Children played on swings, adults played outdoor games, a gramophone provided music, Effie Glawson took photographs, and "all did ample justice to the good things provided" at supper. The group sang old songs on the sail home, and "finally amid cheers, all were safely landed, happy and satisfied."
Not all picnics, however, were as successful as the one on Borgal's Island. Adolphus Gaetz noted in his diary on 13 September 1865, under the heading 'A Stupid Affair,' that printed handbills had advertised a general picnic to be held at Ritcey's Cove; everyone attending, however, was expected to provide their own food. About 600 people arrived at the event, but hundreds neglected to bring anything, because they presumed "the feast was to be at the sole expense of the Members of [the Legislative] Assembly for this County." According to Gaetz, "consequently after wandering about until tired they were obliged to return home with empty stomachs...."
Carrie Best, editor of The Clarion newspaper in New Glasgow, wrote in the summer of 1946 about former picnics, and in particular those sponsored by Second Baptist Church when the Reverend W.N. States was pastor, when the feasts included roasts, salmon, "tons of canned goods," and cakes with "sky high icing." Mrs. Best suggested to her readers that there should be another "real picnic soon. Ball games, croquet matches and eats galore, and let's do it up right and set an objective of, shall we say, $500.00?"
Jim Bennet, in Rhymes Again: Light Hearted Verse from the Laureate of Atlantic Humour (1989) included the poem "Nova Scotia Diet," which poses the question "What do we eat?" and then answers, in light-hearted manner, with a long list of fish enjoyed in the province, including herring, hake, cod, haddock, scallops, clams and salmon. "We eat finnan haddie/(Good for lass and laddie)" and "We serve up Solomon Gundy/Twenty-seven ways from Sunday," ending with "And you ain't a Nova Scotian/If you don't like fish."
The province's official travel booklet from 1937, Nova Scotia: Canada's Ocean Playground, casts a wider net regarding our foodways: the "invigorating Sea breezes" created an appetite for plain, wholesome fare, and this demand was met by a variety of fresh and flavourful locally sourced food products. Fish was either baked, broiled, or combined with rich country milk and butter in appetizing chowders: "The absolute freshness of all fish used in Nova Scotia menus is a feature seldom equaled." The province was noted as well for fruit such as strawberries and blueberries, with strawberry shortcake and blueberry pie ranking high in popularity on local menus. The booklet also promoted spring lamb, chicken dinners, lobster fresh from the traps, and clam bakes on pleasant beaches, as just some of the epicurean treats awaiting the province's visitors.
We encourage you to form your own opinion of Nova Scotia food and foodways after exploring — and maybe even trying — some of the many recipes presented here. We're pleased to share with you these taste treats assembled from our province's long history of food and its preparation. We offer the recipes and cookbooks with pride and pleasure — bon appetit!