Canada has the richest cuisine of any northern country, though Canadians are so defensive on the point it once provoked official protest.
In 1959 Ottawa publicly flailed the US publisher Bantam over a cookbook that depicted Canada as a nation of spud-eating hillbillies. “Canadians are exceedingly fond of potatoes and they eat enormous quantities of them prepared in countless ways,” reported the Complete Round-The-World Cookbook, a promotion for Pan-American Airways written by New York food editor Myra Waldo. “The basic items of Canadian diet are few and simple: potatoes, homemade bread and maple syrup.”
Gibberish, said Northern Affairs Minister Alvin Hamilton: “This is more than slightly out of date.” Was it ever in date? Canadian food heritage is Winnipeg goldeye, tourtière and partridgeberry jam; roast duck, strawberry soup and Indian pudding.
In Nothing More Comforting, retired museum curator Dorothy Duncan assembles the best of her Century Home magazine columns chronicling the national diet from pre-Confederation times through the early 20th century. It is “an incredibly complex culinary heritage,” writes Duncan. An example: the diary entry of a York pioneer who recounted Christmas supper at Lake Ontario in 1800: “Soup, roast beef, boiled pork, turkey, plum pudding and minced pies.”
Nothing More Comforting is a jolly collection of recipes early Canadians enjoyed, adapted to the modern kitchen, with a narrative recounting the rituals of cookery. From 1837, “To Cure Hams: Let a leg of pork hang for three days, then beat it with a rolling-pin and rub into it one ounce of saltpeter…”
Duncan delves into “the seductive and sensual properties associated with many vegetables.” She exposes the medicinal value of the common onion. From 1884, “Onion Porridge: Take a Spanish onion as big as you can procure, peel and split into quarters, and put these into a small stewpan with a pint of water, a pat of butter and a little salt; boil gently…an excellent remedy for colds.”
In praising “our long tradition of food,” Duncan rescues heritage recipes lost to time – blueberry grunt and rhubarb fool, potted cheese, cherry soup and Solomon Gundy, a dish of pickled herring.
And, yes, there is maple syrup and potatoes.
By Holly Doan
Nothing More Comforting: Canada’s Heritage Food by Dorothy Duncan; Dundurn Press; 256 pages; ISBN 978-1-4597-0669-9; $19.99