During breakfast at the gas station/restaurant in Shawanaga, the reserve where my mother was born, my family’s conversation revolved around food memories. The soup and skaan special roused a discussion of how our Granny made the best skaan (pronounced “skawn,” also known as bannock or fry bread). That skaan was so good, I almost convinced myself that I would never be able to make it that well. My sister explained that her own skaan always came out hard as a rock. Uncle Sonny piped up, “I know how to make scone,” and started listing off measurements: “three cups of flour, three heaping teaspoons of baking powder, some salt, then you add some water, and don’t mix it too much.” My sister turned to me and responded by asking me to show her how to make it because she needs to do it with someone to get the feel of it. Confirming food’s capacity to connect people with places, history, and a sense of cultural identity, the common understanding of this simple food was enriching.
There is a tension in recipes that written instructions are not enough or that somehow the maker will miss something or not do something integral but omitted from the text. Seeing someone make it carries more nuance and offers reassurance. This simple recipe represents ingredients from mere rations, and the preparation of such ingredients show the resilience of Indigenous people across North America, but also as traces of colonization since there are simple breads like these across the globe.
Beyond personal likes and dislikes, food symbolizes visceral connections to the past and stands in as a cultural affirmation that people need to reclaim as their own. Embedded in even the most simplistic recipes are the tensions between land, food, and culture. Taking a recipe and doing an analysis of one of the ingredients or the context in which it was made reveals so much about power relations and social conditions. This is the assignment I give to a graduate class I teach called Food, Land and Culture in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. As a writing response to the weekly readings I ask students to use the convention of a written recipe as a literary device to respond to the week’s readings. The following are two examples of these brief recipe/responses:
Tzazna Miranda Leal, Masters of Environmental Studies Student in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University:
Rabia Ahmed, Masters of Environmental Studies Student in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University:
In today’s post, graduate student Samantha Eadie discusses her experiences developing the recent University of Toronto exhibit Mixed Messages: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canada, which we featured here on the Recipes Project in May 2018.
At the conclusion of my first year of graduate studies at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information, I was invited to be a student contributor for the exhibition Mixed Messages: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canada. Having previously served as a Research Assistant for the exhibition’s curator, Dr. Irina Mihalache, I knew this would be a wonderful opportunity to expand my understanding of interpretation and exhibition development. I did not realize at the outset of this project that my participation would teach me about so much more than museological work; most notably about the value of recipes within cultural and historical analysis and their power as interpretive objects.
As one of the graduate research assistants, I undertook a variety of activities in the development of the exhibition, from contributing object interpretation, to designing display case layouts, to managing the projects of the undergraduate research assistants. When working with the undergraduate research assistants, I helped to organize and conduct several interviews (known as oral histories within the heritage field) focused on the history of two well-known Canadian cookbooks. Although the interviews were intended to focus on the cookbooks and the related historic experiences of the authors and their audiences, the personal stories of the narrators came to the fore. Though the cookbooks were discussed in measure, the stories I found most interesting focused on their own diverse culinary experiences, such as the continuation of family food traditions, the thrill of trying new ingredients and recipes, and the simple enjoyment of eating a favorite food. Hearing the words of the narrators left me with a feeling of connectedness, as, regardless of the generational gap that existed between us, I have shared their experiences as food holds deep meaning within my personal memories. Since food and cookbooks are part of our everyday experiences and social interactions, hearing these stories can ignite meaning and memory-making in a wide audience.
Establishing connections and developing meaning are important features of many contemporary museum exhibitions. This is achieved through the interpretation of museum objects (in this instance, cookbooks and ephemera) and archival records (including photographs and written documents), which intentionally draw on past experiences to create these memorable moments for audience members within the exhibition space. The inclusion of the aforementioned culinary stories in Mixed Messages, which were presented as both textual and oral content, served as one element of meaningful engagement. By focusing on the shared experiences of the narrators and utilizing the well-recognized medium of the cookbook, the curators were able to discuss the challenging topic of women’s agency in historic Canada, thus, critically reframing those memories and our engagement with the culinary content.
Having participated in this exhibition project has changed my understanding of Canadian cuisine. It has encouraged me to reflect upon my own use of cookbooks, recipes and ingredients, as well as the role family traditions serve within my own culinary experience. Moving forward in my career I will incorporate learned museological techniques into my practice, while the culinary and historical knowledge will continue to influence my personal life.
Mixed Message: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canadawas on display at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto from May 22nd, – August 17th, 2018. You can learn more about the exhibition by reading curator Liz Ridolfo’s blog post.
Cocktails today, in expert hands, are an art form. The thoughtful, deliberate balance of disparate flavours is meant not only to intoxicate, but to express refinement, even elegance. Mixed drinks didn’t always evoke these things, however; one eighteenth-century concoction, the “King Calli,” is a case in point.
The King Calli was a type of flip–a mixture of beer, sugar, spirits, and eggs, which was warmed up by stirring it with a red-hot fire-poker. The heat caramelized the sugars, slightly cooked the egg, and caused the drink to froth up (or ‘flip’) like a milkshake.
The addition of the egg is perhaps more foreign to us than the idea of stirring a cocktail with a fire-poker. Even cooked, the egg seems an unpleasant adulteration. Eggs are for “morning after” cures. They’re punishment for over-indulgence, summoning the spectre of salmonella poisoning to the bar.
The other elements of the King Calli, however, as first described by English naturalist Joseph Banks after his famed 1766 tour of Newfoundland, are less daunting. They begin with another, simpler cocktail, known as Calibogus—a generous shot of rum or brandy (in a pinch, the drinker might use gin) poured into a pint of spruce beer. This mixture, sweetened with molasses and enriched with egg, Banks called an “Egg Calli.” Heating it elevated the drink to its kingly rank.
Banks’s description of Calibogus/King Calli is frequently repeated in twentieth-century sources, often unattributed. The casual reader might assume, as a result, that Calibogus and its derivatives were as common in eighteenth-century America as rum punch was in London. This may be true (flips were very popular), but I’ve yet to find evidence that this version of the flip was particularly common.
What was remarkably common was spruce beer. Charles Clerke, sailing with James Cook, called the brew a “very palatable pleasant drink,” so much so that “the Major part of the People … drink pretty plentifully of it.” North American newspapers were also replete with spruce beer advertisements and ads for spruce essence, an inspissated liquid that minimized the labour of home-brewing. Recipes for home-brewed spruce beer were regularly reprinted in newspapers, and it made a conspicuous appearance in Amelia Simmons’ 1796 American Cookery, likely the first cookbook published by, and about, American food and drink.
Spruce beer smells and tastes like Christmas. If mixed into a Calibogus with a bit of rum, it inspires memories of my Grandmother’s (very potent) holiday rum balls. However, underlining the ways that smell and taste are rooted in changeable historical context, eighteenth-century spruce beer was not associated with Christmas. At its peak of popularity, in fact, it was a warm-weather beverage, especially prized in springtime. It was also promoted as a health drink, rather than a source of pleasurable holiday intoxication.
The identification of spruce as a healthy consumable plausibly originated with the indigenous people of Stadacona. In 1535, Jacques Cartier’s crew, suffering the miserably unpleasant effects of scurvy, were given a tisane by Domagaia, the son of Donnacona. Made from boiling the leaves and bark of a local tree, Cartier described it as “a singular and excellent remedie against all diseases … the best that ever was found upon earth.”
It’s impossible to say who first decided to ferment the infusion, but beer made from spruce and molasses, linked to Cartier’s “discovery,” quickly became associated with a number of health benefits besides the cure of scurvy. Cartier noted that several of his men “troubled by the French Pockes” were cured by the unfermented tisane, and the fermented version was variously claimed to purify the blood, calm the stomach, improve work-ethic and personal appearance, prevent the necessity for drinking unwholesome water, and — according to the City Gazette of Charleston, South Carolina (via “a late London Paper” on December 30, 1796) to cure and prevent Yellow Fever. Tightening this link between spruce beer and health, the essence was commonly sold by apothecaries and druggists, appearing in advertisements for patent medicines and Pervian Bark—the best quality versions apparently derived from Canadian trees.
Spruce beer was such an central part of diet, so closely associated with promoting good health and preventing scurvy, it was considered by many navy captains and eighteenth-century explorers, including James Cook, as essential to maintaining health at sea. For similar reasons, it was a core provision of army rations. The monetary allowance given to troops in Halifax in 1763 was noted as punitive and damaging, for example, because the men could not afford to purchase “Provisions, Necessaries, Surgeon and Spruce Beer.” The Revolutionary-era deaths of several British soldiers at Crown Point, reported by the New York Gazette on 22 July 1776, was similarly made understandable when it was explained that they’d wandered from their encampment “to get spruce beer.”
There is, alas, no medicinal quality to spruce beer — nor to any other sort of alcohol. Arguably, the King Calli, via that incongruous egg, might be healthiest version of the piney brew. But there was clearly pleasure in its consumption. The flavour, the scent, the communal ritual of drinking, speaks not to people who drank to prevent scurvy or cure the “pockes”, but to people who enjoyed the physical effects of a tipple.
Spruce beer also reminds us of the ways that European colonizers manufactured the comforts of home from the raw materials of foreign environments. A yet, in doing so, they reveal a dependence on emerging global trade networks: spruce beer demanded molasses, Calibogus required rum: this quintessentially “American” drink demanded ingredients from around the world — ingredients which, in turn, Europeans considered essential to their goal of global “discovery” and colonization.
Joseph Banks in Newfoundland and Labrador, 1766: His Diary, Manuscripts and Collections, edited by A.M. Lysaght (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), 139-140.
 J.C. Beaglehole, editory, The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery:Volume II, App. 4, “Clerke’s Log.”
The Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Newsletter, 29 September 1763, p. 3
Cookbooks, menus, culinary manuscripts, and ephemera have always been part of the collections at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. When we received a large donation of Canadian culinary material from the collection of retired Art Librarian and culinary historian Mary F. Williamson, we were immediately excited about its potential for teaching and outreach. The extensive and diverse collection spans more than 150 years and includes rare first editions of The Frugal Housewife’s Manual (the first English language cookbook to be compiled in Canada) and La Cuisiniére Canadienne (the first French language cookbook to be written in Canada), as well as an intriguing selection of culinary ephemera, early Canadian women’s periodicals, and community cookbooks from most of the Canadian provinces, including a number of Indigenous community cookbooks. Several events and a major exhibition were planned to highlight some of the treasures in the collection and to introduce it to its communities.
“Mixed Messages: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canada”, running from May 22 to August 17, 2018, will be one of the most collaborative exhibitions ever to take place at the Fisher Library, with academics, librarians, undergraduate, and graduate students working together to explore the topic. My co-curators Irina Mihalache, Associate Professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Information, and Nathalie Cooke, Professor and Associate Dean, McGill Library (Archives & Rare Collections) decided against a fully chronological structure, instead mixing chronology with a number of other themes and threads to explore culinary culture in Canada. Some of our primary goals were to amplify the voices and stories of women in Canadian culinary history and to explore who had agency and who did not in the creation of this shared culture. Since the exhibition is on campus at the University of Toronto and open to the public, we also hoped to convey the research value of the material and encourage the reading of cookbooks and culinary objects beyond their recipes, in order to develop a kind of “culinary objects literacy” in students and exhibition attendees.
A range of materials highlight women’s changing roles and their interactions with one another and society as they negotiated their way further into the public sphere in Canada from the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries. In the upstairs gallery, an elixir made with Anvil dust from the culinary manuscript of Lucy Ronalds Harris of London, Ontario shows the lady of the house as family physician; an early Canadian Jewish community cookbook containing Christmas recipes hints at the complex process of negotiating cultural identity; an army of cooks testing recipes submitted by thousands of readers through national contests show women working collaboratively, opening a form of national dialogue and having their expertise recognized.
The downstairs gallery contains culinary objects and aims to be a more interactive space. Curated by Master of Museum Studies candidates Cassandra Curtis and Sadie MacDonald in conversation with the material in the main gallery, it focuses on flavours and appropriation, changing technology and domestic labour, and the resourcefulness required to handle the myriad expectations put on the homemaker during the period. The space also includes several interactive items to engage the other senses and bring attendees closer to the experiences of the kitchen.
As with any exhibition, especially one based on a new collection, there were many stories that we were not able to tell and items that could not be shown. Undergraduate and graduate students were asked to engage with some of the material not included in the exhibition as part of their course work and research, and they share these additional stories in oral histories, blog posts, and object stories which are presented on the exhibition blog and on iPads in the main gallery area during the exhibition. We hope that Mixed Messages and the accompanying catalogue and digital content provide a thoughtful introduction to the collection and that students and researchers are enticed to continue some of the conversations started in the exhibition.
 Elizabeth Driver, Culinary Landmarks: a bibliography of Canadian cookbooks 1825-1949 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, c 2008), xxi.