It’s not always easy to get a nutritious, home-cooked meal on the table. Time management is a skill we may think we’ve mastered; yet, there are days when we simply do the best we can. We’re tired and the kids are hungry, so we order a pizza, grab something at the drive-thru or heat up a store-bought processed meal. Sometimes life can seem like a balancing act, and we may feel guilty with our less-than-optimal diets.
We want to eat food that’s appetizing and flavourful, but also nourishing for ourselves and our children. Wouldn’t it be a piece of cake to eat well if only we weren’t over-worked and bombarded with unhealthy temptations? Perhaps people had an easier time sticking to a healthy diet a few generations ago, when everything was made from scratch with wholesome, organic ingredients. Let’s put things into perspective by taking a glance back at how Canadians fed themselves and their families long before today’s modern conveniences were invented.
This year – 2017 – marks Canada’s sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary of Confederation. That got me thinking about what life in Canada may have been like in the 1800s. What did average Canadians eat? Where did they get their food? How did they prepare it? What challenges did they face and how do those challenges compare to our present-day reality?
In The Canadian Emigrant Housekeeper’s Guide, published in 1861 by Mrs. C. P. Traill, the author describes what prospective settlers’ wives could expect when they arrived in rural Canada. If you find it annoying to have to drive to the grocery store in a blizzard because you ran out of bread, imagine living in a time when you not only had to bake the bread, but the ingredients were not readily available. You would’ve had to collect the eggs, milk the cows, churn the butter and even make the yeast. In fact, unless you lived in a city, almost everything you and your family needed to survive had to be cultivated, harvested, raised, trapped, shot, plucked, scaled, butchered, gutted, picked, chopped, preserved and cooked with your own hands.
Traill describes a number of wild [and non-kosher] animals that newcomers could consider as food, such as bear, woodchuck and groundhog. She provides many cooking suggestions, including making delectable pies out of pigeons. In those days, there was no refrigeration, just root cellars. Meat could be dried or cured, but “when fresh meat is scarce, as it often is in the woods, the black and even the red squirrel may be eaten, as a wholesome change of diet … They are roasted like rabbits, or cut in pieces and fried, fricasseed, or made into stews or pies.” While not all of Traill’s culinary delights would appeal to those who keep kosher, she certainly had sound knowledge of surviving and thriving off of the land.
Traill outlines the gamut of practical household knowledge that a housewife in the backwoods needed to know. In addition to cooking, she describes tending to the sugar bush and making maple syrup; cheese making; beekeeping and making honey; soap making; shearing sheep and using a spinning wheel. Such dawn-till-dusk chores would make my head spin!
“The greatest heroine in life is she who, knowing her duty, resolves not only to do it, but to do it to the best of her abilities, with heart and mind bent upon the work,” writes the author. While I find her commitment and enthusiasm inspiring, truthfully, I’m exhausted just thinking about the endless effort required to get food on the table.
For better or for worse, we live in modern times. Most of us can purchase milk, eggs, butter, bread, meat, spices, local produce as well as exotic fruits and vegetables from faraway lands – pretty much whatever we desire. We can order groceries with a phone call or online, or drive or bus to a nearby superstore for one-stop shopping. Technology and innovation have given us incredible conveniences for food preparation and related tasks that we take for granted – such as freezers, microwave ovens, dishwashers, even the lowly can opener. These would’ve been unimaginable to Traill and her contemporaries.
Next time we’re not feeling in the mood to cook, let’s think of how much harder it would’ve been in the past. Let’s appreciate what we have and what our predecessors did not, namely far more food choices and less domestic drudgery. And those are good things if you don’t care for squirrel.