When it comes to food, it’s hard to say that any food culture is completely isolated from those that surround it, no matter how different the surrounding regions and populations may be. This is something which has become drilled into me in my work as a journalist and food writer. There are questions of colonisation, economics, geography, and so much more.
But when you start digging into these topics, you never know how far back in time or how far in terms of geography you will go. This is what I’ve discovered as I work on finishing my book, tentatively titled, Pantry and Palate. It will explore the history and food of my ancestors, the Acadians of Atlantic Canada, and examine those very qualities.
On my kitchen table is a small collection of little black notebooks. Handwritten notes in perfect cursive fill their tan pages. These are recipes written down by my grandmother, and by my great-great-aunt. But they resemble lists of ingredients, rather than what we would call a recipe today. For example, a recipe for a Molasses Cake asks for :
1 1/2 cups molasses
1 1/2 tsp soda
1/2 cup of grease
1 cup milk
2 cups flour
That’s it. That’s all that either of these women needed to be able to make and bake this cake. No notes on how or in what order to add the ingredients. Not to mention temperatures or baking times. There was a hard-earned and encyclopedic knowledge behind these recipes, and it was located at the fingertips of these women. These lists were reminders of the necessary ratios necessary to execute a dish. It’s a confidence that most home bakers rarely possess these days, let alone on the scale that most women would have possessed when these notes were written.
And yet these notes are vital in my search for understanding the cookery of my ancestors. They give me insight into the kind of knowledge that the people who cooked these meals had in their possession, as well as the necessities of cooking. There are variations on most recipes, with names of people long gone. “Zita’s molasses cookies” could be found next to a recipe for a “Golden Cake.” It didn’t take me long to realize that this cake was referring to the flour company that used to exist and distribute its wares in the first few decades of the 20th century, and not to the colour of the cake. That recipe didn’t make it to the book, but it still told me what and how people were cooking, and sharing cooking knowledge. Even the stuff that doesn’t immediately fit the the mold, has a place, somewhere, somehow. It’s all important.
There is a recipe for doughnuts, written directly below a recipe for making boudin, or blood sausage. At first glance, this seemed to be a strange, yet arbitrary placement. It wasn’t until I spoke with a few people did I realize that this was no coincidence. Boudin was often made on the same day that pigs were slaughtered, due to the freshness of the main ingredient, pig’s blood. But there was another abundant and fresh ingredient on days of the boucherie, or slaughter. Fat. Creamy, white, pure back fat, perfect for deep frying. Acadians were fans of salted pork fat, as it was a major part of their pantries in the days before refrigeration and supermarkets filled with shelf-stable fats. But fresh fat could almost be considered a rarity, since boucheries were often only held in the fall. So why not treat yourself to a hot and tasty treat after all that hard work?
But this is only the beginning of what I found in digging into my ancestry’s culinary past. One of the recipes I found in those same notebooks was for a molasses and cornmeal bread. Funny enough, I also found a recipe for the same bread in a community cookbook, published by a nearby church group in a neighbouring english community. This community is also populated by descendants of former Loyalists, both black and white. Many of these loyalists came from parts of the American south, where cornmeal is king. My ancestors spoke mostly french, were catholic, and white. Yet here was an english speaking, protestant, and black community, not far from my own, and our pantries and bellies were filled with the same food. Just goes to show that food is food, and good food is contagious. It travels from mouth to mouth, from community to community. It creates dialogues that last centuries and connect cultures.
The first draft of Pantry and Palate is due at the start of next month, and I am furiously finishing recipes, writing up the last of my interviews, and remembering all the little details I wanted to include. This act of writing may be one of solitude, but the recipes and information found within show that when it comes to food, no one is alone.