The author of Sir John's Table on why food stories are so important to our understanding of the past—and the future.
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First conscious memory: I am standing on a little wooden stool at the kitchen table in my grandfather’s ancient stone house in the Yorkshire Dales, rolling out a small lump of dough. My grandfather, a strapping, handsome Englishman, is beside me, working his own larger piece of dough, singing old Yorkshire folk songs. We are making jam tarts. Though I am barely three years old, I already know how to flour my board and roll pastry with a pint-sized wooden rolling pin. I have already learned to knead bread dough, shell peas, and bring potatoes and other supplies from the low shelves of the stone larder. Here, in my grandfather’s timeworn kitchen, I come to know love. What follows is a lifelong love affair with both food and history.
Next memory: We are moving to Canada. My parents are packing up the possessions, my brothers, and me. We are leaving the beautiful desolate moors, the ancient villages with their narrow, twisting roads, the Yorkshire Dales and dry stone walls, and my beloved grandfather. We are leaving behind generations of family history. We are leaving behind kippers for breakfast, thick cut marmalade, Yorkshire Parkin, Wensleydale cheese, Terry’s chocolate Neapolitans, and black pudding. We land at Toronto Airport, in a country we have never even visited. The land is flat and empty—it is the grey/brown limbo land between winter and spring. My father says, “We have landed in the middle of nowhere.” I miss my grandfather desperately.
Transplanted to Canada, I immediately fought to lose the English accent that marked me as an outsider. I begged my mother to buy hotdogs, bright yellow mustard, peanut butter, white bread, cans of pop, doughnuts, pop tarts, corn on the cob, and tuna fish. I wanted her to make cakes from mixes and order takeaway pizza. She was not having any of it. Pizza was out of the question. Pop tarts were deemed rubbish. “We are not eating fish from a can,” my mother said with conviction, spitting out the word "can" with emphasis, her Yorkshire brogue virtually incomprehensible to those outside the family.
In grade school, I was devoted to the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, especially The Long Winter. The Ingalls family nearly starved to death inside their own home as blizzard after blizzard rendered them isolated with nothing to eat but seed wheat which they ground roughly and made into crude bread. They were weak with cold and malnutrition and illness. Their survival through that horrendous winter of 1880/81 was a miracle. I was mesmerized by the life of the pioneers and the food that sustained them. Food and its procurement, storage, and preparation were a near constant preoccupation for the settlers.
By the time I reached high school, I had lost my accent, and my mother had succumbed to buying jars of peanut butter and fish in cans. In history class, I was rote-learning the names of early explorers and the dates of the battles, perking up only at the mention of pemmican, bannock, maple syrup, and dried, salted fish. I was fascinated not by colonial politics, or the battles fought, nor by the horrendous ransacking of land which was scarcely referenced—but by what the First Nations people and pioneers ate, how they actually survived. I was surprised that these details were rarely ever mentioned.
Food is, after all, at the most basic level, about life and our very survival as a species. Food tells the story of the past and present. From the origin of mankind, to the cave dwellers to the Roman Empire; from the First Nations people who roamed this continent 20,000 years ago, to the European colonialists, to contemporary locavores at trendy urban restaurants; from the Garden of Eden to Goldilocks—food is at the heart of everything that matters. Food is how we begin our lives and the thing that sustains us until the end. At some point along our evolutionary path, our human brains became wired to remember food and those who provided it for us.
From the origin of mankind, to the cave dwellers to the Roman Empire; from the First Nations people who roamed this continent 20,000 years ago, to the European colonialists, to contemporary locavores at trendy urban restaurants; from the Garden of Eden to Goldilocks—food is at the heart of everything that matters.
Curiously, culinary history has been for the most part, largely ignored, as though battles and politics are more important than food. But the times, they may just be a-changing. UNESCO has recently honoured France, Mexico, Turkey, and Japan for their culinary contributions—considered to be amongst humanity’s most cherished cultural treasures. Food is, both literally and figuratively, on everyone’s lips these days.
When I moved to Kingston and found myself living amongst the old limestone buildings steeped in stories, I began to feel a real, visceral connection to Canadian history. I was roaming the same streets that the young John A. Macdonald—who arrived in Kingston in 1815, nearly four decades before the Ingalls’ long hard winter—once roamed. I wondered what his family ate—what provisions they sold in their store—did they have olive oil? Chocolate? Lemons? Yes. No. And occasionally—I was to discover.
In the Kingston library, I discovered a copy of the remarkably contemporary sounding and fabulously titled book, The Cook Not Mad; Or Rational Cookery, published in Kingston, Upper Canada, in 1831 by James Macfarlane. Although it turned out to be an American book with a Canadian cover slapped on it, it remains iconic because of its status as the first Canadian cookbook and is an important record of the continent’s culinary history.
I began reading other early cookbooks—devouring them like novels. And simultaneously, I was reading and in some cases, re-reading, the works of the early female settlers. On my bedside table, I had a glorious, eclectic collection of history, culinary history, and cookbooks, mingling with novels and memoirs by contemporary writers like Helen Humphreys and Ann Patchett. I worked my way through Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush and her sister, Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping, while also reading Patchett’s Truth and Beauty and thinking about the common threads of human survival and how we satiate hunger—both the physical and emotional variety.
I started to think about using food as a lens, as a way of looking at people and history, and of the instantly humanizing aspect of food. And because Sir John A. Macdonald’s presence looms so large in Kingston, he was an obvious choice to write about. I began delving through books and archival materials. I added a stack of biographies about Sir John to the growing pile on my bedside table. I started with Richard Gwyn’s meticulously researched two volume set, John A: The Man Who Made Us and Nation Maker. At the same time, I found a library copy of Patricia Beeson’s delightful culinary history/cookbook, Macdonald Was Late for Dinner. Though the book trades on Macdonald’s name, in fact, it covers a myriad of Canadian historical figures and stories—each short vignette accompanied by a photograph and recipe.
The further I dug, the more I realized that John A.’s life was an epic food story—beginning with the horsehead stew and watered down gruel that he endured as a five-year-old boy en route from Scotland to Upper Canada and culminating in his attendance at grand gala state dinners with the finest French champagne and guest lists that often included royalty. Gathering together the food stories, both good and bad, from Macdonald’s life, was a new way of looking at the founding of the nation. Along the way, I learned about the collapse of the eastern oyster beds as oyster consumption hit an all-time high; about the introduction of the first cast iron wood-fired stoves; and, about the invention of mason jars which revolutionized food storage. I also read and wrote about the decimation of the bison herds, once the biggest population of wild mammals on the planet, estimated at 50 million, and the subsequent starvation of the Indigenous people of the Plains—one of the unhappiest and most horrifying chapters of Canadian history.
Food played a huge and vital role in the building of Canada. A significant portion of our economic prosperity was tied to our ability to grow, harvest, produce, and distribute food. This continues to be the case. With a global population poised to reach 9.7 billion by 20501, food production and security are set to be the most important issues facing the planet. Our growing understanding of the importance of food is furthering our interest in culinary history and its rightful place in the nation’s story.
Food stories are, after all, the real stories of our lives.
1 The Economist, September 12-18, 2015, “Banks for Bean Counters,” p. 54.
Lindy Mechefske is a scientific copy editor turned freelance writer. She is author of Sir John's Table and Taste of Wintergreen. Her recent work has appeared in a variety of publications including The New Quarterly, Kingston Life, the Kingston Whig Standard, the Ottawa Citizen, the Queen's Feminist Review, and a number of anthologies. She has lived in England, the U.S., and Australia, but now calls beautiful, historic Kingston, Ontario her home. You can find her blogging about her adventures in the kitchen at lindymechefske.com.