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How early Canadians learned not to drink Slow Poison

July, 2010

Good cookbooks do more than tell me how to make a dish. They take me to a new place. One of my favourites takes me farther, into another time.

This is a small blue book, a pamphlet really, published in 1925 and called how we cook in canada. Then, our country had just crested 9 million people and the equivalent of Statistics Canada divided us into Canadian-born, British-born and foreign-born. As most foreign-born were from the U.S., Canada remained homogenous and How We Cook emphatically speaks to a different era.

The first page ushers us into a new old world: “Nothing in the house is more important or more interesting than cooking. Mother never looks prettier than when she is presiding over the destinies of the family from her throne in the kitchen.”

What we have is a vision of the Canada to be, of a country where immigrants could systematically learn to be Canadians and the Canadian way of life fell into roles and patterns. Remember, this is a country with a constitution promising “peace, order and good government.” Our American cousins might advocate “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but that was not our Dominion.

how we cook in canada is less about cooking than a manual for mother’s job. “Do you want your family to have good health and rosy cheeks? Don’t forget to give them green vegetables. … Don’t put the teapot on the back of the stove and drink from it all day unless you want to drink Slow Poison.”

While there are directions for making soups, broiling meat, making tea and coffee and cooking vegetables, the larger part of the booklet is devoted to baking such basic white breads as sourdough, whole loafs and rolls.

Often this booklet is as much an exercise in home economics as it is in cooking. “The Cost of Home made bread is 4¼ cents per loaf or 4 cents for ingredients and ¼ cent for fuel.” Note that nothing is counted for labour in the 4¼ cents.

There are also admonishments to eat lots of vegetables and drink a quart of milk a day. And, as this is a manual for new Canadians, practically the final words are: “If you are a Canadian you ought to be kind. Life is short. Opportunities pass.”

There is an endearing simplicity to how we cook in canada. Follow our directions, and life will be fine. Good food leads to good behaviour.

This is a testament to the idealistic bountifulness of rural life, as envisioned by the federal deputy health minister. Ironically, it was published just as the majority of Canadians were moving into cities. It is a recipe for a homogenous dominion that was never to be.

What I find most moving is how earnestly the governing powers tried to instill a definition of Canadian-ness. Other books in this series include Beginning Our Home in Canada and the one I really want to read, How to Take Care of the Father and the Family. There are none titled How to Maintain Your Culture in Canada or The Joys of BBQ.

For an authentic recipe of the era, consider Potato Pie.

Peel and slice 3 pounds of potatoes. Place in a pie dish. Add a pound of meat cut into small pieces and quarter-pound of sliced onions. Sprinkle salt and pepper. Add enough gravy from the stock stew-jar to almost fill the dish. Cover with a pie shell. Cook in the oven for about two hours.

What we have is something as tasty as the ingredients on hand – probably garden-raised potatoes and fresh beef, lamb or chicken – but otherwise pretty bland. Today, I’d notch up the flavour considerably, cook everything in a large frying pan and serve that to the table.

I’d lightly flour the meat first, brown it in a little oil and then remove the meat and most of the oil. I’d toss in a handful of sliced carrots and parsnip, some celery. I’d add chopped garlic into the frying pan and cook everything until the onions and garlic were soft.

Then, I’d put the meat back in and add such herbs as oregano, thyme and parsley. I’d splash some red wine into the gravy (or more likely canned consommé), ladling in just enough to braise but not cover the meat and vegetables and put the pan into a pre-heated oven set to 350F (175C).

Put the pastry on top with a few slits to let the steam out. Cook for an hour or enough to brown the crust and cook everything to fork tender.



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