Most families with roots in Atlantic Canada, have a favourite molasses cookie recipe…the one in the My Mother’s Cookbook collection is for “Molasses Drop Cookies” and is labelled simply “Mum”.
My Grandmother Edith Elizabeth Walls, was a loving mother and a talented cook who fostered a love of good food in her family, her children and grandchildren. And yet she did not teach my Mum to cook. When asked, Mum’s explanation was “by the time I came along, she just did not have the patience to teach me.”
After looking closely at Grandmother’s life I believe this is not only the truth but entirely understandable. That the recipe my Mum chose to add to her collection, is a Molasses drop cookie is just as reasonable and reflective of Grandmother Edie’s life.
Grandmother Edie was born in 1889, her mother Letitia Lyons Walls contracted Tuberculosis in 1897 and died in 1899. Edie’s role as nurturer and supporter began early. Edie’s father Benjamin although sometimes described as a farmer, worked in the lumber industry and the finishing mills in the region, leaving his family home for extended periods. As the oldest, Grandmother Edie played a role in supporting her younger siblings, Victor, Myrtle, Chester and Clara, especially given their Mother’s illness. It is a skill she would draw on extensively through out her life, which encompassed two world wars, an influenza pandemic and the Great Depression.
Grandmother Edie’s Walls family came to New Brunswick from Scotland in the 1770’s with a group known as the Davidson’s settlers. William Davidson was granted significant lands in exchange for bringing Protestant Scots to settle the rich timber lands of the north eastern region of New Brunswick, (then Nova Scotia) including the Miramichi river valley.
Davidson’s, his backers and the Crown were more interested in harvesting the vast stands of timber (required by the European ship building industry) than settling the land. Settlers were generally not farmers but trades man and those with experience in the timber industry. So farming became part of the tradesman/settler life, although most also worked in the timber or related industries. Ever enterprising and adaptable soon the people of the region began using the timber to build their own ships and entered in to the lucrative Triangular Trade route1. Ships carrying sugar, and cotton from the West Indies destined for England carried rum and molasses to New Brunswick.
The molasses, a by product of sugar refining, had little or no value in England. It quickly became a cheap and energy rich food for the hundreds of woodmen and their settler families. Molasses was staple in lumber camps and kitchens across the region, particularly New Brunswick. It was fundamental to the New Brunswick diet, eaten with buckwheat pancakes, on bread, in baked beans and brown bread, and in countless other desserts and treats.
Of course Grandmother Edie used molasses in her cookies, it was a familiar and logical choice. Grandmother Edie and Grandfather Billy married in 1910, their 10 surviving children and two, who died as infants, arrived consistently during the first 23 years of their marriage. I have little doubt raising her family during those turbulent years, the first war, depression and finally the second war with it’s rations of food stuffs, Edie depended heavily on Molasses to feed and sustain her family.
Grandmother Edie’s first three daughters were the oldest children, followed by five boys then my Mum and finally the youngest George. Each of my mother’s sisters had been taught to cook by Grandmother Edie, when her youth and energy made it possible. By 1929 and after 10 other pregnancies, Grandmother was tired and beyond having either the time or energy necessary to teach her youngest daughter to cook. Despite this lapse, Grandmother’s influences on my Mum’s love of good food and cooking were real, enduring and reflected in the foods I enjoy and make for my family.
So what about the cookies…most molasses cookies, aka molasses biscuits or lassy buns are rolled out cookies… requiring the time and effort to roll the batter, and cut the cookies prior to cooking. Drop cookie batter permits it to be dropped from a spoon on to a sheet and baked. Grandmother Edie was an efficient and effective cook who knew the best time saving techniques, she had to…
Molasses Drop Cookies
1 cup sugar
1 cup vegetable shortening
1 cup molasses
1 cup boiling water with 3 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
4 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp cream of tarter
1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees F
2) Cream sugar and shortening
3) Add slightly beaten egg, molasses and vanilla
4) Assemble the dry ingredients in a separate bowl
5) Add water and dry ingredients alternately to the sugar / shortening mixture, mixing gently.
6) Drop spoonfuls of batter on to a baking sheet and bake 10 -12 minutes.
Molasses Hill, Northumberland county, New Brunswick
A short distance from the community of Blackville, just on the Blissfield side of the parish line, lies a place known as “Molasses hill”. The hill, only about 19 meters high, figures large in the story of how the area came to get its name…the details of the incident are murky… was the puncheon of molasses destined for a community store or for a lumber camp? Was it being transported by horse drawn wagon or sled? Regardless the details…the spill of molasses, and the mess (some say the molasses stiffened by the cold became a obstruction to others traveling the area) became ingrained in the memory of the community.
The local tradition of oral history is deep, story telling was a valuable tool of entertainment during the long winter nights in logging camps, they told stories, sang songs about the things important in their lives and used humour and drama with good effect. Of course an incident involving molasses would become the source of entertainment and amusement, molasses was staple, familiar and well known. So familiar that in 1860 New Brunswick imported and consumed 880,000 gallons of molasses. Most of the molasses was shipped in wooden barrels, a puncheon of molasses was size of container most used in this region. And where did the wood for the barrels come from…from the toil and effort of men and women like themselves. Of course some of those barrels would have also contained rum… some of the molasses might have found its way in to the stills of the region, but the recipe for rum did not end up in My Mother’s cookbooks.
1. Triangular Trade route refers to the shipping of raw materials from the colonies to Europe for processing which developed to include timber from the Atlantic region to Europe, on ships which would load textiles and manufactured goods bound for Africa, where their cargo holds would be emptied of the materials and loaded with African slaves on route to the British West Indies. The slaves would be replaced with sugar, molasses and rum which would head back to the north east to drop off molasses and rum, load timber and head back to Europe.