Christmas Doughnuts and House Girls…

There were many baked treats on Mum’s Christmas preparation list, but only one item warrants two versions…Doughnuts. The most Canadian of doughnuts does not come from a coffee shop, it does not have maple icing or a fancy name…it is a cake doughnut made with molasses. Once fried, the doughnuts may be rolled in granulated white sugar, although the non sugared version is my personal favourite.

The home of Otto and Amelia (Wilson) Hildebrand, Main Street Doaktown, NB ca 1905-10. (P156-34, PANB)

It is impossible to know when doughnuts first came to Canada, since fried batter in one form or another has been around for thousands of years. What we can say is that doughnuts saw a major upswing in popularity in Canada after veterans returned from the First World War. Many Canadian Soldiers were introduced to the delicious fried treat by French families, who were doing their part to support the young soldiers fighting in nearby trenches. A good many of those young soldiers returned to Canada with the taste for doughnuts.

The lives of our early ancestors were difficult, but none more so that those coming to age in the first quarter of the 20th century. Nearly 50 years of growth and development both technologically and socially had increased expectations. Expectations for a life different from their parents, an easier one, more advanced and modern were promised, development and modernization do not however follow a straight path. No one could know the challenges which would present in the first half of the 20th century and how much they would challenge and frustrate the expectations people had for their lives.

Petites, NL Harbour,and Merchants Row. Photograph Courtesy of the Petites Church Newfoundland: Restoration Project Facebook site.

Molasses, began falling out of favour as a baking ingredient as soon as a regular and affordable supply of sugar became available. Molasses has a unique flavour profile, one far different from that of sugar, and then there’s the colour issue. The strong dark colour of molasses and its characteristic flavour contributed to the perception Molasses is ‘old fashioned’ and ‘poor mans food’, especially as a baking ingredient. Yet most families in the Atlantic region continued to have molasses on their tables well in to the 1960s.

Growing up in the bustling out port fishing community of Petites, on the southwest coast of Newfoundland Maud Blanche Tufts knew molasses, it was cheap and available (thanks to fish and its trade with the West Indies). The fishing industry in Newfoundland, upon which out port communities had been built, depended heavily on molasses. For the fleet of vessels fishing the nearby Rose Blanche fishing grounds and on shore where the fish was processed, molasses was staple, providing a cheap and satisfying source of carbohydrates., and micro-nutrients.

Petites, Newfoundland c.1950 Photograph Courtesy of the Petites Church Newfoundland: Restoration Project Facebook site

Petites, despite not boasting more than 200 residents, was a community built on serving not only the fishing industry but also supplying the smaller out ports of the region. Strategically located near the rich fishing grounds, and graced with a source of fresh spring water, Petites boasted up to 6 stores, one of which was operated by Maud and her husband Isaac Mauger. It is with out doubt a puncheon1 of molasses graced their storeroom, and that locals and fishers alike depended upon it for their supply.

It would be easy to to think of Petites as isolated and insular during this time, but like Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, Petites was well connected to the outside world and surprisingly cosmopolitan. Trade vessels which supplied communities like Glace Bay and Petites linked them to far flung places, including European, American and West Indian ports of call.

Train Trestle at Glace Bay, Nova Scotia c. 1900 Photo courtesy of the Cape Breton Island the other Scotland across the Atlantic FB site.

Sarah McDougall and her family relocated to Glace Bay, when her father Allan took full time work in the coal mining industry. For Sarah this move was transformational, her life transformed by new people, new foods and new opportunities not available in her rural Cape Breton Backland home.

Main Street, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia c. 1920 Photo courtesy of the Cape Breton Island the other Scotland across the Atlantic FB site.

For young women, respectable young women like Sarah, changing times, meant she could work outside of home, at least until her marriage. Some young women would seek training as nurses, and teachers, others moved to larger centers for work in factories or as store clerks but many women including Sarah found work as “house girls”2. Glace Bay at the turn of the century was a growing bustling industry town, with tram cars, stores, and people from all over the world seeking work in the mining and fishing industries. Merchants, businessmen, professionals and mine officials had the means to hire young women like Sarah to support their households, while the majority of citizens struggled to meet their basic needs. Until she married Sarah’s wages would have been added to her family’s resources with a bit reserved for Sarah to buy something for herself, a bit of pretty lace for her hat or a sugary treat from one of the local bakeries which served area workers. At home molasses remained a dietary staple.

It is not in the least surprising that at the end of the First War, once the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 -1919 had waned people wanted to celebrate. The lingering piety of the Victorian period was forced aside by enjoyment, indulgence and by a focus on the new, the modern and on luxury, doughnuts included.

Nelson Hollow – near Doketown, N.B. – scenic – wading on gravel bar – in Miramichi River, 1950. Ingenium digital archives Archival Number X-32648

Ethel O’Donnell of Carrolls Crossing in central New Brunswick, married London born First World War veteran Wilfred Knight in 1919. Ethel might have found her first attempts at making doughnuts a challenge but the desire to ‘provide’ for her new husband’s tastes would have seen her working to get it right. Doughnuts quickly became a favourite, appearing in bakeries, home kitchens, and lumber camps. Lumber camp cooks, both men and women, were interested in keeping their crew happy and well fed. By the early 1900’s out migration served to improve conditions for lumber camp workers, by making it necessary for employers to compete for workers. For employers and owners of Lumber camps recruiting and keeping workers meant finding and keeping a good Camp cook, especially one able to provide for changing and modern tastes of workers.

New Brunswick farm – near Nelson Hollow – near Doaktown, 1950. Ingenium digital archives Archival Number X-32690

The Roaring Twenties, and the modernity which was taking hold in the region was short lived, ended by the dark days of October 1929 and the beginning of the great depression. The Depression would force old fashioned making do and old fashioned molasses back in to the lives of Sarah, Ethel and Maud, as they provided for their families. Did Maud, Sarah or Ethel develop molasses doughnuts? Probably not, but without doubt a home cook, a lumber camp cook, a cook somewhere in the region did. Someone who saved on expensive white sugar by replacing it with molasses, brown sugar and adding ‘molasses spices’.

Miramichi River Lumber Camp dining hall c. 1935 Photo courtesy of the Our Miramichi Heritage Family FB site.

That a recipe for Molasses Doughnuts is found in many family cookbooks across Atlantic Canada (and elsewhere), that they are prepared as Christmas treats and that they reflect the role molasses played in the lives of ordinary Canadians…makes it ‘Canada’s Doughnut’.

My Mother’s Cookbooks

Molasses Doughnuts

1) 1 cup brown sugar
2) 1 cup molasses
3) 3 eggs at room temperature
4) 5 Tbsp melted butter
5) 1 tsp each nutmeg, ginger, ground clove, and cinnamon
9) 1 tsp salt
10) 1 tsp vanilla extract
11) 1 1/2 cup soured milk with 2 tsp baking soda dissolved
12) 2 tsp baking powder
13) 4 – 5 1/2 cups flour
1) Prepare your fryer and oil to a temperature of 350 degrees F. (Objective is to keep the oil between 350-360 degrees F while frying);
2) In a large bowel mix brown sugar, molasses, eggs (slightly beaten) butter and vanilla and mix well;
3) In a second bowl combine flour, salt, and spices, mix well;
4) In a liquid measure add baking soda to the soured milk and mix to dissolve;
5) Alternate adding milk and flour to the other ingredients until all of the milk and at least 4 cups of flour has been added. The batter should be thick and sticky, cover and set aside in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 hour.
6) Place about 2 cups of batter on a generously floured surface, and roll out to about 1/4 inch thick, cut with a doughnut cutter. (additional flour may need to be added to make the batter workable.
7) Fry doughnuts until done, flipping once. Molasses doughnuts can be difficult to cook well, start by test frying for 3 minutes per side, remove and check.
8) If desired roll the hot doughnuts in white sugar before cooling, a paper bag containing the sugar can be used to sugar the batch at once.

A final word about modernity and disease… Pneumonia killed many people through out history, including during the Flu pandemic of 1918-1919, it would take until the development of antibiotics at the end of the first quarter of the 20th century for modernity to remove it as a regular and frequent cause of death. Sadly, Maud Blanche Tufts Mauger died in 1938 of pneumonia, leaving Isaac to raise their young family.

Explanations and Resources:

1. A Puncheon of Molasses – A wooden barrel of molasses which commonly weighted between 1,120 to 1,344 pounds.
2. House girl – a young woman employed as domestic help in the homes of wealthy citizens. By the 1900s the term ‘servant’ was replaced by the more genteel house girl, the work remained.
3. Petites, NL is a resettled community, but efforts continue to restore the Petites Methodist Church, reputed to be the Oldest Methodist Church in North America.


4 thoughts on “Christmas Doughnuts and House Girls…

  1. Thank you for a glimpse into our past! I grew up in New Brunswick. My mother didn’t make doughnuts, but one of our neighbours did and they were tastier than any commercial doughnut I’ve ever tried.

    BTW – There is a typo in step 2 of the recipe. The 4th word should be ‘bowl.’ Thought you’d want to know.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Enjoyed the article and the memories it brought back over the holidays. My dad was born & raised in Newcastle, (name changed of course) New Brunswick. He couldn’t survive without homemade doughnuts and molasses. I do miss having them at Christmas.


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