Cape Breton Pork Pies don’t contain pork, but they do resemble the hat1. The origin of this tiny tart, a shortbread base, filled with dates and topped with a carefully piped cap of maple icing is unknown, although some credit Acadians for inspiring them.
There is little doubt that Acadian settlers to the region depended heavily on pork and pork fat in their diet. From the very beginning of Acadia, despite an abundant source of wild game and fish, pork was the preferred source of protein. After being forced from their homes and farms, some Acadian families fled to Cape Breton, founding two major settlements, Cheticamp on the north western coast and Isle Madame on the south coast of Cape Breton Island. Although fishing would largely replace farming as a means of providing for their families, raising pigs for food remained an integral part of life. There are many traditional Acadian dishes which contain pork and pork fat, including fruit desserts.
Despite both this association and the name, the fussy little tarts are made with shortbread a Scottish tradition, dates which originated in the middle east and maple, which is purely and completely First Nations in origin. So how did they come to be a Cape Breton Holiday tradition?
Cape Breton Pork Pie recipes began appearing in community cookbooks in the early 1930s, it is entirely likely they were developed during the first two decades of the 20th century. The new century which brought widespread social and political change, unprecedented growth, upheaval, and greater cultural diversity to Cape Breton would result in Cape Breton Pork Pies.
By the time Bessie Mauger arrived in North Sydney from her home community of Petites Newfoundland about 1890, the industrialization of Cape Breton was well underway. Mines, steel mills, construction of infrastructure, and housing were bringing workers from across the region and around the world to work in Cape Breton. Young women like Bessie found work in the homes of company officials, merchants, physicians, and in the company stores, hotels and boarding houses serving the growing number of workers.
Elizabeth McIsaac Topshee, her Syrian born Traveling merchant husband George, their four young children, Elizabeth’s Mother Lizzie and her brother Leslie McIsaac were living together on Robert street, Sydney in 1921. Lizzie and Leslie who were born in Boston, Mass returned to their parent’s Cape Breton home with their mother, after their father Peter died. A bright and capable person Elizabeth worked for while as a Teacher, before marrying George.
For women like Kathleen Bryan living in the neighbourhood of Whitney Pier provided opportunity to add to her family’s resources by taking in boarders. The large numbers of men, single and married flocking to the area for work had to be housed, some would lodge, others board in family homes, sharing the cramped and inadequate housing and food. Most families who took in boarders, took in those they knew, single lads from home, married men working to bring their family to Cape Breton from their homes in Newfoundland, Lebanon, Wales, Ireland, New England and the long list of local and exotic locales. Kathleen and her husband Lambert welcomed boarders from their home in the British West Indies.
The system which favoured powerful white Protestant English speaking people2 over others left many Scots, Acadians, First Nations people and a growing number of others on the outside looking in. As industrialization took hold, the disparity between those who owned and operated the industries and the souls who toiled in them grew.
By 1921, Bessie and John had managed to purchase a home for their family in Dominion. With already more than 30 years in the industry John worked his way from miner to mechanic, improving his wages and vastly improving his family’s lot. A new social order and improvement in their living conditions, fostered new found independence and pride. In the 1921 census, for the first time in their married life John and Bessie openly declared John’s deep Acadian heritage. John’s ‘Young’ family had their name converted from the original Lejeune sometime in the early part of the previous century, as they struggled to survive in a social system which discriminated against Acadians and favoured those with English names.
Despite nearly a century of being known as “Young”, John and his family managed to retain their Acadian heritage personally if not officially. The benefit realized by highlighting his mother’s Scottish heritage had not eroded John’s Acadian heritage entirely. His family name was lost, their language lost, yet he still identified as ‘French Acadian’. It is likely food, traditional Acadian food played a role in maintaining John’s Acadian heritage.
The struggles of the new century would continue in to the 1920s, the labour unrest which would see police, and military deployed against workers strained and severed traditional relationships but also fostered new ones. Solidarity between and among Union members was critical to their successful skirmishes against the company. When the entire community, women, neighbours, well to do, poor; Polish, French, English, Walsh, Assyrian, Italian, Ukrainian, West Indian, Scottish, etc. stood in solidarity, long term meaningful change finally took hold, and a more diverse identity was born.
Dates have been grown in the middle east and Asia for thousands of years, during that time they became ‘staple’ in the diet of the region and spread as an imported food to other areas of the world. North American cultivated dates began appearing in the 1920s, just in time for the Cape Breton Pork Pie.
There has been much speculation about the relationship between the term pork pie and it’s suspected Acadian origins. Did the first pork pies contain pork? It is quite possible cooks like Bessie, Kathleen and Elizabeth sometimes made the shortbread base with pork fat rather than butter, it is also possible pork fat was added to the filling as a flavour enhancer.
The even more likely source of the relationship between the pork pie and Acadian culture is the maple icing. Maple sugar and flavouring are firmly rooted in First Nations culture, and by virtue of the longstanding and positive relationships between the two nations, in Acadian culture.
This Holiday season Cape Breton Pork pies will take their rightful place on our table, a wonderful way to celebrate a little of what it means to be from Cape Breton…
My Mother’s Cookbook’s…
Cape Breton Pork Pies
Pork pies are small tarts, about 11/2 inches in diameter, mini tart molds / cups are required.
2 cups Flour
2 Tbsp Corn Starch
1/4 tsp Salt
1 cup Butter
1/2 cup Confectioners Sugar
1 Egg Yolk
1 tsp Pure Vanilla Extract
2 1/4 cups chopped Dates
3/4 cup Brown Sugar
3/4 cup Boiling Water
1/4 tsp Salt
1/2 tsp Lemon extract
1/2 tsp Pure Vanilla Extract
2/3 cup Confectioners Sugar
2 Tbsps Maple Syrup
1 Tbsp Butter
1) Preheat oven to 325 degrees F (163 degrees C);
2) In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until fluffy;
3) Beat in egg yolk and vanilla;
4) In a second bowl combine flour, cornstarch and salt;
5) Gradually add the dry ingredients into the butter sugar mix, kneading to a smooth dough;
6) Make 3/4 round balls of dough and press into 11/2 inch tart molds, pressing the dough evenly over the bottom and sides;
7) Bake for 15 minutes or until golden; set aside to cool;
8) In a saucepan combine dates, brown sugar, water, and salt over med heat until it reaches a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 4 minutes, stirring regularly;
9) Remove from the heat, add lemon and vanilla, set aside to cool;
10) In a small bowl, cream butter and sugar, add maple syrup and whip to fluffy consistency;
11) Fill shortbread cups with date filling and cape with a dollop of icing.
Explanations and Resources:
1. The Pork Pie hat, or the porkpie, is a round hat with a turned-up brim and a flat crown.
2. The British Colonial settlement of Atlantic Canada favoured white, protestant community members over others, although the labour struggles and social actions of the early 20th century challenged the system, it did not translate into equal opportunities for all. First Nations people and others of visible minority groups continue to be disadvantaged and marginalized by a system which favours whites over others.
3. History of Acadie – Canadian Encyclopedia https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/history-of-acadia
4. Acadian History – https://acadie.cheminsdelafrancophonie.org/en/historical-capsules/
Acknowledgement: I acknowledge that the land on which I live and write about is the traditional unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi’kmaq Peoples. This territory is covered by the “Treaties of Peace and Friendship” which Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi’kmaq Peoples first signed with the British Crown in 1725. The treaties did not deal with surrender of lands and resources but in fact recognized Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) title and established the rules for what was to be an ongoing relationship between nations.