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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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 …
Ingredients: 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 Method: 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. https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=petites%20church%20newfoundland%3A%20restoration
For Mum Christmas Holiday baking began in October. Fruit cakes, plum puddings, gum drop cakes, things which need curing were first, followed by the long list of sweets and savories treats which had become favourites in our family. Christmas baking for Mum meant focusing on special recipes those reserved for Christmas, including Elizabeth Moody’s Sultana1 Cake.
The telling of how this recipe became part of the My Mother’s Cookbooks collection is almost as much a Christmas tradition as the cake it’s self. Elizabeth Maud Walls Moody born 1895 Blackville, Northumberland County, New Brunswick was a woman known for her baking, her Sultana Cake in particular, but she was also known not to share this recipe.
Not all cooks share their recipes. It is a personal choice, and quite reasonable considering the risks to reputation sharing a recipe might mean. Elizabeth did not share this recipe, but she made the cake and shared it, generously. How else would she and her Sultana cake have gained reputation?
Women’s Institutes; The Canadian Red Cross; Home and School Associations; Hospital Auxiliary’s; Church women’s groups; Legion Auxiliary’s etc. represent women actively serving their communities. Fundraising, the means to do the work of the group depends heavily on the generosity of women like Elizabeth and Greta Vickers Sturgeon. Scratch under the surface and you see hours of back breaking work, volunteer effort, by women. Cooking, baking, serving, washing dishes, etc. all done in aid of the group’s cause, suppers, bake sales and catered events.
For, Elizabeth and Greta gaining a reputation as a good baker resulted from long hours of community and church group service. When fund raising was needed, women like Elizabeth and Greta went to work. Both wives and mothers, Elizabeth and Greta knew each other well as they did most in the small community.
Greta and Elizabeth share deep roots in the Miramichi region of New Brunswick, their settler families were primarily from Scotland, Ireland, and England. Settlers drawn by the promise of the areas natural resources, timber, and fish. Blackville, located on the Southwest Branch of the Miramichi River was settled first by Davidson settlers prior to the Revolutionary war and became a business center and mill town in the 1850’s.
It is common to see raisins in fruit cake recipes, along with the candied cherries and fruit peel. Fruit cake which has been in existence for hundreds if not thousands of years, was banned for a considerable period in Britain. Dried and preserved foods of all sorts were a practical reality during Eastern Canadian winters, when dried berries, meat, and fish were staple. So it is not surprising that during the Victorian period when Fruit Cakes began appearing as Christmas treats (encouraged by the festive green and red cherries) Eastern Canadians were quick to assume it as Christmas tradition.
Elizabeth Moody’s Sultana cake is a ‘light’ fruit cake. Many fruit cake recipes are very fruit dense and the cake merely a vehicle to deliver the fruit. This cake is rich, moist and delicious on its own, with the fruit it is one of the best fruit cakes I have ever eaten.
So, how did it come that Elizabeth Moody’s recipe made its way in to the collection… Greta, despite being almost 20 years Mum’s senior, was a good friend and neighbour. Greta and her husband Freeman lived across the street from our family home, for the 17 years or so our family lived there. For many of those years, Greta and Mum met at least 3 times a week for a cuppa and chat. Usually, Mum would ‘just run over to Greta’s’ when she had a few minutes and there was an older sibling about to keep an eye on me, the youngest. Occasionally, I would accompany Mum, to visit Greta, which I loved. I recall vividly those visits, and the cat clock which hung on Greta’s kitchen wall. The eyes tracking left and right, tale swinging right to left. Fascinating to my child mind and a great diversion as the two women chatted.
One morning just before our family left Blackville in July of 1967, Greta invited Mum for a chat. Several times over the years of their friendship, the subject of Elizabeth’s Sultana Cake came up in their discussions, usually after one or the other had attended an event where the cake had appeared. Greta and Mum were avid bakers, and good friends. It surprised Mum to learn that Greta had the recipe, in fact had had it for some time. Greta who’d been sworn to secrecy by Elizabeth had spent considerable time agonizing whether to share the recipe with Mum. Now that Mum was leaving and knowing how much Mum enjoyed the cake she’d decided to break her promise to Elizabeth and share it with Mum. Mum kept to the strict promise she made to Greta. The cake remained ‘special’ it appeared only at Christmas, she never made it for any other purpose. Only after Elizabeth’s death in 1991 did I get my first copy of the recipe. I guess you can say friendship brought this recipe in to the My Mother’s Cookbooks Collection.
Elizabeth Moody’s Sultana Cake
Ingredients: 1 cup butter room temperature 1 1/2 cup white sugar 3 eggs at room temperature 1 1/2 tsp baking powder 1tsp lemon extract 1 tsp vanilla 1tsp almond extract 3 cups sifted flour, divided 1 cup warm milk 1 pkg white raisins (~ 11/2 cups) 1 pkg cherries (~1 cup) 1 pkg mixed peel and mixed fruit(~1 cup)
Method: 1. Preheat over to 250 degrees F. Grease and flour two 9 inch x 5 inch x 3 inch loaf pans and set aside; 2. Cream butter and sugar until light in colour, add well beaten eggs and mix to combine; 3. Add lemon, vanilla and almond stir to combine; 4. In a separate bowl sift 2 1/2 cups of the flour, baking powder together and set aside; 5. Alternate adding the flour mix and milk, being careful not to over beat; 6. Dust fruit with the remaining flour and add to the cake batter, mix to combine; 7. Divide the batter evenly between the pans and place in the oven for 2 hours or until tester inserted in to the center of the cake comes out clean.
Elizabeth Maud Walls Moody Born 22 April 1895, was the oldest child of Justus Walls and Elizabeth Ann Astle Walls. In 1912 at age 17 years, Elizabeth married Wilmot Moody and settled in Blackville to raise their family. Elizabeth and Wilmot had two children before Wilmot’s untimely death in 1923. Elizabeth raised their two children on her own, never remarrying. She lived in Blackville until her death in 1991.
Greta Myrtle Vickers Sturgeon was born 16 Aug 1911 to Thomas Vickers and Lucinda Maud Astle. On 14 December 1927, Greta married Freeman Ernest Sturgeon. Freeman and Greta raised their 9 children in Blackville. Greta died in 1994, Freeman a year later.
Explanations and References: 1. Sultana raisins are a variety of raisin, dried from white grapes of particular varieties. The term ‘Sultana’ was once used to refer to ‘raisin’ generally.
This blog is one of two profiling the life of women during war, and the service of veteran Marion Leane Smith Walls. The first blog War, Women and Warcake.
The My Mother’s Cookbook recipe for Molasses Cookies, the rolled out version, demonstrates the skill of home cooks to ‘make do’. The recipe is an older style which dates back beyond its contributor Marguerite Stillwell, to her mother Bertha Blanch Barton Stillwell.
Molasses has been a staple in Atlantic Canadian and New England Kitchens since ships from the West Indies began arriving to collect timber bound for Europe in the earliest days of British colonial settlement1. Cheap molasses had little or no market in Europe but filled the needs of settlers to the colonies. The trade soon grew to include fish from Atlantic Canada shipped to the West Indies as a cheap source of protein to feed slave and indentured sugar and cocoa plantations workers. It is small wonder molasses and salted /smoked fish maintain a presence in the diet of both Atlantic Canada and Caribbean nations such as The Dominican Republic, Trinidad & Tobago and Haiti, among others even today.
Growing up in the rural farming community of The Range, Waterbourgh Parish, Queens County, New Brunswick, Bertha Barton Stillwell’s diet was comprised in large part by dried salted meat, fish, beans, buckwheat and molasses. As other foods like sugar and wheat became more affordable, there is every likelihood Bertha’s family table still saw a pitcher of molasses and many a meal ended with bread and molasses.
The dawn of the 20th century saw many rural Canadians choosing a life different than those of their parents. Limited economic opportunities, over crowding, poverty and the promise of an easier path saw many choosing to relocate to larger centers. Out migration was motivated by need in many cases, but not all, some families chose to leave, drawn by the promise of a modern life2.
Bertha and her husband Thomas’ decision to move from their family farm to Fredericton might well have been motivated by the lure of town life and the modern conveniences it provided. Certainly, they were successful, Thomas found work in the Hartt Shoe factory working his way up to Foreman by 1921, they rented a home in North Devon (a neighbourhood of Fredericton’s Northside). Eventually the Thomas and Bertha would purchase a home in an upscale neighbourhood on Fredericton’s south side. Despite the resources they had, life presented challenges the First and second Wars, Influenza Pandemic, the Great Depression impacted everyone.
During the First War, women at home did everything they could for the war effort, the Canadian wing of the Red Cross3 together with their church and community auxiliaries provided the vehicle. The Red Cross had established it’s self during the Boar War as an organization able to provide the necessities of life to those impacted by war, soldiers, and civilians.
Bertha, a young mother, would have volunteered her time knitting bandages and comfort items; scarves, mittens as well as contributing to care packages being sent to POWs and those recovering from wounds and injuries in United Kingdom hospitals and convalescent homes. The Red Cross provided the organizational and logistical supports necessary to deliver the efforts of Canadian women in to the hands of those who needed it, loved ones and strangers.
At the beginning of the World War 1, Bertha found herself depending upon the old skills and techniques she’s once considered outdated. As some of the products she’d once depended upon in her modern city home became scarce, she would revisit old ingredients, old recipes and old habits. Even the old habit of collecting fat and bones became popular again, not for making soap but for use in munitions.
In her role as Nursing Sister on the Hospital trains4 in Northern France and Italy, Marion Smith Walls saw first hand the devastation war produced. She also saw the practical ways the Red Cross aided those suffering its effects. Marion would have used more than a few of those home knitted bandages to bind the wounds of her patients and seen the expressions of joy on the face of young soldiers receiving a care package from home. It is not in the least surprising that at the out break of the second World War Marion, with the aid of the Canadian Red Cross began to develop a similar program in her adopted home of Trinidad and Tobago.
In November of 1924, Marion and her husband Victor Walls made the voyage to San Fernando, Trinidad. Victor had been appointed as Principal at the long standing Presbyterian education mission at Naparima College5. The College, a residential school had been founded in 1894 by Dr. Kenneth Grant a fellow Atlantic Canadian, friend and mentor of Victor’s. Naparima served the educational needs of the male children of indentured Indian sugar, and chocolate plantation workers.
During their first 15 years in Trinidad and Tobago, Marion and Victor continued to build on the school’s success, and infrastructure. Marion established a school infirmary and assured nutritious and sufficient meals for students. She began educational programs on first aid and nursing, established the country’s first Nurses council and wrote text books on first aid and nursing in tropical climates. Marion was a nurse, she did what she knew to do, and that which needed doing. At the onset of World War 2, Marion and Victor mobilized, using the resources and network they had established at Naps, to begin Trinidad and Tobago’s contribution to the war effort.
Not only had Marion and Victor established themselves as excellent school and community leaders, they found themselves in the heart of the community’s very white elite, whites comprised only 3% of the population but controlled 99% of the political and business power. When Lady Young, the Australian born wife of the Governor Young decided to establish a Red Cross Committee both Marion and Victor agreed to be members. Marion and Victor realized the value a powerful figurehead would bring to the program, they placed their full support and resources behind the new organization.
Sadly, Lady Young’s leadership of the committee was fraught with conflict, some of which which grew to include accusations of racism during a spat with another high profile community member. Despite the dissension and the specific challenge of being the only ‘non white’ on the committee Marion faced, she managed to do her part. The committee and its work continued apparently in large part because of the hours of dedicated service of Marion Walls, the first Commandant of the Red Cross in Trinidad and Tobago. Marion Smith Walls was awarded the Distinguished War Service Medal for founding the Red Cross in Trinidad and Tobago and for her contributions to nursing and community development.
World War 2 in Canada saw an immediate upswing in support for the Red Cross, as the familiar programs from the first war were revisited with renewed vigor. The Canadian government played a far more active role, promoting nutrition guidance, encouraging Canadian’s to eat ‘patriotic foods’, teaming up with the Red Cross to engage Canadians in the cause. City dwellers dug up what ever land they had, backyard or front lawn to grow food, and create Victory Gardens. Young women worked in farm fields and became factory workers. Bertha, now in her sixties, drew on her old fashioned skill set, guiding and encouraging, as she watched her children and Grandchildren rediscover the value of the tried and true.
Formal food rationing programs began in January 1942, with sugar first, it would be followed by tea, coffee, butter and finally meat. This traditional recipe includes warm tea, a rationed commodity…waste not, want not!
My Mother’s Cookbooks rolled out Molasses Cookies
Ingredients: 1 cup brown sugar 1 cup shortening 1 cup molasses 1 egg at room temperature 1 cup warm tea 5 cups sifted flour 1 tsp salt 3 tsp ground ginger 3 tsp soda 3 tsp baking powder Method: 1. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees F 2. In a mixing bowl cream sugar and shortening, add molasses, well beaten egg and tea; 2. In a second bowl sift flour and other dry ingredients together; 3. Add the dry ingredients to first bowl and mix to combine; set aside to rest for 10 minutes; 4. Roll out thick (1/2 inch /15 mm) and cut into cookies; 5. Bake 12 -14 minutes or until done.
About the contributor of this recipe…
Marguerite Bertha Stillwell born 1916, the youngest child of Bertha and Thomas, grew up in North Devon. After high school, Marguerite trained as a secretary, eventually working in government where she served as secretary to various provincial government leaders. The last number of years before retirement, Marguerite served as Executive Secretary to Premier Richard Hatfield.
Marguerite never married, choosing to live with her family until her father’s death. In the 1960’s Marguerite purchased a new home in a neighbourhood bordering the Universities, her elder brother Percy made his home with her until his death. I know Marguerite made these cookies, back in the early 1980’s she shared this recipe with me after she’d made a batch for our shared nephew, Chris. I have every confidence Bertha was smiling down at her daughter sharing old fashioned molasses cookies with her Great Grandson.
Bertha Blanch Barton Stillwell
Bertha was born 3 May 1876, The Range, Waterborough Parish, Queen county, NB. Her parents Mary Jane Flower and John William Barton were descendants of Loyalists settlers to Queens county.
Bertha and Thomas Stillwell had 7 children, sons: Cleveland, Percey and Ernest, daughters: Velma, Gladys, Doris and Marguerite.
Marion Elizabeth Smith
Marion Elizabeth Smith was born in Liverpool, New South Wales, Australia on 12 Mar 1892. Her parents George Smith and Elizabeth Leane Smith welcomed Marion to their family of two. When Marion was two years old her parents took their growing family first to England then to Canada, finally settling in Fredericton Junction, New Brunswick.
George Smith was a native of Hambledon, Hampshire, England and Elizabeth Leane Smith was born in Liverpool, Australia to William Leane and Lucy Walker Leane. It is with out doubt Elizabeth’s parentage through her Mother Lucy, was a major part of the family’s decision to leave Australia.
The Dharug peoples traditional lands are in what is now known as New South Wales, in the immediate area of Sydney, Australia. All Aboriginal nations in Australia have been negatively impacted by European settlement, but none more than those of the south including the Dharug clan.
The traditional way of life of the Dharug was hunting and gathering, lacking the necessary ‘farming’ relationship to the land to be viewed by European settlers as owners. Disease, violence, displacement and famine during and after colonization decimated first nations clans, including the Dharug. The social and political environment for a couple of mixed race was characterized by discrimination and violence. These conditions experienced first hand by Marion’s mother Elizabeth would have impacted the family’s decision to relocate.
Mixed race children like Elizabeth were caught between two worlds, never really being fully a part of either. The decision to leave Britain after several years and the arrival of several more children was also very likely driven by opportunity for their family. The legacy of Elizabeth’s Mother Lucy’s Dharug heritage would follow the family, particularly Marion, as she and Victor set out on their lives together as Presbyterian missionaries in the West Indies.
There is little doubt had the Smith family remained in Australia, Marion would never have been able to complete school and train as a nurse. Australia’s only known Aboriginal woman to serve during the first world war, Marion Elizabeth Smith would not have been.
Explanations and Resources:
1. Triangular trade is the pattern of trade established by the European empires, where raw materials from the colonies were transported to Europe for processing and manufacturing. The slave trade, where Africans from West Africa were transported to the West Indies to toil in the sugar plantations, was key to triangular trade. The end of slavery did not end the lucrative trade. Trinidad and Tobago, a nation of two islands in the former British West Indies, was home to both sugar and cocoa plantations. Depending first on the labour of African slaves, by the mid 19th century, indentured servants from the Indian sub continent joined former slaves, toiling in the islands’ plantations.
2. Between 1900 – 1911 a full 25% of the population of Queens County New Brunswick moved out of the county. A prosperous farming area, the out migration has been explored by academics who have determined many of the migrants were seeking a modern life, feelings of isolation and being left behind encouraging families to move. https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/JNBS/article/view/24244/28027
4. Ambulance Trains – or mobile hospitals, saw service in conflicts before 1900, and would continue service through both World Wars. The trains were staffed by 3 medical officers, 3 nursing sisters and a large number of orderlies. Ambulance trains could transport as many as 500 wounded. The trains contained not only stretcher wards but operating theaters. 5. Naparima College Naparima College (informally known as Naps) is a public secondary school for boys in Trinidad and Tobago. Located in San Fernando, the school was founded in 1894 but received official recognition in 1900. It was established by Dr. Kenneth J. Grant, a CanadianPresbyterian missionary working among the Indian population in Trinidad. The school was one of the first to educate Indo-Trinidadians and played an important and crucial role in the development of an Indo-Trinidadian and Tobagonian professional class. Naparima is derived from the Arawak word (A) naparima, meaning ‘large water’, or from Nabarima, Warao for ‘Father of the waves’.
Part two of the life and death of Mercy Babcock Hall…
Too many of us know only porridge1 made of oatmeal and see it exclusively as a breakfast food. That these misconceptions exist demonstrates just how much the lives and diet of ordinary Eastern North Americans (Eastern Seaboard of US and Eastern Canada) have changed.
For the first settlers to Atlantic Canada, as it had been for other colonial settlers to North America, porridge was staple, eaten at least daily. It was made from a variety of ground, crushed or chopped starchy plants and grains not just oatmeal. What exactly folks cooked in milk/water, savory or sweet depended upon what they had. For early settlers that could mean porridge made from barley, wheat, oats, corn or buckwheat, sometimes a combination.
For Mercy Babcock Hall’s family and other settlers to Colonial Nova Scotia in the short term it was corn in their porridge. Corn was listed among the provisions they arranged for the Crown to supply. Corn, like squash originated in North America. By the 1760’s New Englanders were used to cultivating and eating corn, including as porridge. As they and their children would discover oats and buckwheat grow better in many areas of Atlantic Canada than corn.
William Alline, his wife and 6 children, including 11 year old Henry2, arrived in Nova Scotia in 1760, one year before the Babcock family. Henry and Mercy were the same age when they arrived in Nova Scotia, it is entirely possible that Mercy experienced similar hopes and fears as Henry, who recorded his experience in his writings and journal.
“In the year 1760, my parents (after long consultation) concluded to move to Nova Scotia; this filled me with hope and fear… I had two things that I greatly feared in going; the one was the danger of the sea the other the Indians in that country…My joys and hopes were soon eclipsed when it was frequently reported that the Indians were about rising to destroy us; and many came out among us with their faces painted, and declared the English will not settle this country.” – An excerpt from The Life and Journal of the Rev. Henry Alline, describing his childhood as an early settler to Nova Scotia.
The fear, anxiety and insecurity would have been profound for settlers ill prepared for life in isolation. Nearest neighbours despite being only a few miles away, were largely inaccessible through the dense forest, and visits were limited to travel by water. The fear experienced by both children and parents was acute, and fanned by rumour and gossip.
The visits by First Nations peoples described by Alline were intended to intimidate, and discourage the English to stay. An action most of us would see as a normal reaction to others encroaching on our land. Some visits probably represented First Nations people returning to their traditional lands to hunt, fish, or harvest wild plants. Regardless, the mere presence of First Nations people was perceived as threatening to those already insecure in a new land. Events such as these would certainly increase the community’s perception of threat, and been widely discussed and shared through out the country.
As much as Mercy’s experience of the threats, perceived and real might have reflected those of Henry Alline, gender roles assured Mercy’s experience was more limited and restricted. Puritan3 households favoured simplicity, faith and adherence to a strict code of piety.
The roles of men and women were strictly defined, the family a fundamental unit of Puritan life. A man was expected to lead his family, speaking on behalf of the family in public, and making decisions about the family’s interactions in society. Farming, fishing and other income producing activities outside the home, were preview of men. Women were responsible for the home, preparing food, providing clothing, and raising children as good and faithful Christians. Women were expected to always show support for their husband and his decisions. From the earliest age children were ‘schooled’ in their gender roles, boys were educated in the skills they needed to fulfill their role, farming, fishing, chopping wood, etc. Girls learned cooking, cleaning, home gardening, sewing, butter making, etc.
The structure and system at play in Puritan homes was defined by strict rules of piety and the belief that salvation depended upon adherence, prayer and redemption . Henry Alline’s writings demonstrate the depressive and demoralizing effect of the Puritan beliefs on the emotional well being of members. Alline’s teachings presented a more loving and forgiving God and stressed the importance of personal salvation.
Just as Henry Alline was struggling with his early ‘dissenting’ ideas, Mercy was marrying Abner Hall and assuming a traditional role as wife and mother. It would take nearly 2 years before their first child was baptized, raising the possibility Mercy suffered either miscarriage or infant death during the early period of her marriage. Infant mortality was high and obstetrical care limited to assistance during delivery, usually provided by family women.
For Mercy, motherhood presented a long list of potential threats to her babies. Some estimates suggests that as many as 1 in 3 children died before aged five during the colonial period. Outbreaks of measles, and cholera as well as other conditions were common in Nova Scotia, but during the 1770s, Smallpox was leaving a trail of death. Rates of Death by Smallpox although high for adults, were even higher for young children.
Uncontrolled and uncontrollable threats, meant acute and chronically high stress for both parents and children. The rigid and pious nature of the Puritan household was not a place of comfort, it might even have increased the sense of responsibility, stress and anxiety, on Mercy. When a single imprudent step might bring eternal damnation, it would be a short leap to fear its impact of those in our care.
By 1774, there were increasing threats to the community as those in the 13 colonies began to consider their political influence. Despite the isolation of settlements in Nova Scotia the ties between settlers and their home communities remained. When the rebel cause was initially presented many Nova Scotia settlers agreed, but not all. Groups of English and Scottish settlers who were less established and thus more dependent upon the Crown provided balance, but so too did the increasing raids of coastal communities by pirates4 and others emboldened by the Rebel cause in the colonies.
Even as tensions were rising, so too was Henry Alline’s star as a Preacher. Henry began preaching after receiving a ‘sign’ from God that it was his calling. By the beginning of the Revolutionary War his following had grown to include people in many communities dotting the Bay of Fundy coast and along the St John River. Resistance and condemnation from the ‘established church’ was present but so to was an enthusiastic response to Alline’s sermons. Alline’s New Light spiritualism movement had begun, despite his death in 1784 it would continue to inspire others, including Jacob Peck.
Mercy’s life was a far from easy, after the birth of her 8th child in 13 years, Mercy suffered a emotional and mental breakdown (probably Postpartum depression), her husband Abner removed her from the family home. Much has been written about Abner’s brutal act against his wife and the mother of his children. There has as well have been ‘suggestions’ of physical abuse. We will never know the exact nature of Mercy and Abner’s relationship beyond this act and what we know about the typical experience at the time.
Puritan family life was private; provided the family did not act in direct contradiction of the Bible’s literal teachings or cause the family to constitute a risk to the community, no action was considered appropriate or taken. The nature of relationships inside a Puritan family home were largely dependent upon the family’s leader, the man of the household.
Despite the apparent cruelty in Abner’s treatment of his wife it is possible some in the community would have sympathized with Abner. Mercy’s breakdown interfered with her ability to play the role of wife and mother… a role fundamental to Puritan family life. When Abner expelled Mercy from his house, her family were obligated to step up and take her in.
Of course the Babcock family saw Abner’s behaviour as the heartless and inappropriate off loading of his duties and responsibilities it was. A woman not being able to play her role as wife and mother presented a challenge to a family, one inflicted with a mental illness another thing entirely.
Mental Illness has been poorly understood through out history, even today stigma and myth isolate and marginalize sufferers. It would be easy to assume that Puritans were heartless and insensitive to the suffering of those with mental illness but that is not the case entirely. By this time some Puritan writers were describing melancholy (major depression) as an illness of both body and soul. Yet, it would take decades for even the earliest facilities for those suffering mental illness to develop. Social isolation, censor, gossip and stigma comprised much of the community’s response to situations like Mercy’s. As is still the case, Mercy’s illness stripped away much of her humanity, robbing her of her ability to ‘be Mercy’ and exposing her to the inhumanity, even cruelty of others.
In communities like Cornwallis Parish there were no facilities, no poor houses or work farms. At the end of the day, any possible threat Mercy might pose to the community had to be managed, it was managed by her youngest brother Amos.
Exactly when Mercy’s time in Amos’ household began is unclear, but by 1791 when Amos and family moved to Hopewell Cape, New Brunswick, Mercy was with them. Reports of Mercy’s life in the household include that she was disliked by her sister in law, Dorcas Bennett Babcock and not permitted to eat with the family. Whatever the true circumstance between them conflict, and resentment of this type would have been difficult to manage in a small house, filled with a growing family.
Like Cornwallis parish, Hopewell Cape was settled by a group from Pennsylvania drawn by the Crown’s invitations to settle. Dorcas Babcock’s Bennett kin as well as the entire Babcock family (except Jonathan sr and his wife Lydia Lee) moved to the Hopewell area, attracted by the possibilities it represented.
Many second generation settlers like Amos and his brothers were under considerable pressure to secure land and enterprise sufficient to feed their families and build a secure future. The land which their father’s had settled sometimes failed to deliver on the promise or was sold when ‘other’ opportunities presented.
Complicating matters were the thousands of United Empire Loyalists who had flooded the region at the end of the Revolutionary War. Competition for land was fierce and land transactions frequent, the likelihood of success low. Although life could be difficult for the former New Englanders, life for Acadians was even more precarious, their land grants reassigned to English speaking settlers. All of these stresses, anxiety and uncertainty were at play in the lives of everyone in the region including Amos and his family.
Sadly, the family’s lack of success appears to have seen both Amos and his older brother Jonathan jr relocating to the Shediac area about 1802. Amos and family eventually settled in the ‘rental’ property where they living in February 1805. The single roomed structure housed Amos, Dorcas, their children ranging from teenage to toddler (8 in all) and Mercy.
Amos and his brother Jonathan’s ability to speak both French and Mi’kmaw, skill they were reputed to have acquired while living in Hopewell, should have aided them in their new location but life continued to be a struggle. Work was difficult to find and tensions between Acadians, First Nations and Settlers remained high as the newly minted colony struggled to contain its seams from bursting.
In January 1805, a series of revival meetings were held in the Shediac area, drawing those with a leaning towards spiritualism, to hear itinerant ‘self declared’ preachers. Amos and his family were among the group attending the meetings, including those provided by Jacob Peck. Peck who had been inspired by the New Light Movement, appears to have attached himself to the Babcock family, their home becoming host to his revival meetings. Amos’ daughter one of the teens who were ‘filled by the holy spirit’ and who with Peck’s encouragement predicted the world’s end.
Amos’ landlord, local farmer William Hannington did not engage with Peck (or the other preachers), instead remaining steadfast to his Church of England tradition. A few days prior to February 13th, Hannington was summoned to Amos’ house to transcribe the teen girl’s ‘prophecies’, his accounts suggest Peck was playing a leading role in fostering and encouraging a view that the world was ending and that Mercy would have to die. Hannington’s testimony at Amos’ trial provides a good deal of the context available on Mercy’s murder.
The extent to which Jacob Peck was responsible for what happened to Mercy is the subject of much speculation. The Ballad of Jacob Peck by accomplished writer and forensic scientist Debra Komar provides a more complete look at the events and is recommended for those looking for more on the specifics of Mercy’s murder. Komar provides a comprehensive set of arguments that Jacob Peck was as guilty of Mercy’s death, maybe more so than Amos.
It was 39 year old Amos Babcock who stabbed and dis-embowled his sister Mercy, convinced her presence in his home, her life had to end before the rapture…before Amos and his family could ascend in to heaven. Amos faced a swift trial, where he had no legal representation and no one was permitted to speak on his behalf, the testimony of his wife Dorcas and brother Jonathan used to secure a death sentence. On 28 June 1805, Amos Babcock was hanged at the Dorchester, NB courthouse, and buried on the grounds.
Mercy was targeted, the extent to which targeting resulted from her illness, from the precarious position she held in the household and how much was fostered by Peck will never be conclusively known. It is however truly disturbing the extent to which Mercy’s story, Mercy’s humanity, and Mercy, has been lost in the telling and retelling of her death. We know what happened to Amos, we know his final resting place, we can follow the trail of what happened to his family as they coped with the murder. We know Jacob Peck escaped accountability and was allowed to retreat to his Salisbury Parish farm.
We do not know Mercy’s final resting place. I have hope, that community members (the Poirier family in particular) who remained at the Babcock home, while Amos was being transported to justice, treated Mercy’s remains with the dignity denied her in life. Sadly, Mercy’s grave is unknown but presumed to be somewhere on the property where she died, about two miles from Shediac on the road to Cocagne…
A bit more about porridge…
Starchy materials simmered in milk or water comprised much of the diet of early settlers… whether served savory or sweet, flavoured with salt or served with Molasses, maple sugar or dried fruits it was an essential source of complex carbohydrates. By 1805, oatmeal and buckwheat were in widespread use by New Brunswickers.
This My Mother’s cookbook recipe is one for savory Buckwheat porridge…
Buckwheat Porridge (aka Kasha)
Ingredients: 1 cup of buckwheat groats 1 3/4 cup of water or stock(unsalted) 2 Tbsp of butter 1/2 tsp of salt Method: 1. Rinse and allow buckwheat groats to drain well. I toast the groats in a dry fry pan for a few minutes prior to cooking. 2. Place groats, liquid, butter and salt in a sauce pan and bring to a boil, cover and simmer about 18 -20 minutes until the liquid is absorbed.
References and Explanations:
1. Porridge is simply stewed starchy plants, whether water or milk, oats, rice, corn, buckwheat or anyone of the variety of plants prepared worldwide. Porridge was a practical result of the need for complex carbohydrates in the diet and the limits of early cooking options. 2. Henry Alline and the New Light Movement played a minor, yet critical role in the environment surrounding both Mercy and Amos. Henry Alline, the Apostle of Nova Scotia writings provide a unique glimpse into life in colonial Nova Scotia. Henry Alline inspired the New Light Movement, one of many groups who followed nontraditional spiritualism and the evangelical preachers making waves in both North America and Europe at the time. The New Light Movement was threatening to the established churches, which might have driven some of the quick response to Mercy’s murder by authorities. It is unlikely that Henry Alline would have condoned the practices of Jac Peck which lead to Mercy’s murder. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/henry-alline 3. Puritan is a term which referred to those who dissented from the established practices of the Church of England. Their primary beliefs included the need to remove any and all practices associated with the Roman Catholic Church. The Mayflower settlers were Puritan, many of their descendants including those who settled in British Colonial Nova Scotia maintained a life and religious belief system heavily rooted in Puritan traditions. 4) Smallpox -https://loyalist.lib.unb.ca/atlantic-loyalist-connections/smallpox-and-fear-inoculation 5) Pirates and privateers played a significant role in colonial life, there were locally born among their ranks. https://www.hallsharbour.org/2-uncategorised/15-history-pirates-pasha-and-the-sea 6)The Ballad of Jacob Peck, Komar, Debra, Goose Lane 2013 –https://gooselane.com/products/the-ballad-of-jacob-peck 7) The life and Journal of Henry Alline – Internet Archive https://archive.org/details/cihm_27898/page/n47/mode/2up?ref=ol&view=theater
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.
This blog is the first of two which will explore the life and death of Mercy Babcock Hall. Pumpkin pie and the experiences, and the challenges inherent in Mercy’s life in early British Colonial Nova Scotia is where we begin. Don’t miss the second blog on Mercy’s life: Corn, Buckwheat…and two miles from Shediac, on the way to Cocagne.
Celebrating the bounty of summer’s effort is really about celebrating the finest seasonal food. Germane to this are recipes which transform simple staples into products of celebration. There is no better example than Pumpkin pie.
Pumpkin pie and Thanksgiving, is a pairing which reputes to go back to the first Thanksgiving celebration. It is generally accepted, that early settlers and First Nations peoples who shared the first Thanksgiving meal, enjoyed a savory pumpkin soup, probably cooked in a hollowed out pumpkin over an open fire. The single crusted custard pie we know today would take time to develop.
Pumpkin, a species of squash is native to North America. First Nations people’s taught early explorers and settlers to grow and use squash, it became an important part of the diet of early colonists, including those in Nova Scotia. The willingness of First Nations peoples to share their traditional knowledge was essential to newcomers, who without it would have starved .
Mercy Babcock was born 14 October 1750 in Exeter Rhode Island. Mercy and several of her siblings were born in the established community of Newport, before the family moved to Nova Scotia. Jonathon and Lydia Babcock and their young family were among a group from Rhode Island, who accepted the invitation Governor Lawrence extended to move and settle in British Colonial Nova Scotia.
The period between the fall of Fort Beausejour1 (1754) and the American Revolutionary War (1776) in Colonial Nova Scotia, saw disruption and insecurity beyond the level of widespread insecurity known at the time. The British seizure of Fort Beausejour led to the expulsion of Acadians from across Nova Scotia, some of whom found refuge, all be it temporarily, on the north side of the Missaguash river in French territory (now New Brunswick).
Tensions between English settlers at Halifax, First Nations peoples and their allies the Acadians, were not improved by the efforts to bring loyal British subjects to settle the land. Until the fall of Louisbourg, Quebec, and the signing of Peace and Friendship treaties2 with First Nations of the region, acts of violence, raids and retaliation were regular events between the new settlers and those who had the land seized from them, increasing insecurity and stress on everyone.
The first invitations extended by British Colonial Nova Scotia Governor Lawrence to potential settlers raised interest. It would take the offer of free land and military support, written assurances of grant size, conditions, previsions, transportation etc, as well as explicit ‘religious freedoms’ to cinch the deal.
The term religious freedom is misleading, what passed for religious freedom at the time was not as we know it today. Britain’s years of internal social / political struggle, and civil war, between Catholics and Protestant served to inform the Crown’s decisions in the Colony. Governor Lawrence’s assurance of religious freedom extended only to those adhering to protestant denominations, and explicitly excluded ‘Papists’. Despite the limits of the religious freedoms offered, it was exactly the kind of assurance welcomed by many New Englanders of the time.
The earliest settlers to the North America, included sizable groups of settlers explicitly seeking religious freedom, including Puritans, Quakers and others. However, the struggles around religious freedom would haunt the colonies. Discrimination driven by intolerance serving to restrict development and promote immigration to areas offering freedom to descent from the domination of the ‘Church of England’.
The first to take up the Governor’s invitation to settle in Nova Scotia were two groups of New Englanders, one from the Massachusetts colony and another from Rhode Island, who arrived beginning in 1760 to settle the area once farmed by Acadians near Grand Pre. The first Rhode Islanders settled grants on the Avon river, and founded communities of Falmouth and Newport. The larger group of Massachusettes settlers would found the nearby community of Horton, NS.
Mercy’s early life in Rhode Island despite its challenges was vastly different from the life she would live in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Houses, churches, schools and roads replaced by tents, log cabins, and foot paths through the dense forest. The instability, and isolation associated with early settlement in a hostile land profoundly effected people, children particularly. The effect of childhood trauma and stress we now understand leads to life long struggles for many people, as it did then.
The treaty of Paris of 1763 did bring an easing of tension between settlers and First Nations, but the period of relative calm was short lived and fraught with the challenges of living in an undeveloped land. Mercy’s family did not find living in Nova Scotia easy despite the freedom it provided. Jonathon Babcock appears to have suffered difficulty meeting the conditions of his grant. Two years after arriving in Nova Scotia, the Babcock’s who had not met the requirements of the land grant exchanged properties with another settler, hoping to be able to satisfy the less stringent requirements.
New Englander farmers who had little experience with intertidal salt marsh lands struggled with returning it to productive farm land. After the expulsions of Acadians, the dyke and sluice system which had made their farms productive fell in to disrepair, new comers found the going difficult, many chose to return to their former home.
Desire for freedom and independence, the need for it, can be difficult to balance with the need for support and cooperation. Early settlers had to depend upon others, support and cooperate with each other. It appears Jonathon Babcock struggled with this aspect of settler life. Historical records show, Jonathon Babcock’s independence brought him in to conflict with his neighbours, when after relocating to his second property he plowed up the road way which passed over his land. His decision made him unpopular in the community and likely made other aspects of life difficult for the family.
During the period from 1761 to 1776, the Babcock family would grow to 10, Mercy the oldest and Amos born in 1764, the youngest. Some reports suggest Mercy might have suffered a brain injury at birth but I have come to suspect this untrue, despite the reports of her diminished mental capacity which are included in the evidence given at Amos’ trial for her murder.
In 1772, Mercy married Abner Hall she was 22 years old and Abner 23 years old. Abner also a Rhode Island settler, would have 8 children in 13 years with Mercy. After the birth of her 8th child, Abner rejected his wife and the two separated.
It is almost guaranteed that Mercy ate and prepared pumpkin for her family but it also just as likely she would not have ever eaten pumpkin pie. Pumpkin pie, appears to have first developed in Europe after squash was introduced there, eventually it would make its way in to the diet of Colonists, after triangular trade began bringing spices to the colonies.
The My Mother’s Cookbook recipe for Pumpkin pie is one used by Edna Jane O’Donnell Babcock. Edna married, William Babcock who was Mercy’s 3x great nephew, a descendant of Caleb Babcock who witnessed his father’s murder of his Aunt.
My Thanksgiving dinner will include this pie, inspired and appreciated for its taste and its history…its roots in the history of our country and in the early promise of the relationship between settlers and First Nations Peoples. A relationship we have abused and broken and which we need to mend…
My Mother’s Cookbooks Pumpkin Pie
Ingredients: 1 cup of cooked sieved pumpkin (NOT Pumpkin Pie filling) 1/2 cup sugar 2 eggs, room temperature, separated 1 cup milk 1 tsp cinnamon 1/4 tsp ginger 1/4 tsp nutmeg 1/4 tsp ground clove Method: 1) Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.; 2) Line a 9 inch pie plate with pastry (see recipe below); 3) Combine all ingredients, except the egg whites in a large bowl or blender. Process until mix is consistent; 4) Beat egg whites until stiff; 5) Fold egg whites in to pumpkin mixture, being careful not to deflate; 6) Fill the crust with the pumpkin mixture; 7) Place pie on a rimmed sheet pan and place in oven, cook 10 minutes; 8) Lower temperature to 375 degrees F.
My Mother’s Cookbooks single crust(generous) pastry
Ingredients: 1/2 cup cold shortening 1/4 cup cold butter 1/2 cups flour 1/4 tsp salt 1/4 cup cold water Method: 1) Assemble dry ingredients and fat, using a pastry blender cut the fat into the flour mixture. 2) Add only sufficient water to bring the dough together. 3) Let rest in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes before rolling out.
About Mercy and the research…
I am a firm believer that no life should be defined by the act violence which ended it. Researching historical documents and reports/analysis written in the period following an event does not answer all questions. This is certainly the case with Mercy Babcock Hall, the truth of Mercy’s life and death is poorly understood and largely lost. Lost first to a system which documented only ‘important’ people and events; second to an underdeveloped justice system which might well had have it’s own agenda and finally to the willingness of those who have researched and written about the events since, to see only the injustices faced by Amos Babcock, and the provocation provided him by Evangelist Joseph Peck.
In the final part of this series the events, more of the people and circumstances of Mercy’s life, will help us understand the tragedy which unfolded on the night of 13 February 1805 in Shediac Bridge, NB. Events which left Mercy dead from numerous stab wounds and led to her brother Amos’ execution for her murder.
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.
I am amazed at home cook’s ability to transform the ordinary into extra ordinary. There is proof of the importance of this in our traditional foods, which are celebrated locally, regionally and internationally. Look at almost any ‘traditional’ feast food and at its roots are ordinary ingredients. Whether the approach is to add ‘special’ ingredients (more valuable, scarce, expensive) or by the processing of ordinary ingredients differently, the result is beyond ordinary.
My Mother’s Cookbooks has many examples of the innovation and creativity of home cooks, most represent cooks coping with adversity. Poutine Râpée, a dish found most commonly in the recipe collections of Southeastern New Brunswick Acadian families is a wonderful example. It appears in the collection because of my friends the Melanson family of Amherst, NS.
The area we now call Atlantic Canada is the traditional home of the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet), Mi’kmaq; Beothuk; Passamaquoddy, St Lawrence Iroquois; and Innu peoples. Over generations of interaction the Aboriginal peoples of the region, developed relationships which permitted them to live peaceably, interact and share resources.
Ida Richard Melanson’s was born Aboujagane, Westmorland County, New Brunswick about 1878. Ida’s Richard family were among some of the earliest Acadian settlers to the region, starting in Port Royal (now called Annapolis Royal, NS) the earliest European settlement in Canada.
Port Royal located on the Bay of Fundy would be come home to an industrious group of farmers primarily of the Southwest region of France. French traders would also build settlements from Cape Breton to the Gaspe and of course beyond to Quebec. The French government and settlers alike sought to developed peaceful relationships with the native peoples, while fostering cooperation and trade.
A testament to the relationships which developed, is the oral history that it was at the invitation of their Mi’kmaq neighbours that the eldest sons of five Port Royal (including the Richard family) families moved northward to the shores of the Cumberland Basin to settle in an area called ‘Menoodeh’ (now Minudi, Cumberland County, Nova Scotia)1.
The French Colonial period in Acadie saw farmers reclaiming saltmarshes, cultivating a variety of crops, establishing orchards and taking advantage of an abundance of fish and wild game. By all reports the diet of Acadians of the time was generally plentiful and varied. Winter demanded storage, preservation and planning to assure adequate vegetable to balance the more plentiful fish and game.
During the period, the prosperity of Acadia grew, with close ties to their First Nation Allies and relative peace it brought, shielding them from the broader geopolitical issues including France’s war with the British.
Both Acadians and First Nations people suffered at the hands of relentless Empire building by European nations. Britain’s reign of terror which began after the Treaty of Utretch, culminated with the fall of Fort Beausejour and the expulsion of Acadians in 1755 is an outstanding example.
The lives of many settlers were precarious for the first few years after settlement. For Acadians the threat was real and on going. British authorities and local settlers emboldened by the Colonial world view were unwilling to afford even the most basic rights. Many Acadian families existed on a scarce diet of potatoes, salt pork, fish, molasses and tea. Potatoes were one of the few crops the poor soil and cool damp climate supported. Molasses was a cheap and readily available because of triangular trade. Locally caught, salt/smoked fish made its way as cheap protein for sugar plantation slaves and indentured workers(including deported Acadians) in the West Indies.
Elizabeth Lorette Babcock was born in Upper Sackville, as a child Lizzie and her family lived in both Upper Sackville and the community of Dupuis Corner, Shediac Parish, Westmorland County, NB. It is not entirely clear the reason, it is possible their movement was related to work in the fishing industry. Subsistence farms at the edges of prime farming areas were common and required off farm work. Lizzie’s father Phillipe returning to his home area for work fishing or in processing fish is very likely. Eventually, the family would settle in Upper Sackville, on a farm near that of the Babcock family.
The history of Poutine Râpée is unclear, made of just two ingredients, both of which were eaten daily, it is the process which transforms them in to feast food. I can only imagine the originating cook whose deep desire to serve something different to their family, their love and dedication reflected in the multi -step process. Poutine Râpée has become associated with holidays, Christmas particularly, in many Acadian homes. Made of a mixture of raw grated and cooked mashed potatoes formed into a ball about the size of an orange, around a 1 inch ball of ground salt(soaked )pork. The potato dumplings after several hours of cooking in simmering stock, can be served in two ways. A savory version is served with salt and pepper, the sweet with molasses, brown sugar or maple syrup.
I know from Ida’s family’s stories that Poutine Râpée was a feast food from her kitchen. I can not say for certain that Lizzie served Poutine Râpée to her children but it is entirely possible.
Ingredients: 2 parts Raw finely grated potato 1 part cooked mashed potato Ground salt pork Seasoning Flour for dusting the surface Method: 1) Combine potatoes and mix well 2) Gather a portion of meat and form into a 1 inch ball 3) Gather a portion of potato, form into a ball and press the meat into the center, assuring the potato completely surrounds the meat. 4) Roll prepared balls in a small amount of flour 5) Place balls in a large part of simmering stock or water and simmer gently for 11/2 hours.
Ida Richard Melanson
Born: 2 Feb 1881, Haute Aboujagone, Westmorland County, NB Died: 23 June 1968, Amherst, NS Parents: Aldolphe Richard and Marie Richard Married: Edmond Melanson, 2 Feb 1904, Springhill, Cumberland County, NS
Ida was born 3rd in a family of at least 6 children born to Adolphe and Maria Richard. Sometime between 1901 and 1904, Ida left the farm to seek work in Springhill, Cumberland county, NS at the time booming mining town. Ida like many other young farm women sought employment as a domestic, choosing a location which family and friends had already settled. Ida met and married in 1904, Edmund Melanson, a labourer from the Memramcook Valley, NB. During the early part of their marriage, Ida and Edwin returned to his home area in Memramcook to start their family.
Childhood mortality rates during the late 1800s in New Brunswick were grim, and is reflected in Ida’s experience. Ida and Edmund faced the loss of at least 6 children, 2 sets of premature twins as infants, a girl named Mary who died of pneumonia at 11 months and a girl named Ellurey who died of whopping cough at almost 4 months. Despite this loss they managed to have and raise a family of at least 6 other children.
Around 1914, the family relocated to Amherst, Cumberland County, Nova Scotia where Edmond was a grocery merchant. Their home located on Foundry Street was surrounded with family, Edmond’s Melanson family and eventually several of their children purchased or built homes on the same street. Ida and Edmond would live among family on Foundry street until their deaths, Edmond in 1964, Ida in 1968.
Elizabeth Ann Lirette Babcock
Born: 27 October 1871, Upper Sackville, NB Died: 19 Dec 1956, Amherst, NS Parents: Phillip Lorette and Rose Ruth McPhee Married: David Purrington(Purnt) Babcock 12 Oct 1888 in Amherst, NS Lizzie was born second eldest in a family of 12 children, the family lived in her father Phillip’s home area of Cap Pele, NB and her mother Ruth’s home area of Upper Sackville, NB
The decision for the Lirette family to move to Sackville parish is not immediately clear but the complexity of raising a family in what would at the time would have been seen as a ‘mixed marriage’ would not have been an easy one. Discrimination and intolerance against those of French heritage was further complicated by religious intolerance. Being Roman Catholic in a community which was predominately Protestant would have added an additional layer of difficulty.
After her marriage in 1888, Lizzie and Prunt settled on the Babcock family farm a short distance away. They would raise their family of 7 children on the Babcock farm. Prior to her death Lizzie moved to Cornwall Street in Amherst, NS to live with her youngest son Bill and his family.
More of the lives of the Babcock, Lirette and McFee families will appear in the next blog, stay tuned.
Explanations and Resources:
Minudi, Cumberland County, NS located on the Cumberland Basin began the settlement by Acadians leading to the eventual founding of Beaubassin.
Burnt Church indigenous Settlement – 1928. Located on Miramichi Bay, the village got its English name after British Col. James Murray was sent in in 1758 to destroy the Acadian settlements in the Miramichi area. He reported that, “On the evening of the 17th September, in obedience to instructions, embarked the troops, having two days hunted all around us for the indigenous and Acadians to no purpose, we destroyed their provisions, wigwams and houses. The church, a very handsome one built with stone, did not escape.” According to Place Names of Atlantic Canada, written by William B. Hamilton, it was this incident that resulted in the English name of Burnt Church.
Living in an area once known as the “world’s largest hayfield”1, I am enjoying the industry of local farmers. The hectic hay making and blueberry harvest has me thinking about haying and drinking vinegar /Shrub. The ‘drinking vinegar’ recipe in the My Mother’s Cookbook Collection is for Blueberry vinegar. The handwritten “Aunt Emm” in the top right corner attributes it to Mum’s Great Aunt Emmeline Ethel Lyons McRae.
Aunt Emm born 1871 in Chatham, NB moved to the Travis family farm in Blissfield, NB as a child. With the except of a short period after her marriage in 1890, Emmeline lived on the McRae family farm a few miles from where she spent her childhood. During her nearly 70 years of farm life, Aunt Emm, experienced first hand early farm mechanization and the challenges harvest time presented.
The transition from highly labour intensive harvest to one heavily dependent on mechanization began in earnest in the Victorian period. It would take advances in hay baling and storage for hay making to become fully mechanized. As late as the early 1970s, haying was still dependent, at least in part, on physical labour. The on and off loading of hay wagons and final storage in the hay barn was done by hand on many farms.
For farm women, like Ida Richard Melanson, Elizabeth Lirette Babcock and Aunt Emm, hay making time was particularly hectic. On many farms everyone, including women and children, were deployed during the hay harvest. Joining others in the field meant finding time for normal daily household and farm chores.
Europeans were attracted to Atlantic Canada for a variety of reasons, fish, timber, etc. behind it all were ordinary folks looking for opportunity to live, raise a family and own land. For most, it meant farming. Ida’s Richard family were among some of the earliest Acadian settlers to the region, arriving in the oldest European settlement in Nova Scotia at Port Royal, (now called Annapolis Royal, NS) eventually settling in the Acadian community of Beaubassin2 on the Cumberland basin.
Many Acadians were of a region Southern France known as Occitania3 their knowledge of farming on land reclaimed from sea marshes on the Southwestern coast of France prepared them for the challenges of living in a French colony in the lowlands of coastal Acadia4. Acadians were the first to construct the extensive dyke and sluice systems which turned the natural salt marshes of the Bay of Fundy into productive farm fields.
The expulsion of Acadians from the land they had claimed and lived on for nearly 90 years began in the region of Fort Beauséjour5 (Beaubassin) in 1755. Elizabeth Ann’s Lirette family, like Ida’s family were forced from their farms eventually settling in more remote north and eastern areas (like the Memramcook Valley) of the region. Their abandoned farms were eventually settled by New England Planters recruited by the Crown, many from Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Aunt Emm’s Whitney family were among the New England Planters who settled the St John River valley prior to 1776. New England Planters like the Acadian’s before cleared and improved upon farm land, expanding dykes and sluice systems to increase their properties. By the 1850s, marsh hay from the Tantramar region began to dominate the hay market, its cost to produce significantly lower than other hay production areas.
At this time hay was the fuel of land transportation, and food for horses, cattle, sheep and to a lesser extent pigs, all of which were common on local farms. A farmer had to dedicate some land to hay or try to buy it on open market.
By the beginning of the Revolutionary war, it is estimated the more than 75% of the 20,000 citizens of the colony of Nova Scotia were relocated New Englanders. It was a group of Yorkshire families; and as well as Scots and Irish, mostly former military personnel, who helped to balance the rebel cause in the region.
Pre-war tensions were high and several delegations to leaders of the Rebels in New England were made seeking support for the local rebels in Nova Scotia, with little success. During the tensions in Boston sparked by the famous Boston Tea Party, a load of hay destined for the British military in Boston was burned on the dock in Halifax by rebel supporters. A ‘Halifax Hay Party’ of sorts.
Ironically. the conditions which convinced many New York farmers despite early interest, not to support the rebel cause, appears to have created the same effect in Colonial Nova Scotia. Rebel’s acting (vandalism, theft, torture, even murder) against those ‘perceived’ as loyal to the Crown, resulted in wide spread fear and drove settlers to the protection of the English Crown.
By the late 1770’s Loyalist refugees began to arrive in the region. Many of the earliest Loyalists settled in areas near those of their kin and neighbour New Englanders who had arrived earlier. Elizabeth’s Sears and McFee families arrived in the early portion of the Revolutionary war and settled on land in the Tantramar region where they would farm for generations.
Emmaline’s Lyons family were Loyalist farmers of Westchester county, New York. Farming would not be their primary focus in New Brunswick. Arriving after the of evacuation of New York in November 1783, they found the prime farm land either already settled or granted to those with greater means and influence. The arrival of United Empire Loyalists pushed Acadians off their claimed land, forcing them to settle on even more remote, poor farming areas in the north and east.
The Miramichi region although strikingly beautiful does not provide a great deal of prime farm land. The areas of the valley like Blissfield, Bloomfield Ridge, and Douglasfield which boasted good farm land were settled and became the backbone of the supply of food and hay used in the local lumber industry. Islands and low lying interval land was often dedicated to pasture and hay fields. Interval lands although graced with some of the best soil in the valley are prone to spring and periodic flooding and could not be used reliably for other crops.
Marsh hay from the Tantramar region continued to grow in dominance eventually the area would become known as ‘Worlds largest hay field’. Hay produced in the area was shipped to other provinces and to the New England states.
The task of providing food and beverages for harvest labourers7, fell to farm women. Ida born 1881, grew up on her family’s farm in Haute-Aboujagane, Westmorland county, Elizabeth Ann born on the Lorette family farm a few miles away in Upper Sackville, NB, were introduced early to the task of preparing food for the haying crew. Lunches of sandwiches, often made with thick slices of homemade bread and whatever filling was available, possibly bread and molasses. Tea and water were the primary beverages, If the hay field was close to supply of water the effort required was substantially reduced. Those with resources invested in providing a fortifying beverage, drinking vinegar was popular during haying season, the fruit, sugar and micro -nutrients made it a logical choice for those working in the hot sun.
During the first world war marsh hay was shipped to support military operations in Europe, but by the mid 1920s the end was in sight. No more would hay ship from New Brunswick to other provinces and beyond, at least not for the next century or so…
2021 hay season has seen a bumper crop from the hay fields of Atlantic Canada thanks to abundant and well timed rain. At the same time drought on the Canadian prairies has placed many cattle operations in Saskatchewan and Alberta at risk. Once again marsh hay from the Tantramar Marshes will be shipped out of province to feed livestock elsewhere. Ironically, the climate warming which is increasing stress on the farm operations in the western provinces and is also raising water levels in the Cumberland basin. The Tantramar marsh fields and dyke system are under threat from rising sea levels, without maintenance and accommodation for sea level change the area will flood, permanently ending the production of marsh hay.
Blueberry (drinking Vinegar ) Shrub
Ingredients: 4 cups cleaned, washed and well drained blueberries 3/4 cup white sugar 11/2 cups Wine vinegar or Apple Cider vinegar (divided) Method: 1. Place fruit, sugar and half of the vinegar in a non reactive saucepan 2. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes 3. Remove from heat, add remaining vinegar and decant into clean and sterile jar, cover and place in a dark place for 7 days. 4. After 7 days, strain through a cheese cloth in to clean jar. 4. Refrigerate, until ready to use. Dilute with water (or soda water)
This vinegar, undiluted is wonderful on salads and in other recipes where vinegar is used.
Emmeline Ethel Lyons McRae
Born: 18 June 1871, Chatham, Northumberland County, NB Died: 1 Sept 1960, Blissfield, NB Parents: Charles Benjamin Lyons and Elizabeth Travis Lyons* Elizabeth d/o Elizabeth Carney and Peter Travis; Granddaugther of Huldah Whitney Travis and Jeremiah Travis. Married: Alexander David McRae (17 May 1858-6 Dec 1942) on 29 May 1890
Emmeline, born youngest into a family of 9 children, was 9 years old when her family moved to Blissfield from Chatham, NB. It appears the family moved to the Travis farm around her Grandmother Elizabeth Travis Lyons’ death in 1881. Emmaline’s life was one tainted with loss. Like many of the time, the Lyons family was impacted by childhood mortality, two of Emmeline’s brothers, died as young children. A few weeks prior to Emmeline’s wedding, her mother Elizabeth died. Her sister Letitia’s early death at 31 year old, leaving several small children was a pattern repeated later in Emmeline’s life.
After their marriage Alex and Emmeline spent time living in Bartlett, Carroll County New Hampshire. The farming town in the White Mountains boasted a railway link and was conveniently located near a booming lumber industry. While they lived in New Hampshire their son, Charles Edwin was born. By 1900 and the birth of their daughter Olive May the family had returned to Blissfield and the McRae farm.
Sadly, loss would visit Emmeline again. In 1924, during the birth of her second child, both Olive and the child died. Emmeline and Alex would raise their 6 year old granddaughter, Eva. In 1929, their only son Charles Edwin died from Influenza Pneumonia at 31 years old.
Alex’s death in 1942 brought the formal transfer of responsibility for the farm to Eva and her husband Stewart Walls. Emmeline would live with their family until her death in 1960.
Blissfield, Northumberland County, New Brunswick
is located on the Southwest Miramichi River Valley, north east of Doaktown. The area was settled by Europeans prior to the first major land grant in 1809. The Ephraim Betts sponsored grant contains no less than 61 settlers and land parcels including one which would eventually become the McRae family farm.
The Miramichi River drains a full quarter of the province of New Brunswick. The generally deep river valley of the southwest branch widens at Blissfield creating meadows and fields conducive to farming. The McRae farm straddled both the south and north sides of the Southwest Miramichi River, with the farm house on the southside. Sometime prior to 1900 a new farm house was constructed on the north side on the site of an early roadhouse known as DeCantillons. The house which still stands incorporated a portion of the road house structure, the barn was built on an existing stone foundation.
The decision to locate the farm house and barns on the northside of the river was a practical one, the northside had become the ‘primary’ route from the capital of Fredericton to Northumberland county seat and market center Newcastle, NB. The new location was also only 2 miles from the recently completed railway.
Eventually, the mixed farm income would be augmented by the addition of two rustic riverside cabins and conversion of the farm house to accommodate ‘American Sports Anglers’ who came to the Miramichi River Valley in pursuit of the Atlantic Salmon.
**Ida Richard Melanson and Elizabeth Lirette Babcock will be featured and profiled in a blog which will be released on Thursday, September 23, 2021, stay tuned.
References and Resources:
World’s Largest Hay field is a term which once applied to the 20,000 ha of reclaimed salt marsh land known as the Tantramar Marsh. Located on the isthmus of Chignecto, which borders the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Tantramar is a corruption of the French word tintamarre, meaning ‘din’ or ‘racket’, a reference to the thousands of migratory birds which visit the marsh.
Beaubassin was a community on the Cumberland basin of the Bay of Fundy founded by Acadians. Beaubassin, a short distance from modern day Amherst, NS, was a farming community located near the fertile marsh fields they reclaimed from the Bay’s salt marshes. Beaubassin, located south of the Missaguash river, is where the expulsion of Acadians by the British Crown, after the territory fell to Britain, originated. https://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=13964
Harvest Labourers: Early years of farming in the Atlantic region was labour intensive, large families with multiple generations working the farm were common. Even with this extra labour, harvest time meant increased labour, family filled what they could but extra hired help was also required. In some areas teams of labourers would move from farm to farm helping with the harvest. These mean often slept rough, may be in the hay loft and depended upon the meals supplied by the farmers wife.
Acknowledgement: I would like to 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.
One of my favourite recipes in the My Mother’s Cookbook collection is for a ‘traditional’ blueberry muffin. As a child I thought blueberries only grew near the railway… that this Blueberry muffin recipe came into the collection while our family was living in Cumberland County, NS some 60 miles(in 1968) from the nearest railway, is not coincidence.
The first European settlement of the Atlantic region occurred on the coast and on the banks of navigable rivers and streams. From the earliest periods the building of roadways, were mostly to improve portages around natural obstructions or to create short cuts, roads as a primary transportation link did not appear until much later.
The railway’s arrival beginning in the mid to late 19th century served to open many areas previously isolated by their lack of access to water. Suddenly communities with names like Oxford Junction, Stephenville Crossing and Weaver Siding sprang up. The railway also served to provide the means for business and manufacturing to develop and for communities like Amherst, NS to thrive.
For communities like Carrolls Crossing, NB, the addition of ‘train tracks’ not only provided vital transportation link, it ingrained its self in to the community, the tracks were used for many purposes: short cuts, access to the best swimming hole, the location of entertainment on long summer evening walking up the tracks to the point where the darkening sky was just right for ghost stories, playing ‘tin can alley’ in the station yard, hitching a ride, (on the handcar) across the railway bridge on the way to pick blueberries.
Amherst, Cumberland County, Nova Scotia was founded as a result of the New England Planters farming and fishing activity on the shores of the Bay of Fundy, by 1850 Amherst boasted a grist mill, tannery and other basic services. By 1880, the railway had arrived and the community’s reputation as a manufacturing center had began to build, boots and shoes, pianos, trunks, caskets and eventually engineered steel would be produced in Amherst.
Even as the railway was sending Amherst’s goods to market, it was drawing workers, farmers, fisherman, lumberman, miners, shipwrights, etc. to work in Amherst’s factories and those in other centers across the region. The railway also connected the region to New England states via land, for the first time providing an alternative to sea voyage. Access to larger markets came with increased out migration from those communities not served by rail service and from many which were, as younger people sought opportunities in larger centers.
Many young people including Edna Jane O’Donnell Babcock born in 1900, used train travel to expand her opportunities. In 1922 Edna left her home, the tiny railway hamlet of Carroll’s Crossing, NB to work as a domestic in Portland Maine. Her time in Portland would end with a train voyage back home to marry the Canadian soldier she’d met while in Portland. Eventually, Edna and her young family would settle in Amherst, NS, her husband William finding work as an inspector in the Robb Engineering factory.
The train would remain a vital link to home for Edna allowing her children to meet and spend time with their extend family at home in New Brunswick. Edna would not have found it difficult to locate blueberries to use in her baking at her new home, she might well have taken her children on blueberry picking walks on the railway tracks near her humble home on Cornwall street, Amherst, just as she had done at home.
Train travel also provided a reliable way for those who had moved to distant larger centers, Boston, New York and beyond to visit home. It is likely train travel figured large when in 1927 Gussie Deuchler Mills made her first visit to her new husband Carl’s home in Advocate Harbour, Cumberland county, Nova Scotia from her home is Staten Island, New York. Advocate Harbour is located on the Bay of Fundy in an area known as the Parrsboro shore. From the 1870’s to the late 1950’s a short rail line operated between Springhill Junction, NS and Parrsboro, NS. The line built originally to transport coal from the mines at Springhill to ships at Parrsboro and eventually other ports of call. By the 1880s, an interconnected web of short lines linked to the larger Regional and National lines providing extensive coverage through out much of the region.
Gussie, Carl and both Gussie’s Mother Louise and her sister Deal spent many summer seasons in Advocate Harbour before Carl and Gussie retired there in the late 1960’s. So where did Gussie’s Blueberry Muffin recipe originate?
It turns out blueberries do grow near rail lines, at least in those areas with poor soil (particularly where the Appalachian mountain range left bare large swaths of acidic soil). The regular cutting back of vegetation near rail lines to prevent fires, allowed the low bush varieties native to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to thrive. It is also true that Blueberries grow in much of North America. However the acidic soil and cool sea breezes of the Northern Nova Scotia and Eastern New Brunswick, which is part of the northern Appalachian range, delivers natural Blueberry barrens. Cumberland county, Nova Scotia in particular has earned a reputation in recent years of being Canada’s wild blueberry capital as a result of being blessed with bounty of blueberry barrens.
The history of muffins (the quick bread variety) is not entirely clear, the habit of using individually sized baking containers for quick breads appears to have begun in the United States some time during the last half of the 19th century.
So, the mystery of where Gussie’s blueberry muffin recipe originate deepens. Did the recipe begin with one of Gussie in laws during early years of blueberry farming on the Parrsboro shore? It is more likely the recipe is one which originated with Gussie’s family on Staten Island. Staten Island a borough of the mega city of New York owes its existence the Appalachian mountain range and like Atlantic Canada several varieties of blueberries grown naturally on there. It is likely that Gussie’s immigrant family learned early to use the bounty of the local area to augment their diet… just as they had done in Germany. Blueberries, both high bush and low bush varieties still grow in undeveloped areas of Staten Island, although increased development threatens their continued existence.
This recipe is a traditional muffin recipe. Commercially baked muffins have increased the overall size of muffins and have replaced traditional muffin recipes with those containing higher levels of sugar and fat, This recipe contains less sugar and fat. It is possible to alter the recipe further by replacing some of the all purpose flour with whole wheat and the fat with yogourt.
Gussie’s Blueberry Muffins
Ingredients: 1/3 cup butter at room temperature 1/2 cup sugar 1 egg at room temperature – lightly beaten 3/4 cup milk 2 cups of flour, separated 3 tsp baking powder 1/2 tsp salt 1 cup fresh wild blueberries, winded and washed Method: 1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.; 2. In a medium mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar, add slightly beaten egg stir to combine; 3. In a separate bowl combine 1 3/4 cups of flour with other dry ingredients and stir to combine; add remaining 1/4 cup flour to a bowl containing cleaned blueberries; 4. Alternate adding the dry ingredients with the milk, folding to combine and being careful not to over mix; Add blueberries and gently toss to combine; 5. Fill muffin tins with muffin papers or grease and flour before adding batter. 6. Bake for 20 – 25 minutes, remove from pans after permitting to cool for 5 minutes.
The first harvest of new potatoes, baby carrots, new onions, tender peas and beans…always makes me think of my Grandmother’s (and Mother’s) Depression Stew1.
The railway is credited with helping develop this country. The settlement of western Canada did depend heavily on the railway, but the role of the railway in development of industry and the transportation of goods to market in all parts of the country was also significant.
Beginning in 1890 the railway became a tool for increased settlement in the Prairies, with onset of “Harvest Excursions2“. Shortage of workers in the region was a problem generally but during harvest particularly so. A campaign of propaganda designed to lure young men to the prairie harvest, with the eye on many deciding to settle, began.
Fueled by the overwhelmed cries of desperate wheat farmers, and by the railway’s desire to settle the land they owned and served in the prairies, the campaign focused on the nation’s need for a successful harvest. Drawing on nationalistic pride which grew fiercer during the war years. Ads, flyers and the rumour mills presented the ‘best case’ and were often more than a little exaggerated from reality.
Harvest Trains offered cut rates from a main line anywhere in the country to Winnipeg, then a penny a mile for the remaining distance, depending upon where workers were headed.
My Grandfather William James Walls went to Saskachewan in 1903, and soon after acquired a property to work. Several years later Grandfather returned to New Brunswick, married my Grandmother and in 1910 they returned to homestead, settling near Halbrite Saskatchewan. In addition to my Grandparents, his parents Isaac and Dorothy (McKinnon) Walls and several of his siblings went west on the same Settler train. Where my Grandparents and one of Grandfather Billy’s brothers, Charles Walls eventually returned to New Brunswick to live, the other family members remained in Sackatchewan.
I suspect Grandfather Billy made his first trip on a harvest train. It is unlikely he would have had the money for regular fare. He would have joined his comrades on the stark wooden bench seats night and day for the entire 5 day trip. The fares were cut rate, and so were the accommodations. No dining cars, meals were the sandwiches carefully tucked in their cases sometimes accompanied by alcohol. For those who did not bring their own, others were more than able to supply it.
Harvest trains quickly became notorious for the acts of vandalism, theft and violence which followed in the wake of hundreds of bored young men, some fuel by drink. Reputation aside the collective and individual effort of the harvest workers was essential to the development of the region and continued from its first inception in 1890 until 1930.
Drought and the Great Depression would see many young men from those same Prairie communities jumping fright trains in search of work. Their reputation as Bums and ne’re-do-wells was just as erroneous as their harvester predecessors being labeled as thugs, drunks and thieves. Grandmother Edie knew the difference and did what she could to help those with less than her family.
During the depression, despite having little money to buy food, particularly meat to feed her family, what she had she shared with anyone who was in need, including the travelers who found themselves at her door on the Station(train) Road in Blackville, NB.
Many years later my uncle Isaac Walls while in Saskatchewan with the United Church of Canada, was asked by a church member where he was from in New Brunswick. Ike replied that his home of Blackville was a small community and it was likely the gent would never have heard of it. The man laughed and explained he had visited Blackville on a fright train during the depression. He went on to inquire if my uncle knew the kind woman who had fed him, she and her husband had once homesteaded in Saskatchewan…it was Grandmother Edie.
What exactly Grandmother Edie fed this man I can’ t know, but if his visit was in summer there is a good chance she might have fed him some of her Depression Stew.
The My Mother’s Cookbook’s Depression Stew, the meatless stew presents the delicious tender veggies in a rich cream sauce. Not a health food version of veggies but one which I permit myself once each summer…and it is worth it.
Ingredients: A selection of fresh, young ‘baby’ veggies including but not limited to: Potatoes, carrots, onions, peas, beans, swede, etc. Cream 2 Tbsp Butter 1 tsp Salt 1/8 tsp Pepper Method: 1. Clean, and pare veggies to assure even cooking time; 2. Place in a large pot and add salt and water to just cover; 3. Bring to boil over high heat, reduce to simmer and cook until tender; 4. Drain about half of the remaining water; 5. Add enough cream to cover the veggies; 6. Add butter and return to a low heat to heat through; 7. Season to taste, ENJOY.
Explanations and Resources: 1. Depression stew is the name my family call this main meal veggie dish, made with fresh tender veggies and cream. Some versions are known as Summer stew, Brugoo; and Veggie stew. Other less rich versions use canned condensed milk, and a slurry of flour and water to thicken the sauce. A version I encountered in the Acadian Community of Isle Madame uses salt fish in the stew. 2. Harvest Trains operated from 1890 until the summer of 1930. Homesteading farmers could sow more acreage in spring than they could harvest. The cutting and thrashing of wheat was highly labour intensive, requiring a team of men for the farm’s harvest period. The maritime provinces, Quebec and Ontario supplied the harvest workers, as loggers, miners and labourers seeking new opportunity joined their ranks. Some harvesters traveled home after each season, using the extra income to support their lives, and families in the east. Other’s like my Grandfather and his kin homesteaded and remained (at least for a period). The descendants of Isaac Walls and Dorothy McKinnon Walls can be found a variety of areas (and countries) most especially New Brunswick and Saskatchewan. 3. The Harvest Train — When Maritimers Worked in the Canadian West, 1890 to 1928 by A.A. MacKenzie Breton Books 1982 4. The Canadian Encyclopedia – Harvest Excursions https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/harvest-excursions
I can not conceive what it is like to spend your whole life, living in a single house or even a single town or village. But I do not enjoy moving day, except for the casserole.
No one really knows who invented the modern casserole…although folks do seem to be determined to try1. Casserole, is actually a French word for pan2, still no one cuisine has cornered ownership of the humble casserole. Casserole, the original full meal deal began gaining popularity in the 1850’s but after World War 2 the popularity grew exponentially with the encouragement of food companies offering ways to use up ‘must goes3‘. A quick, convenient one pot meal… I guess that explains in part why I not only enjoy an occasional casserole but why I associate them with move day.
After weeks of decision making, planning, farewell dinners at friends houses, and Oh yes, the packing, it all culminates on moving day. There are many ways to experience moving day, if money is no object (which often means the company is paying) the full meal deal is possible. You hand over your house keys (at both ends) to strangers who pack, load, transport, deliver and unpack at the end site.
I must confess this is an option I did not experience as a child nor has it been my experience since. I’ve heard the horror stories about damage to family treasures, the full kitchen garbage bag packed for a cross country move in mid summer. Regardless, I am not the sort to hand it off to someone else. Like my Mother I prefer do it myself, the idea of someone else packing my household belongings seems an intrusion, an invasion of privacy.
Mum was a dedicated wife, mother and a key part of the ministry team she shared with Dad, but she did not enjoy being the center of the spotlight. Mum valued her privacy… Of course living in small rural communities as a minister’s wife, she learned quickly how the focus of the community lands on a new family, particularly the Minister’s family.
From the moment we made our first move, there was some attention paid to us purely because of Dad’s job. When the church community owns the house you live in, have furnished it (sort of) and paid part of the operating cost you understand their ownership is high, and you learn to live with or at least cope with the consequences4.
Mum learned to smile and later laugh at the countless times over four years, one church elder attended meetings at the manse, insisting each time on seeing the oven, which she is sure she hadn’t seen since the electric range was purchased.
The church member and next door neighbour who wore a hole in the flooring under her pantry window which faced the manse; who could and did regale everyone with tales of the sights she’d seen living next door to a variety of ministers and their families. The neighbour who watched the monthly grocery ‘order’ being unloaded from the trunk of our family car and who later mused about not being able to afford to buy the brand of laundry detergent Mum used.
It is small wonder Mum preferred to keep things private. Moving day was an active day for a our family. The last minute rush to pack things which could not be packed before…tucking things away in boxes as the moving van and staff(or volunteers and family) were loading furniture. Once our family possessions were loaded and the van departed for our new home…the last of the cleaning had to be done before we could leave. Much of the heavy cleaning had been completed during the packing phase, the last minute final wipe down of the bathroom, kitchen, including the refrigerator, ended with the floors. Mum literally scrubbed herself out of the door of one house and into the other.
Move days were stressful, hectic and exhausting… and often life added a wrinkle or two in to the mix. A minister’s life is subject to the events in the lives of church members, and church community. Tragedy, death, illness do not happen on a schedule, they just happen, including on move day.
So I guess that is why I always associate moving with casseroles. You see the other side of life in the minister’s household, (fish bowl or a rose bowl depending your view point) is that you experience and witness the ‘goodness/kindness’ of most people. You see and experience empathy, and support in many forms including casseroles.
Casseroles over the last 150 odd years have been taken up by women cooks across this continent, including church women. Casseroles make a reasonably quick, cheap, (lower in meat protein) and tasty meal which can be stretched further by adding a side of salad or bread. Whether it be at a reception following a funeral, a meal to drop off at the home of a ill friend, or at a congregational pot luck, casseroles are ideal. They were a wonderful gift on move day, they quietly awaited our arrival, tucked safely in the otherwise empty fridge for us to enjoy whenever we arrived, no matter how late. The kind person who made this gesture of welcome, could be confident that no matter how late her creation was reheated and eaten, it would taste even better.
This My Mother’s Cookbook casserole is one of Mum ‘good’ favourites, she used it for special occasions. It is one of the few handwritten recipes in the collection which is not attributed, I can only assume she found it in a magazine or other publication. This casserole does not contain condensed soup, although it does use canned salmon and canned veggies.
My Mother’s Cookbooks ‘Salmon Biscuit Pie’
Ingredients: 1 cup canned mixed veggies (or frozen) 1/2 lb of canned salmon (or cooked salmon) 3 slices of bacon cut into to lardoons 1/4 cup chopped onion 3 Tbsp flour 1/4 tsp 1/2 tsp pepper milk Topping ingredients: 1 cup flour 2 tsp baking powder 1 Tbsp butter 1/2 cup + 1 Tbsp soured milk Method: 1) Preheat oven to 450 degrees F; 2) Drain canned veggies and retain liquid (if using frozen use either stock or water as replacement); 3) Saute bacon in a fry pan, retain 3 Tbsp of the bacon fat in the fry pan, remove bacon to drain; 4) Saute onion in the retained bacon fat until translucent, add flour and stir to coat the flour with fat, add salt, veggie juice(or stock) and enough milk to render 1 and 1/2 cups of liquid, stir to create a sauce; 5) Add salmon, bacon, veggies to a medium sized oven proof casserole dish, add sauce, stir to combine; 6) Place casserole in the preheated oven for 15 minutes; 7) Meanwhile**, place flour, baking powder, salt, in to a small mixing bowl; 8) Cut in the cold butter, add milk and stir until just incorporated; 9) Roll out and cut into rounds; 10) After 15 minutes, remove the casserole from the oven, place biscuits on top, return to the oven and bake an addition 15 minutes, until the biscuits cooked. Serve with a side salad. ** if desired you can top with biscuits made with commercial ‘time saving’ biscuit mix.
Explanations and Resources:
A review of internet based sites reveals a curiosity… the attribution of ‘inventing’ the modern casserole to a Canadian born, New Hampshire woman. Marie Elmire DeLouche(Deluchez) Joliceour, the wife of a sawmill worker in the town of Berlin, Coos county, New Hampshire according to many internet sites ‘discovered’ the casserole and made it popular through her work in building the first Roman Catholic school and while operating a boarding house for workers and their families from Quebec. Despite her real efforts in community building there is not a scrap of evidence that Elmire had anything to do with the modern casserole, curiously the attribution is new and came as a surprise to Berlin, NH community historians.
In North American English the dish used for casserole is known as a casserole dish, a casserole means the complete meal in the casserole dish.
‘Must -gos’ is a term which entered our family lexicon in the 1970s and quickly replaced the traditional ‘leftovers’ as the term for a meal derived from everything in the refrigerator which must go! The popularity of casseroles grew steadily in the post war period fueled by promotional materials of food manufacturing companies which supplied recipes for using their condensed soups, canned veggies, canned meat and fish.
When Dad entered ministry many rural community churches were struggling…some of those churches were ‘mission’ churches receiving support from the wider church community to remain viable. Church manses in many of these communities were century old homes, hard to heat and demanding repairs. To keep cost of moving Ministers and their families to a minimum, local churches offered ‘furnished’ homes. Furnished often meant furnished with cast offs from local church families.