Cooks around Atlantic Canada are bringing back traditional regional recipes and the memories that go with them.
Margaret Pearson is thinking about chow. The student and foodie speaks fondly of the humble accompaniment that can be found on many Atlantic Canadian tables. “Chow was always around when I was a kid,” she recalls. “It always seemed sort of alchemical to me that something that could make being in the kitchen so completely uncomfortable and smelly was actually good.”
Pearson is part of a growing number of individuals who are interested in maintaining and preserving culinary legacies. It’s not just chows and preserves, but soups, stews, pastries and all sorts of dishes that have been eaten by generations of us. Everyone from chefs to food bloggers to cookbook enthusiasts are extolling the virtues of the pantry of the past. As to where that pantry is located, it can be found on old handwritten recipe cards, church cookbooks and notebooks.
The recipes contained therein are often stained from the juices of pickles, splattered with cake batter, dusted with flour from pies, and smudged by greasy fingertips. They are our culinaria, and they are gaining in popularity and importance amongst us.
“My grandmother promises every summer, that she will teach me how to do chow and jam,” she says. “She’s pretty old, and I don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to learn from her. This is particularly important because I don’t want this tradition in our family to be lost.”
Peter Boudreau’s own gastronomic traditions helped forge his future. Born of Acadian and Irish descent, he’s worked as a chef at such Halifax locales as The Libertine and The Bitter End. Peter is now a fishmonger who owns and operates The Fish Shop at Pier 20.
It was Boudreau’s father who fed his respect for food. “He was a great home cook. When he cooked, he was really happy about it,” Boudreau says. It was that sense of contentment in Boudreau’s father that moved Peter into experimenting with food as a teenager. “As I got older and developed that love of food into a career, I developed that happiness for just cooking, and it’s something that connected me to my family.”
Boudreau’s connection to certain foods is a way to connect with the past and the present. “I think that food is love and passion, and sharing a meal is sharing what you’ve done and where you come from.”
For Peter, it’s his Acadian heritage that he likes to share with his wife and son, making dishes like rappie pie and fricot, a chicken soup served with potato dumplings. But keeping that familial connection is not only in the dish itself, but also in the making of it. “Old dishes are sacred dishes,” he says. “That’s why you don’t mess with your grandmother’s recipe. You wouldn’t riff on that; you’d make it. Because it’s almost disrespectful to your heritage to play with those recipes.”
Another facet of this interest in old recipes is an interest in their ingredients. While Atlantic Canadians have access to exotic fruits from tropical climes, some of them are seeking out new ways of preparing fruits that grow in their proverbial backyard. “I think it’s an offshoot of the ‘eat local’ movement,” Boudreau says. “As that trend progresses and continues, people are eating things that are close to them, and the best recipes that we have to use those ingredients are the ones our parents and grandparents used.”
One place to find these recipes is in classic cookbooks. In 1970, Marie Nightingale put out Out Of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens. More than 40 years later, the book is still in print, published by Nimbus Publishing. “The classic titles still sell well,” says Patrick Murphy, managing editor at Nimbus.
He points out that titles such as Favourite Recipes From Old New Brunswick Kitchens, The Apple Connection and Dutch Oven, a compendium of recipes collected in the 1960s by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Lunenburg Hospital Society, stay in print due to backlist sales. “We may not sell much in a year,” he says, “but over a five-year period, they will sell as well as a new book.”
As to why they stay in print, Murphy points to Atlantic Canadians deep respect for history in all forms. “It’s not just the recipes themselves,” he says. “They’re books that you can sit down and read for the history.” With Out Of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens, it’s the culinary history of the province, which is something you don’t see very often. You can open the book and read about blueberry muffins, and then you see a note about how the Mi’kmaq made a blueberry biscuit and this is how they did it.” It seems that history is remembered not only by reading, but also by eating.
For Pearson, it’s not the history, the ingredients or the dishes that bring about significance, but the result of combining those things. “I think it’s important to know how to do things, and not just get them from the grocery store,” says Pearson. “There’s more accomplishment there, and I want to make sure that if I have children, someone still knows how these things work, so that they can have some of the memories I have.”
The language of old recipes
The cookbooks of yore were made for people who were confident in the kitchen. Those recipes were written by and for people who had spent their lives in kitchens. They knew when things were done by feel, smell and, most of all, practice. So some old recipes and cookbooks will assume that you are one of these people. If you’re not, don’t let this dissuade you from trying some of these old recipes. They work because they allow you, the cook, to learn by observing and trusting your own judgement, not by checking for exact temperatures and times. And really, if you don’t succeed the first time, try and try again.
From old ingredients to new
Some of these old recipes ask for ingredients that you may not have in your daily pantry (we’re looking at you, lard) or choose not to buy (Hello, canned vegetables). But in many cases, you can substitute certain items from what’s in your own pantry. Lard can be substituted with vegetable shortening, and fresh veggies really are best. Trust your instincts. Be creative.