Earlier this week, my mother and I attended a talk at the central library in Toronto by Dorothy Duncan. She is a former teacher who has worked for historic sites in the city and spent much of her life conducting research into the cooking habits and methods of the early pioneers in Upper Canada.
Dorothy Duncan doesn’t just talk – she brings samples of pioneer food. And the first thing we tasted was from the first cookbook ever published in Canada. It was actually by an American author, and its Kingston publisher simply reissued it with a new title and a Canadian title page, but back then, copyright laws were not what they were today. What the Kingston publisher did do was to give the volume a catchy title: The Cook Not Mad.
The recipe we sampled was called, “Nice Cookies That Will Keep Good Three Months.” The author wasn’t very good at grammar, but he or she was honest: Dorothy put some cookies in a jar, sealed it, and let it sit on the counter for three months, and she verified that the three-month-old cookies tasted exactly the same as the fresh ones.
Here’s the recipe:
Nine cups of flour, three and a half of butter, five of sugar, large coffee cup of water with a heaping teaspoonful of pearl ash dissolved in it; rub your butter and sugar into the flour, great spoonful of caraway.
That’s it. As she explained, early recipe books were lists of ingredients, and it was assumed that the home cook would know what to do with them.
As for pearl ash, it is potassium carbonate, and baking soda is the modern substitute.
The recipe makes twelve dozen – presumably enough for three months’ supply. If you don’t want enough for three months, try:
2¼ cups flour
1¼ cup sugar
7/8 cup butter
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup warm water
½ teaspoon caraway seed
Mix the ingredients well, roll them into small balls, put them on a greased baking sheet and flatten them with a fork, then bake at 325-350 degrees for about 10 minutes.That makes about 3 dozen.
For the sample, she used stone-ground wholewheat flour from an old-fashioned mill, and raw sugar. The butter would have come from the cook’s own cow, and the caraway seeds from the garden.
My mother carefully picked out the caraway seeds. She explained that she’d been told as a child that she didn’t like caraway seeds, and accordingly, didn’t like them. She didn’t make the same mistake with us. I was a picky eater when I was little, but she never said, “Oh Philippa doesn’t eat this” or “Philippa never touches that,” and now, I am an omnivore and even things I hated as a child, I have come to enjoy. I wonder how many people dislike things they were told they disliked, without ever having a chance to come at them with an open mind.
To learn more about cooking in Canada in the 19th century, try these books by Dorothy Duncan: Nothing More Comforting (2003), Feasting and Fasting (2010), and Canadians at Table (2006, reissued in paperback 2011), all from Dundurn Press.