Art. IV. Fur Fort Food — Receipts for the Winter, by A. Gottfred.
Receipts for a winter's meal c. 1799.
It can sometimes be difficult to practice living history on a regular basis, can't it? I find that the long, cold Canadian winters to be especially challenging. So many living history activities seem to be best suited to an outdoor setting. Winter is a good time to do my sewing and to practice period crafts, but I also find it is a good time to try re-creating the cuisine of the Northwest.
Don't worry, gentle reader, if you don't have a kitchen with an open hearth for cooking, a wood-fired bake oven, and a good selection of cast iron pots and pans — neither do I. But anyone can try to recapture the flavours and skills of fur fort cooking. Of course, if you do have a dutch oven or a woodstove, so much the better. But I won't tell anyone if you cooked your carrots in the microwave because time was getting short. I'm sure they will still taste like carrots.
Menu for a Winter's Meal
In the eighteenth century, people didn't use recipes to cook from ; they used receipts. A contemporary dictionary defines a recipe as 'a medical prescription' and a receipt as a 'prescription of ingredients for any composition' (Johnson, 596, 597). Receipts did not give precise measurements and step-by-step instructions ; instead, they were more like a reminder of how to prepare the dish for a cook who had done it before.
I have a lot to learn about food in the fur trade period, so right now my menus and recipes are based on educated guesses. If I had to wait until I had all the information I wanted, I wouldn't be able to cook a period meal for months, maybe years. To make up for this, I keep track of which dishes are documented in fur trade writings, which are 'traditional' (commonly thought of as old dishes, but not documented to the fur trade from 1774-1821), and which are hypothetical (consistent with what I do know about fur trade era cooking, but undocumented). For each dish, I will note whether it is documented, traditional, or hypothetical.
What was on the menu at a fur post depended on the post's location, the time of year, and the luck the hunters were having — if any. The following menu is for a fur post either in in Manitoba or the Lake Superior area, where wild rice, maple sugar, and corn would be fairly readily available. I suspect that foods from 'civilization', such as flour, dried peas, dried beans, and salt pork, would also be available in modest amounts. Since the recipes don't call for any fresh vegetables (except for carrots and onions, which can be kept over the winter in a root cellar), this meal could have been made at any time of year. Recipes are included for the items marked with an asterisk. This menu will feed four to six modern people or two hungry voyageurs.
Classic Pea Soup*
Roast of Buffalo, Red Deer, Moose, etc.
Wild Rice In the interest of authenticity, try Manomin brand organic wild rice, which is harvested the traditional way in northern Ontario.
Biscuits au Chocolat*
The day before : Boil the beans for the first time and set them to soak. Bake the Biscuits au Chocolat.
Six to seven hours before mealtime : Start simmering the beans on the stove.
Five or six hours before mealtime : Preheat oven for beans. Combine beans with remaining ingredients; put beans in oven to bake.
Three or four hours before mealtime : Combine pea soup ingredients. Boil soup for first time; let stand. Don't forget to put the roast in the oven.
Two hours before mealtime : Put pea soup back on heat to simmer. Begin preparing the wild rice and carrots.
According to The Laura Secord Canadian Cookbook, "our explorers and fur trappers regarded [baked beans] as a necessity...Beans could well be called the foundation of our national cuisine." (Canadian Home Economics Association, 53) I have not been able to verify this claim, so for now I consider baked beans to be a traditional dish.
Pick through dried beans & wash. Put in pot, add water, and boil for 2 minutes. Remove from heat, cover tightly, and soak 1 hour or overnight (preferably overnight). Drain soaking liquid; replace with 5 cups hot water. Add mustard, pepper, salt. Cover and simmer 1 hour on stove. Preheat oven to 300º F. Place beans, liquid, onion, sugar, maple syrup, molasses and half of pork in bean pot or casserole with tight-fitting lid. Sprinkle remaining pork on top. Bake in oven, covered, for 4-5 hours. Remove cover for last half hour to brown pork. Add water if mixture gets too dry.
Classic Pea Soup
A traditional dish that has long been associated with the habitants. The way the voyageurs made pea soup while travelling was by boiling peas until they burst and then adding pork strips and crumbled biscuits (Durnford, 138). This recipe is a little fancier than that, but it is still quite easy to prepare.
Wash & drain peas. Combine in large pot with salt pork, water, onions, carrot, bay leaves, parsley, & savory. Bring to a boil ; boil two minutes. Remove from heat and let stand 1 hour. Boil again, lower heat, and simmer 1½ hours or until peas are cooked. Remove salt pork and dice. Put pea mixture, salt, & pepper through potato ricer or blender. Stir meat back into pea mixture and reheat if necessary.
Biscuits au Chocolat
This recipe dates to 1750 (Farmer & Farmer, 30). It makes something more like a moist chocolate muffin than a biscuit or cookie. If you wish to be especially authentic, you might try this recipe with the chocolate available from reproduction houses such as G. Gedney Godwin, the Bradley Company, and the Log Cabin Shop ; the chocolate is mixed with cinnamon and pepper similar to the chocolate of the eighteenth century.
Beat chocolate, sugar, & yolks together until thick & creamy. Fold in egg whites. Sift flour over mixture and fold in. Grease muffin cups. Fill half full with chocolate mixture. Bake at 325º F for 15-20 minutes or until tops are just firm. Cool before serving.
The most striking difference between fur fort era cooking and modern cooking is the long cooking times. Although this meal took two days to properly prepare, the cooking didn't seem to monopolize my time ; it required a little attention from time to time over a long period instead of all of my attention for a shorter time. It gave me the paradoxical feeling that I had hardly cooked at all, while I was able to say that I had been cooking all day. On the other hand, I really had to stay home all day in order to keep all the dishes going.
If, gentle reader, you have found any interesting references to food or dishes that were prepared in the Northwest from 1774 - 1821, please write to the author care of Northwest Journal and share them!
Canadian Home Economics Association. Laura Secord Canadian Cookbook. McClelland & Stewart : Toronto, 1966.
Durnford, Hugh (ed.) Heritage of Canada. Canadian Automobile Association, Reader's Digest Association : Montreal, 1978.
Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language...("Abridged from the Rev. H. J. Todd's corrected and enlarged quarto edition by Alexander Chalmers, F.S.A."). Barnes & Noble : New York, 1994. Originally published in 1756.
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