Post by Matt, Information Services staff
Welcome to 12 Cookbooks! In this series, I read, cook from, and lightly review twelve cookbooks from Kitchener Public Library’s extensive collection. Every month I pick a book, make some food, and share my experiences. Let’s get cooking!
Family history is not my specialty. As a child, I enjoyed vacations with my mother’s extended family and participated in family reunions with my father’s, but I rarely asked questions about who my family was or where they came from. It’s a regret that still bothers me occasionally, but one I know I can do something about. I’ve begun, here and there, to ask those questions and gain access to that history. One of my favourite ways to do that has been through the medium of food.
Whether it’s a cast iron frying pan or a rolling pin that’s been cared for and then passed down, or a recipe for lemon sauce or pumpkin pie you loved as a child, the objects and stories that families share about food can have a deep resonance or meaning in the greater history of our ancestors. Sometimes, as we’ll see, that meaning isn’t always positive, but the great thing about stories is that we can shape them, make them change and grow by the actions that we take. For those without access to their family history, for whatever reason, it can be heartening to know that new stories are always being told and family can be anyone you choose to share your life with.
But enough sentimental generalizations, let’s talk about Out of Old Ontario Kitchens by Lindy Mechefske.
Old Ontario Kitchens is a collection of recipes, pictures and historical profiles on people who have contributed to the culinary history of Ontario. Mechefske winds through the 19th and early 20th century, telling the stories of (mostly female, mostly white) pioneers, immigrants and home cooks who brought their countries’ traditional recipes to Canada or who created uniquely Canadian foods. Some of the book’s recipes are preserved in their original phrasing and sometimes extreme lack of detail, while others have been translated and updated by Mechefske to produce more consistent results.
Inevitably, this book is a product of colonialism. Because it seeks to capture the historical culinary record of Ontario, Mechefske focuses on the history that was recorded and preserved, which is the history of settler culture. This means that the vast majority of these recipes are English, Scottish or Irish in origin. Of course there are other culinary influences, and Mechefske has made an effort to include them wherever possible – but the absence is felt. Old Ontario Kitchens is well-researched, but limited by its reliance on available historical records and the dominance of colonial cuisine during its prescribed time period.
As I began choosing which recipes to test for 12 Cookbooks, I looked first to one of only two Indigenous food recipes in the book: bannock. Before I began reading, I knew little about bannock beyond its association with Indigenous Peoples and its role in sustaining the traders and explorers who first came to this continent. I quickly learned that the term bannock has etymological origins in Scotland (bannach) and has an ambiguous history belonging to many cultures. The recipe featured in Old Ontario Kitchens, for example, is called “Cree Currant or Raisin Bannock” but it comes from Mechefske’s mother’s recipe collection and, when cooked, more closely resembles the Scottish version of bannock.
While it tasted delicious, it reminded me far more of an English scone or biscuit in flavour and texture. With the nagging feeling that I had missed something, I sought out more information about the history of bannock. My first stop, as with most topics, was Wikipedia. There, I found several interesting links, including one to a PDF document commissioned by British Columbia in 2001 called Bannock Awareness that outlines the history of bannock from an Indigenous perspective and features over a dozen recipes for different variations of bannock. From this 50 page document, I learned that the version of bannock I made did look like the bannock made by some Indigenous bakers. I also discovered that my vague, nagging memory of bannock is actually better known as fry bread, a deep-fried version of bannock popular at festivals and events.
It makes sense that I was confused, as it’s this version of bannock that I have the most experience with, thanks to my annual trip to a local Guelph music festival and their legendary food tent. In honour of that experience, I decided to try making the “Navajo Fry Bread” from Bannock Awareness and topping it with chili, cheese, tomato, arugula and sour cream in imitation of my favourite festival treat.
It was delicious and filling! If you don’t mind the extra work of deep frying, I highly recommend trying this at least once. But, it’s important to remember, like the older versions of bannock, fry bread can come with negative historical associations for many Indigenous folks.
As this article from The Walrus explains, fry bread and bannock are the product of contact between European settlers and Indigenous people. Invariably, this contact resulted in Indigenous communities being relocated to reservations on undesirable, infertile lands. It resulted in widespread food shortages and meager government-issued rations of settler staples like flour, sugar, salt and lard. It resulted in a dependence on foods like bannock for survival, but also in the rapid rise of diabetes and other health problems in Indigenous communities as traditional diets were no longer possible. For many Indigenous people, bannock is a symbol of oppression and hardship. For others, it’s a symbol of perseverance and tradition. Either way, it’s complicated.
I chose to make bannock because I wanted to include Indigenous cultures in a discussion that I felt Old Ontario Kitchens did not sufficiently address. In the process, I learned a great deal more than I expected, including the embarrassing revelation that bannock is often used as the first and only example of Indigenous cuisine, a phenomenon that keeps other dishes invisible to people outside Indigenous circles. I’m certainly guilty of perpetuating that problem here. Hopefully, I can use this platform to further explore Indigenous cuisines in the future.
Now, before I write a million more words about bannock, I do want to mention that I made two more recipes this month! The first of these, cabbage rolls, is another Mechefske special that features a filling made of onion, rice, spices and beef (subbed out for fake ground meat in my case), wrapped in a cabbage leaf and bathed in a creamy tomato sauce. I began by buying the ingredients and slightly boiling the cabbage, which smells exactly as gross as you think it will. Then it’s as simple as gently peeling away the largest leaves of cabbage one by one, scooping some filling into the centre of the leaf, rolling it up tight, and repeating until you run out of filling or leaves. This recipe bakes for an impressive, apartment-warming 2.5 hours, but comes out soft, tender and delicious. I had never eaten a cabbage roll before, but I was genuinely surprised at the combination of sweet and savoury flavours that each bite contained. The rolls lasted us for two more meals and, something to note if you’re using Mechefske’s recipe, we had enough unused filling and sauce leftover to make a whole new round of rolls to freeze for later. Not to mention a giant pile of coleslaw from the leftover cabbage.
The last recipe I attempted this month was inspired by a dessert found in Old Ontario Kitchens, but the version I made is my Grandma Carol’s recipe. For many, the butter tart is the ubiquitous Ontario dessert. Many families have their own unique version with specific ratios of ingredients, with or without raisins, and with a million other little eccentricities built up over years and years of family tradition. My Grandma Carol’s is a stripped down version with little more than butter, sugar and, of course, raisins. I didn’t appreciate this inclusion as a child, but I’ve grown to love it now. My partner, however, is incapable of raisin love, so I made a second tray of pecan tarts using the same filling just for them. I used store-bought pastry shells and felt no shame. In the end they were exactly like I remembered them growing up, if a little underdone.
Out of Old Ontario Kitchens is an interesting curiosity. It’s neither the best history book, nor the best recipe book, but it combines those elements in a satisfying way for anyone interested in learning more about the culinary history of settlers in Ontario. It certainly sparked some valuable thoughts and conversations for me, and helped me begin asking questions about my own family history through the food and recipes we share.
For anyone interested in more resources about Indigenous cooking or historical cookbooks in general, please check out these great titles from KPL:
- Tawâw: Progressive Indigenous Cuisine | Shane M. Chartrand with Jennifer Cockrall-King
- The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History in the Old South | Michael W. Twitty
- Cooking with the Wolfman: Indigenous Fusion | David Wolfman and Marlene Finn
- A History of Food in 100 Recipes | William Sitwell
- A Feast for All Seasons: Traditional Native Peoples’ Cuisine | Andrew George and Robert Gairns
- Fannie’s Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Cookbook | Chris Kimball
Don’t forget to join us next month when I try my hand at Korean cuisine with Robin Ha and Cook Korean!
Have questions? Want more recommendations?