This handbook or “dictionary of useful information,” published in late 19th century New Brunswick, was conceived by Ely M. Tree, a steward at two of Canada’s most prestigious private clubs, the Saint James Club in Montreal and the Union Club in New Brunswick, where he managed the kitchen and dining hall. In his time at these exclusive, gentlemen-only establishments, he came to notice that his clientele would often opt to dine at the club to enjoy meals they lamented they could not get at home. After receiving several requests by inquisitive patrons to divulge his culinary secrets, he decided these questions needed to be addressed with those actually doing the cooking at home -- their wives. In essence, the goal of this handbook was to teach wives how to improve their cooking, making home fare “equal to (that of) the club or high class restaurant” in an effort to entice their husbands to return to the home dining table.
Admittedly, it was the title -- The Little Helpmate or How To Keep Husbands at Home – that first piqued my interest. It immediately conjured images of apron-clad women thumbing through the handbook, trying desperately to learn of ways to keep their men at home with food. It seemed so loaded with meaning, especially given my twenty-first century vantage point. What truths could this book reveal about the perception of women in 19th century New Brunswick? How was food deemed capable of “keeping husbands at home”? How different was this cookbook’s approach to food from my own? Or how similar? While it is impossible for historical cookbooks to speak for every person’s lived experience, they can offer us a glimpse of the beliefs, expectations and practices specific to the time and place they were penned. Cookbooks tell stories – about the authors, the audience, the when and where – and a single recipe, from its list of ingredients to its ancillary notes, can speak volumes about the social and economic climate of a given era.
With all this in mind, I was eager to discover the story that would unfold through the pages of The Little Helpmate and what this artefact would reveal about the thoughts and appetites of people living on the east coast of Canada over a century ago. As an avid home cook, I was particularly interested in recreating and testing the recipes in The Little Helpmate. Recreating a recipe from a very old cookbook can be a beautiful way of resurrecting something from the past and paying homage to it. For me, it’s a way of honouring a culinary tradition that may have been long forgotten.
The Successful Housekeeper
If cookbooks can provide a glimpse of the socio-cultural narrative of a given era, The Little Helpmate mirrors a set of values that were quintessential to the Victorian period in Canada (as in Britain and the United States). E.M Tree relies heavily on the reader’s understanding and acceptance of the 19th-century ideal of the “successful housekeeper,” where cooking is (or at least, should be) amongst a wife’s central preoccupations. The author laments that while most home cooks are well-versed in the realm of sweets, they overlook the “most important subjects -- soups and meats -- the things which give nourishment and sustain life.” He points to the absence of good cookbooks in the home as a primary source of the problem, with the implication that his handbook will help fill the void. For him, it is crucial that the home cook improve her knowledge of these essential dishes, as he observes, “The need of this is proven by what men tell us cooks, that they do not fare so well at home as with us.” Given that the handbook was written at a time when the Cult of Domesticity was still actively promoted, we can imagine that failing to satisfy this role might be equated with personal failure - as wife and domestic housekeeper. The Little Helpmate plays on this idea, inciting the housekeeper to recognize that she has been neglecting one of her primary duties – that of the (good) home cook.
Being a successful housekeeper in the late 19th century was also tied into domestic economy, a concept that E.M Tree references throughout the cookbook. The ideal of cost-effectiveness had become quintessential to many “how-to” housekeeping manuals at this time. Women who did not have hired help, or who found it difficult to hire help, adopted the role of housekeeper. They were, therefore, responsible for the proper functioning of their family’s domestic space. Day-to-day tasks, including cooking, were to be carried out on an allocated budget, and thus any related purchases had to be made judiciously. Tree is clearly aware of this reality, promoting “dishes that are good as well as cheap” and recognizing the notion of “how to live well at small cost.” He even caps his recipes with portion costs, making it easy for the home cook to anticipate cooking costs and plan accordingly.
The Appetites of Men
“I shall dine at the club to-night, dear, so do not wait dinner for me.”E.M Tree, preface to The Little Helpmate
The subtitle of this handbook (“How to Keep Husbands At Home”) signals a central theme that reveals itself more explicitly as we read through the book. It is very clearly a commentary of one of the other facets of the housekeeper’s role as home cook: to keep her husband interested in her food. The implication throughout the manual is that a woman’s failure to recognize the importance of improving her cooking will inevitably lead to her husband “straying” from her table, her home, and presumably, her. Food here is represented as a seductive force – not unlike a mistress. Tree recounts stories of men lying and making excuses to their wives to avoid coming home for dinner, so that they can whet their appetites and indulge in the restaurant’s offerings. Food flirts with their imagination and arouses their physical, intellectual and aesthetic desires. As the steward explains very matter-of-factly, “The majority of men prefer to dine at their club and restaurant than at home” and they will “give any excuse that may be at hand.”
The Words of the Expert
To help them improve their cooking skills, the steward acts as a guiding hand -- educating, edifying (and at times, even comforting) the everyday housewife by imparting his knowledge of ingredients and techniques to help women feel more at ease in the kitchen. He breaks down the basics, providing a veritable “how-to” of cooking techniques. For instance, in the section where he discusses boiling techniques, he highlights the important distinction between boiling meat to eat and boiling it for soup, which require two separate techniques -- one where the water is preheated, the other not. While the cooking term “boiling” is used for both preparations, it is the subtlety of the technique that makes all the difference: “It is obvious that these two directly opposite results cannot be from one cause, and yet they are both called boiling.” He concisely outlines each process, explaining the importance of details that will allow the home cook to achieve results on par with the best restaurants. In anticipation of his reader’s frustration with these new cooking techniques, he sometimes offers gentle words of encouragement, such as in his recipe for Béarnaise sauce: “Do not be discouraged if you don’t succeed the first or second time, but try again.” Sometimes, it seems, even the expert knows that cooking can be a precarious feat.
Making Husband-Approved Food
For the recipe-tasting component of this assignment, I chose to recreate two recipes: fish cakes and hollandaise sauce. The choice to make the cod cakes was made in part to commemorate one of New Brunswick's traditional food staples (cod), and also to pick up on the handbook’s theme of "economical cooking" as salt cod and potatoes are typically inexpensive ingredients. As to the hollandaise sauce, I liked the idea of a lemony sauce on fish and also liked the idea of marrying a recipe imported from Europe with an ingredient that was so quintessential to New Brunswick and the Canadian east coast.
There is one important thing to keep in mind when dealing with salt cod: it requires some time and patience. Once you buy a piece, you can keep in the fridge for weeks and weeks. The stuff is basically imperishable. However because of this miraculous property, salt cod needs to be re-hydrated and desalinated before use. This is done by soaking it in cold water for about two days and changing the water twice to three times a day before cooking it. (My grandmother leaves hers out on the counter for this part of the process, but I tend to be overly cautious with food products with which I am not familiar, so I soaked mine in the fridge). It is not complicated, but not minute-food either. You need to be a bit organized about it.
In his recipe for cod cakes, the steward has us soak our cod overnight. There’s no mention of a water-change, so (against my better judgment) I did not change the water. But here is one clever trick that he mentions in the cooking process, which is to change the water once the fish has come to the boil, to remove what he calls the “rank taste.” You see, when cod is left to boil or steam on the stovetop, it typically emits a pungent vapor into the house, permeating clothes and upholstery. This pungency is sometimes present in the flavour of the fish as well. But when I made this recipe, I noticed the scent and the flavour were milder, more toned down. I am convinced that pouring off the water after the first boil, and refilling the pot with fresh, rendered the scent more delicate. It is one of those pearls of cookery wisdom that I have stashed away for future preparations of cod, in stews, sauces and chowders.
I followed the steward’s instructions to the letter, putting my own habits and preferences aside, and trying to approach this recipe naively and with full trust in my instructor. However, if I were to do the whole thing over again, and give into my own predilections, these are the things I would change about E.M Tree’s recipes for cod cakes and hollandaise sauce:
Skimming: for any item that will produce an impressive layer of foam as it boils, I am a firm believer in skimming. Be it for making broth or boiling potatoes or, in this case, poaching fish, my impulse is to remove those protein/starch-filled bubbles as they rise to the surface. In our steward’s recipe, there is no mention of this, but by skimming these impurities, you would be able to reserve the poaching liquid to use as a base for a light fish stock. Economical cooking!
The potato-masher: our steward says to “pound (the cooked fish) with a potato masher in a pan” before mixing it with the other ingredients. Breaking it up lightly with a fork might be a less brutal and messy way of achieving the desired result. In fact, I think it would actually improve the result, as the fish would likely remain lighter by flaking it apart (instead of pounding it into oblivion in the pan). For this recipe, I would reserve the mashing strictly for the potatoes.
Potatoes: now, I know this recipe is supposed to be economical, and perhaps “medium-sized” potatoes were typically smaller in Tree’s day but the potato-to-fish ratio felt far too heavy on the spud side. I would cut the quantity of potatoes down to three.
Herbs: the only seasoning used in our steward’s recipe for cod cakes is the addition of “a good pinch of black pepper.” In looking through the other recipes and food descriptions in the handbook, I noticed that his dishes did not contain many (if any) spices or seasonings. Were I to re-attempt the recipe, I would add a bit of chopped chive, parsley or dill to the potato-fish mixture to give the dish more of an edge in terms of colour and flavour.
Acidity: I would adjust is the acidity of the hollandaise by cutting either the quantity of lemon juice or vinegar by half and by adding a bit of water.
Overall, the steward’s recipes worked quite well. Instructions were clear and simple to follow, and the ingredients were relatively easy to procure. Perhaps most importantly, the end result was quite tasty. Coming out of the pan, the cod cakes looked as though they might be greasy, but they weren’t at all. They had a really nice texture: fluffy, moist interior and a slightly crispy, golden exterior. While they may have been a bit on the bland side for my modern sensibilities, it was nice that there were not too many competing flavours. The hollandaise lent just the right amount of contrast, cutting the denseness of the potato inside the cakes. All things considered, they were both good, solid recipes – and ones I could easily see myself making again.
Fish Cakes – from E.M Tree’s The Little Helpmate or How to Keep Husbands at Home (1894)
Soak six ounces of boneless salt codfish a little while before cooking.
Boil it half an hour. Pick it over for bones, and then pound it with a potato masher in a pan.
While this is being done, boil or steam four or five medium-sized potatoes, and when done drain well and mash them with the fish.
Add a tablespoonful of butter made quite soft by melting; one raw egg and a good pinch of black pepper.
Mix thoroughly, and make up into balls, with plenty of flour on the hands to prevent sticking.
Drop them into hot frying fat, and fry a nice brown colour.
When the common salt codfish is used, it should be steeped over night, and when put on to boil, pour the water off as soon as it comes to a boil and fill it up with plenty of fresh. This takes away the rank taste, which will always be found if it is not done. They cannot be made good with cold boiled potatoes, because of the moisture in them. Sufficient for 6 persons. Cost, 8c. or 9c.
Hollandaise Sauce for Fish - from The Little Helpmate or How to Keep Husbands at Home (1894)
Blend together two ounces of butter and a small teaspoonful of flour, put it into a stew pan, with equal quantities of water and tarragon vinegar, two tablespoons of each; stir for a minute, and add the beaten yolks of two eggs, keeping up the stirring until the mixture thickens. It must not boil, and when ready to serve add the juice of half a lemon. Make this sauce in a bain-marie, or one vessel set inside of a larger one containing boiling water.
Cost efficiency overview – today’s prices
Cod cakes (makes 12):
$0.25 for the egg
$0.15 for the butter
$0.75 for potatoes
$4.00 for the fish
Hollandaise Sauce (1 ½ cups):
$0.50 for the eggs
$0.30 for the butter
$0.15 for the tarragon vinegar
$0.12 for the lemon
Total cost: $6.22
Total cost per person (4 appetizer servings of 3 cakes each): $1.55
Since graduating from Concordia University with a BA in History and Liberal Arts, Julia Dawson has acquired extensive experience in the field of arts and culture, working for institutions such as Heritage Montreal, the Canadian Centre for Architecture and, currently, the National Film Board of Canada. She devotes her free time to various food-related projects in Montreal. In addition to being a regular contributor to the “Food and Drink” section of The Main, she is the founder of julia chews the fat, a blog dedicated to the home cook and the storytelling that comes from sharing, learning and gathering in the kitchen.
E.M Tree, preface of The Little Helpmate or How to Keep Husbands at Home (Saint John: Ellis, Robertson and Company, 1894).
Tree, The Little Helpmate, 44
The rise of new industries in mid-19th century North America created a middle class in which men took up professions and worked outside the home, while their wives stayed home to take care of the domestic sphere of home and family. Based on principles of piety, purity and womanly virtue, the “Cult of Domesticity” refers to an ideology that emerged in these years and which continued to be present in popular literature of the late 1800s (advice books, women’s magazines, etc.).
Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (UK, 1861), Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The American Woman’s Home (US, 1869), and B.G. Jefferis and Mr. and Mrs. J.L. Nichols’The Household Guide (Canada, 1894) are just a few of the many household guidebooks for women in the late 19th century.
Tree, title page of The Little Helpmate
Tree, preface to The Little Helpmate
Tree, title page of The Little Helpmate
Tree, The Little Helpmate, 20-21
Tree, The Little Helpmate, 18
Tree, The Little Helpmate, 36
Bachelière en histoire et arts libéraux de l’Université Concordia, Julia Dawson a accumulé une vaste expérience au sein d’institutions culturelles, notamment Héritage Montréal, le Centre Canadien d’Architecture et l’Office national du film du Canada, où elle travaille actuellement. Elle consacre son temps libre à divers projets montréalais liés à la cuisine et à l’alimentation. Collaboratrice pour la section culinaire du site The Main, elle est également la créatrice de julia chews the fat, un blogue dédié au cuisinier de tous les jours et fourmillant d’anecdotes sur les échanges, les apprentissages et les rassemblements qui se produisent dans nos cuisines.