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French Taste in Atlantic Canada, 1604–1758, A Gastronomic History is a welcome new volume for the library of Canadian food historians and the kitchens of everyone interested in Canada’s food history.
As a project to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the 1713 founding of Fortress Louisbourg, now a National Historic Site on Cape Breton Island, it takes its place beside Hope Dunton’s From the Hearth: Recipes from the World of 18th- Century Louisbourg (1986), which presented a sensitive rendering of original recipes for late 20th century cooks. Dunton is one of many people credited with helping in some way with this new book, written by two main authors, Anne Marie Lane Jonah and Chantal Véchambre, with contributions by six others. Jonah is staff historian for Parks Canada at the Fortress and Véchambre is a French chef now living in Nova Scotia. Together, they have produced a handsome and informative book of history and recreated recipes. It includes an excellent bibliography, detailed endnotes, a recipe index, a text index, a glossary, and many attractive photographs, both of the food and the site, as well as a few archival maps and illustrations. Its bilingualism is particularly noteworthy.
To show the range of topics explored, here are the seven chapter titles: “First Encounters: Nicholas Denys and the Mi’kmaq,” “Acadie: The First French Cuisine in North America,” “To Louisbourg: Evolving Taste and the New Colony,” “Fine Dining: Bringing Two Worlds Together,” (that is, homeland and colony), “The Soul of the Meal: Beverages in the 18th Century,” and “Desserts: A Bittersweet Ending.” Each chapter opens with a geographical and historical overview, features a variety of sidebars, and ends with recipes. I particularly liked the personal stories of individual colonists, such as Madame Laurent, a former slave who became a respected independent businesswoman (68–70).
Happily, I learned much while reading French Taste in Atlantic Canada. Pieces of buckwheat crepes were added to soups as a thickener in Acadia (35), and Acadians planted and ate large quantities of potatoes long before the continental French willingly did so (38). Fresh grapes were imported in containers resembling amphorae but with blunted ends (103); the new use of coal instead of wood in the ovens led to thicker, darker and therefore stronger glass (159); and beverages were sometimes cooled when bottles were wrapped in damp cloths and hung in the breezes, even in summer (172).
The authors chose the recipes from surviving documentary and archaeological records of the indigenous and imported ingredients and cookbooks available during the French regime in Atlantic Canada, as sample representations of creatively blended French and Atlantic cuisines (6).
This is a fine book, one I’m glad to have, and I applaud the authors for adding it to our limited Canadian food history bookshelf. But I have selected several small irritations to mention, complaints about making the reader work too hard for basic information. When explaining how they chose the recipes, a few paragraphs identifying the source cookbooks would have been helpful, instead of relegating that information to the bibliography. For instance, the first recipe, “Oyster Casserole” is “after Massialot,” / “d’après Massialot”(18–19), whose name and all the others, such as La Varenne and Menon, I fortunately recognize due to my years of research, but someone buying this book as a memento in the gift shop has to search for their identities. Also, oddly, many photos are without captions. One, to me, looked like fried fish in a long-handled skillet, but the text told me it was a folded buckwheat crepe, an Acadian speciality (34). In fact, I learned that Acadians didn’t fry fish (36). Unfortunately, other photos are marred by being centred in the fold. And I noticed several typos, such as “service” instead of “surface” (84). The “French hot chocolate” recipe is rightfully in the beverages chapter (182–183), but the section on chocolate – which is really informative – seems misplaced in the desserts chapter since chocolate for most of the 1604 to 1758 focus period was consumed as a drink, not as a flavour in tarts and creams. The “Chocolate torte” (200–201) is apparently after François Massialot, but I couldn’t find the original recipe when I accessed an online 1705 edition of his Le Cuisinier royal et bourgeois, so which edition first included it? Le Cuisinier eventually expanded to three encyclopedic volumes, so it appears in one of those, not the first 1691 edition as listed in the bibliography. We learn that chocolate first came to Atlantic Canada in 1725 (185).
Unhappily, my last points are not small irritations but a huge argument I have with many books that reproduce historic recipes. One: If you are providing directions that purport to update the old recipes, then you must also pair them with the original texts (preferably side by side), otherwise half the equation is missing. Yes, this custom adds more words and probably more pages, but it also adds an immeasurable integrity. Although less desirable, the original recipes can be grouped in an appendix in a smaller point size. As a modern cook and historian interested in understanding evolutions in recipe development within cuisines, I can’t tell whether ingredients and directions in so-called updated versions have been added or abandoned, switched or substituted, halved or doubled, or perhaps even misunderstood. This is particularly true if the original recipe is in a different language, in this case French. The authors’ decision to insert the occasional French word as reassurance of accuracy into their English translation, while helpful, is inadequate. Two: Sometimes they do acknowledge alterations, but more typically and regrettably they don’t. Corn flour (corn starch), for example, is added to the Biscuit de Savoie (196). Corn starch was a mid-19th century commercial product and certainly wasn’t used in Louisbourg. Its incorporation into a sponge cake lightens the result, certainly, which our tastebuds may prefer today, but it presence without comment undermines the accurate recreation of a mid-18th century Savoy Cake. In “Eel Pie” (22) mushrooms can be browned in either butter or olive oil. I wondered if the choice was their suggestion or imbedded in Massialot’s own text. In that 1705 edition of Le Cuisinier, it was butter. And I discovered that he suggested a roux and breadcrumbs, which they do not. Although confessing that I didn’t test it myself, the modern recipe looks delicious – but it’s not what Massialot wrote. For clarity, authenticity, and honesty, I feel strongly that adapters must inform readers about their adaptations. Providing the originals and fully identifying the modifications definitely is more effort, but for French Taste in Atlantic Canada, 1604–1758, A Gastronomic History, this would have paid off in being a more reliable reference book for other researchers.
Fiona Lucas is Co-Founder of the Culinary Historians of Canada. Currently, she is President of CHC Board and Editor of their e-newsletter, Digestible Bits and Bites. She worked in the field of museum-based culinary history for two and a half decades, during which she accumulated a large collection of Canadian cookbooks and food history resources. Her first book, Hearth and Home, Women and the Art of Down Hearth Cooking was published in 2006.
Fiona Lucas est l’une des cofondatrices du groupe Culinary Historians of Canada (CHC). À présent, elle préside au conseil du CHC et elle est l’éditrice du bulletin électronique Digestible Bits and Bites. Elle a travaillé pendant plus de vingt ans dans le domaine de l’histoire culinaire (musées). Hearth and Home, Women and the Art of Down Hearth Cooking, son premier livre primé, est paru en 2006. Elle possède une collection importante de livres de cuisine canadiens et de références culinaires.