Canadian Cooking in the Forties/Fifties

Guest Post by Soroptimist  Norma Hundborg

What’s typically Canadian? Apart from butter tarts (I’ll return to those!) I can think of just a few things I’ve never seen anywhere else – fiddleheads (the first tiny fern shoots which came in tins from the Maritime provinces), Digby Chicks (NOT of the feathered tribe, but smoked, heavily salted herrings, also from the Maritimes, seemingly now unknown by Ontario fish merchants – I would pay ANYTHING for a waxed paper parcel of those!!)

My earliest food memories include a 30-dozen egg crate in the basement, delivered bi-monthly from the family farm. Mom sold them to friends and neighbours and paid my uncle, her share being the eggs we needed. Until I was seven, bread and milk were delivered. The red milk wagon with its brown horse came mid-morning. The yellow bread wagon and white horse came at noon. I was ready every weekday with a carrot and two sugar lumps for the horses. When I started kindergarten, I sadly missed the milk horse, but would race home at noon break so the bread horse could have his treat. It was a sad day when those deliveries stopped.

Mom was a good no-frills cook. She used salt, pepper, fresh parsley and chives, dried oregano, onion powder and poultry seasoning. We never had chili, garlic or curry powder in the house. I loved going to the meat market where everything was wrapped in waxed brown paper and there was sawdust on the floor. Money didn’t cross the butcher’s palm, payment was to an amply-busted lady who sat in a little glassed cubicle, and I was quite in awe of her. The Italian fruit and veg shop provided fresh produce and everything at the grocery shop was packed in brown paper sacks after being collected in a small wire basket. Farmers’ markets sold fruit in bushel baskets, still do. A bushel is about the size of a laundry basket. Mom bought peaches, tomatoes and peppers that way to make her famous jam and relish. When I was eight, the latest kitchen gadget arrived – a stainless steel blender! The neighbours came with stale bread so Mom could whiz up crumbs for their Christmas turkey stuffing. She made Impossible Pie in it – flour, butter, sugar, milk, vanilla and cocoanut blitzed together, poured into a pie plate and, wonder of wonders, it magically separated into crust and filling when baked. I still use that recipe.

Mom was a wonderful baker – biscuits, squares, loaves, pies but never anything using yeast. I learned to bake when young; it’s still my favourite kitchen pasttime. Money was tight when I was a youngster but there was always something tasty on the table. I remember winter suppers of hot tinned tomatoes with bread and butter, real comfort food which I still love. Mushrooms on toast – what a treat! Heinz Baked Beans, of course, nothing rivals those. Campbell’s or Heinz soups, often for lunch but also used as sauces in supper casseroles. I was allowed to eat two things with my fingers – crispy bacon and baked potato skins (also crispy) with a smear of butter after I had eaten the scooped-out potato. Mom’s baked potatoes were the BEST – pricked all over with a fork, coated with bacon dripping and cooked in a hot oven. Foil-wrapped potatoes were unknown and I still can’t abide being served one – they have no soul! Every cook had an empty soup tin by the stove. Bacon grease was strained into it each morning (we all ate bacon for breakfast) to be used in pastry or for frying meat. In summer, Mom’s potato salad was legendary, put together with Miracle Whip or Hellmann’s – I didn’t know there WAS other mayonnaise until I left home! We’d occasionally have fish and chips from the local chippy for supper. The fifties saw the arrival of TV dinners and if my parents were out for the evening; I loved having one of those, usually chicken. Mom made popcorn in an old tin pot, popping corn coming into shops for the first time in the fifties, previously only seen at the cinema or fairground. She used the same pot to make chips, quite thickly cut and absolutely wonderful. I have never been able to equal her chips, likely because I haven’t got that pot, although I’m good at popcorn! Another treat was barley porridge. Mom bought ground barley and it would bubble away on the stove for several hours before being served with the top pouring from the milk  – remember milk bottles with cream on top? We had ice cream sodas in summer, with vanilla ice cream and either red cream soda or green lime rickey for the fizz, served in soda glasses with plastic straws with little red spoons at one end for scooping the ice cream.

Dad only cooked when Mom wasn’t home, he could do bacon, fried eggs and toast (always burned just the way he liked it!) He did rule the coffee percolator and I still make coffee his way with a pinch each of salt and Keene’s mustard to bring out the flavour – try it!

Margarine came onto the market about 1950. It was white to protect butter sales, and came in a clear plastic pouch with a colouring pill or powder. My job was kneading the colour into the margarine; my hands got a lot of exercise.  I remember the advent of Jolly Green Giant frozen peas when refrigerators graduated from having a tiny icebox with space for just two aluminum ice cube trays and a brick of Nielsen’s Venetian Vanilla ice cream. That lovely green colour marked the end of greyish tinned peas, an ingredient in my first “Home Economics” class, a tuna casserole. I brought the recipe home. It called for a half tin of peas. Mom asked “What happened to the other half?” and was horrified when I said the teacher had thrown it away. She rang and complained, asking “Where was the home economics in wasting food?”

A restaurant meal was seldom, our favourite (mine still is!) was at Swiss Chalet. When it first opened in Toronto in 1951, Sunday lunchers lined up around the block to get a table. Waitresses clad in dirndls and puff-sleeved blouses served barbequed chicken and chips (fries to Canadians) with arguably the best sauce in the universe. A newspaper food editor tried for years to get that recipe, finally inventing her own. I can’t taste the difference. Give it a try: 3 cups water, 1/4 cup tomato juice or purée, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 chicken cube, 1-1/2 teaspoons paprika, 3/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon EACH basil, parsley, poultry seasoning, thyme, ground ginger, dry mustard, onion powder. 1 bay leaf, 3/4 teaspoon worchester sauce, 6 drops Tabasco. Boil up, and then simmer 5 minutes. Remove bay leaf; add 2 teaspoons lemon juice and 2 tablespoons corn starch mixed with 2 teaspoons water. Stir 2 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon oil. Serve and savour!!!

I never saw my maternal grandmother use a recipe, it was always a pinch of this and a smidgin of that and everything was delicious. Grandma cooked on the old iron stove, no temperature gauges, just guesswork. The only things she ever used that weren’t produced on the family farm were flour, sugar and butter, with cheddar cheese coming from a neighbour. Grandpa made maple syrup boiled in a big cauldron over a fire out in the bush, pulled back to the house on a “stoneboat” with two horses in front. He would pour hot syrup onto snow for us grandkids to gobble up, a fantastic treat!

I treasure my old cookbook collection, including my paternal grandmother’s handwritten one. She was “in service” to a wealthy industrial family in Birmingham. In beautiful script on the inside cover is written “Adah Long, 202 Hagley Road, Edgbaston”, It predates 1906 and contains such goodies as “Military Pudding”, “Half Pay Pudding”, “Vicarage Pudding”, “A Nice Useful Cake” and, by index at the back, this little gem: “To Renew Velvet – Hold the velvet pile downwards over boiling water in which 2 pennyworth of stone ammonia has been dissolved. Double the velvet pile inwards and fold it lightly together.” Why was this included? And what on earth is stone ammonia?? We always had proper British food at Grandma’s table, a rump roast of beef (I was given the string around it to chew when it was removed for slicing, a huge treat!), mashed potatoes, peas and beans and homemade vanilla ice cream which was pale yellow, a result of I-don’t-know-how-many egg yolks being included. When I stayed overnight, I drank proper British tea with milk and sugar. I never had tea at home that was for grownups. Grandma made mince pies at Christmas. I still make them but, unable to find suet where I live, I use Mary Berry’s suet less version – and think of Grandma while I eat.

Mom’s cookbooks fill two shelves in my kitchen. The Victory Cookbook is from a church group in Regina, Saskatchewan, dated 1945. A Canadian Mountie is on the cover and the flyleaf shows a well-aproned “homemaker” (a term rarely used these days) holding a wooden spoon in her left hand, saluting with her right, and undernearth – “I promise to – 1. Follow rules of nutrition. 2. Buy wisely – not waste. 3. Save time for war work. 4. Be neighborly – hospitable. 5. Build morale at home.” It cost the princely sum of 50 cents. I wonder if I own the only copy in existence? “The New Art” cookbook was given by General Electric with the refrigerator bought when Mom and Dad married in 1940. There’s a picture of it on the flyleaf and, believe it or not, that fridge was still in the basement in working order when the house was sold 57 years later. The new owners asked if they could keep it!

My third “most treasured” cookbook is the well-worn “Kate Aitken’s Canadian Cook Book”. Mrs. A., as she was fondly known, was the doyenne of Canada’s kitchens, having a nationwide radio program, and with her curly grey hair and no-nonsense attitude to food, she was a fixture at food shows across the country, known and loved by anyone who had ever wielded a wooden spoon. My own first cookbook, still used continually, is the Canadian School Cook Book, dated 1957 and containing a wealth of favourite recipes including our family staple – tuna fish loaf, the first thing I taught my daughter and later, my two grandchildren to make. It has a section of large-quantity recipes – coffee for 100, fruit punch for 300, and coffee cake for 50!

Back to those Canadian Butter Tarts which even Americans have never heard of. Here’s the recipe from the Canadian School Cook Book, of course: Cream 1/4 cup butter. Add 1 cup white sugar, mix thoroughly. Add 1 well-beaten egg, 1 cup currants or raisins, 2 tablespoons lemon juice or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla (I prefer lemon juice). Line tart tins with a favourite pastry, fill with the mixture, and bake at 190C 10-12 minutes. Makes 1 dozen medium-sized tarts. Try these and have a nostalgia taste of the forties/fifties in true Canadian style.

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