Manitoba History: Review: B. M. Barss and Sheila Kerr, Canadian Prairie Homesteaders

by Donna Phillips

Manitoba History, Number 1, 1981

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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I would hazard a guess that most cooks, even those renowned for their cuisine, use only three or four cook-books for both day-to-day and company-cooking. The other dozen or hundred cookbooks, depending on one's strength of will in the bookstore, are for browsing, for inspiration, or in the case of Canadian Prairie Homesteaders, for nostalgia trips.

A quick riffle through this little book, illustrated with many familiar home-stead scenes (black-and-white photographs from Glenbow-Alberta Institute, Heritage Park, Calgary, the Provincial Archives of Alberta and the Provincial Archives of Manitoba) prods the memory with scenes of the big, old McClary cook stove and its demanding, ever-to-be-filled woodbox, home-made pancake syrup (brown sugar and water, boiled and then flavoured with artificial maple essence), matrimonial cake and Johnny cake, oozing with butter. The butter, of course, was home churned, its golden globs forming only after an eternity of arm-numbing turning of the paddles, in our family a punishment for minor misdemeanors.

Some of the recipes and descriptions of food-getting reach back beyond the limits of my nostalgia threshold—to sod houses and vegetables literally gathered from the land: lambs quarters and dandelion greens. The recipe for partridge pie specifies cooking it in a "Hudson's Bay copper kettle."

Prairie homestead cooking was plain but nutritious and inventive. It was also ecologically efficient: "when a pig was killed everything but his 'squeal' was used." It was a cuisine of expediency, where everything was made from scratch. A cook's reputation depended on an ability to excel within the strictures of rough cooking conditions, limited cold storage facilities and the demands of famished farm workers.

An earlier, companion work to Prairie Homesteaders, called Come'n Get It, is about food in Alberta before 1900.