By Ted Como
While sopping up some north country maple syrup with a forkful of Phillip’s Diner pancakes you may wonder what folks who lived in these parts hundreds of years ago ate for breakfast – or lunch or dinner for that matter.
Across the river in New France and here as well, early inhabitants incorporated into their diet wild game and fish as well as native edible plants while growing vegetable and cereal crops and raising livestock and fowl. But the staple food was bread, which represented about three-quarters of daily food intake.
Bread was eaten morning, noon and evening, dipped in brandy for an early breakfast, perhaps eaten with slices of onion or other vegetables for lunch, or with soup for dinner. Anything available, meat or vegetable, was fodder for the soup pot. Most folks lived on farms and worked until sunset, usually having for supper the same thing they had for dinner.
As per Gates Curtis, settlers initially got their flour from Montreal at great expense and trouble. Besides bread, they made shortcake from coarse flour without butter or lard for shortening or soda to raise it, instead using deer tallow in kneading the dough with a dash of bear grease or raccoon oil.
Bread ovens were used daily and most everyone had one. Imagine rising every day to the sweet smell of baking bread. Once settled, farmers grew their wheat and ground it into flour, some relying on Picquet’s grist mill. White lye was used in place of soda, which was readily made by dropping hot ash cinders into water. The cinders were formed by the sap of green timber dripping from the end of burning logs into hot ashes.
Farm animals were essential to early settlers. Cattle were the most common stock animal followed by pigs and sheep; pigs were raised more for the fat than the meat. Farms usually housed hens, roosters, capons, turkeys and a few geese. Cattle gave milk and butter; fowl provided eggs. Poultry served well during warmer months but most were eaten before winter as cold weather interrupted breeding.
Beef stew, still common in the north country, was a main dish. Settlers enjoyed roasted goose with apples, fish out of the abundant rivers and smoked or boiled eel, fresh and dried or jerked venison, beech nuts, walnuts, butternuts, basswood buds, the inner coat of birch bark, and maple sugar. Desert might have been cucumbers with sweet or sour cream, plums, apples, fruit preserves and in season wild or garden berries.
Most common vegetables were onions and cabbage as either made a good soup, as well as corn, turnips, carrots, peas, beans, celery, and potatoes. The native leek that grew so abundantly in the woods and filled the air with its odor was used during its season in place of onions.
The countryside abounded with wild berries harvested in the summer months and put up as jam. Forests also provided different types of nuts and game such as deer, bear, panther, hare, partridge, pigeon, and duck. This provided a fairly varied diet, the quantity and quality of which depended on the weather.
But in this climate, a good crop meant the difference between life and death. It had to help provide enough food to last the winter. A poor crop caused famine, taking a serious toll on children. My immigrant ancestor, Narcisse Comeau, born in 1810 in Rouville, Quebec, had eight siblings. Two survived to adulthood, one died at age 20, and the others died at ages 1, 2, 2, 3 and 9.
It was a hard life but our ancestors ate a varied and for them, no doubt, a rich and satisfying diet, not one for us however. Imagine life without chocolate bars and potato chips, hot dogs and hamburgers, or ice cream and Tim Hortons. Perish the thought.
- Ted Como is a member of the board of the Fort LaPresentation Association.