Mastodon pie, anyone? Book yourself a food history of Atlantic Canada
The vast and varied food specialties of Atlantic Canada, some might say, are too diverse to be represented as one grouped-together region. Not only does each Atlantic province have a multitude of distinct dishes to call its own, but these unique culinary takes can also be further narrowed down to counties and even towns.
One must only think back to their own family gatherings, where typically someone was lamenting the inclusion of raisins (or lack of raisins) in a certain baked good. Or maybe the memories of which donair toppings were standard practice at your hometown pizza place.
Every quirky Atlantic Canadian food is the sum of countless different factors. Where your ancestors came from, how food had to be preserved to make it through long winters, whether you lived in a fishing community or near farmland—every detail has come to shape the boundless number of nuanced Atlantic Canadian specialties as we see them today.
This is why reading about food designated as “Atlantic Canadian” is so much fun. A culinary and historical rabbit hole, if you will.
Thanks to local authors like Steven Laffoley, who has taken a deep dive into the many influences on Nova Scotian food, we can learn just what some of these historical, cultural, environmental and circumstantial factors look like. In his most recent book, Dulse to Donairs: An Irreverent History of Food in Nova Scotia, Laffoley examines everything from how to cook a beaver’s tail in the most delicious way to the ingenious cooking techniques of the early Mi’kmaq to how to make the gelatinous Acadian favourite rappie pie.
By reading through historical texts, letters, cookbooks and other documents, Laffoley paints a picture of the evolution of food consumed in Nova Scotia by the more than 145 ethnic groups who have relocated to Atlantic Canada over the past 400 years, as well as a look at traditional Mi’kmaw foods. He even extrapolates how a fully grown mastodon could have been prepared 10,000 years ago.
Packaged as a 12-course “meal,” the book looks at each formal course by providing extensive, well-informed history and context before outlining a recipe or two (or three, or in some cases even four), each with a sizeable dash of humour. Of course, many of the recipes of old wouldn’t even be considered today, and some, frankly, would now be illegal to make.
Either way, it’s unendingly interesting to look at how people cooked over the last few centuries, making do with what they had and where they lived. It should be noted that the book is sprinkled with mentions of current breweries, distilleries, wineries and other food producers that readers can further explore.
Jiggs Dinner and 64 other Newfoundland delights
Another recent Atlantic Canadian food publication takes a different approach to expressing regional specialties. Newfoundland’s Best Breakfasts and Brunch by previously published writer, yet first-time cookbook author, Jennifer Leigh Hill, pays homage to bed and breakfasts that are currently in operation across Newfoundland, plus collects recipes from local food bloggers.
The 65-recipe collection, although focused on breakfast and brunch, covers many of the Newfoundland specialties that you’d expect. Hill, a research academic who first visited Newfoundland in 2008, was struck by the province and vowed to return (funny how Atlantic Canada does that). After several more visits spent thoroughly exploring the area, she decided she wanted to collaborate with owners of bed and breakfasts to create a recipe book.
The recipes have been tested and range from partridgeberry jam to Jigg’s Dinner. Backed by fun facts like “Newfoundlanders and Labradorians eat more bologna than anyone else in North America,” the book is delightfully homey and humble.
The anecdotes preluding each chapter and recipe give glimpses into the ancestral, historical and environmental influences on traditional Newfoundland food. Some of the stories are extremely charming—like how toutons (small, disk-shaped pieces of fried bread) were created to keep the children from devouring the daily loaves of fresh white bread before anyone else could get some (sounds genius if you ask me)—and some are more practical, like how preserves provided nutrient-rich fruit for consumption throughout the long Newfoundland winters, or how they made (and still make) use of stale bread. Hill gives background to dessert-tray specialties like date squares and snowballs by getting her hands on a local cookbook dating as far back as 1905. She also covers how to make moose bologna.
Interestingly enough, Hill is based out of British Columbia, and Laffoley is not originally from Atlantic Canada. Laffoley starts his book by indexing several of the vile mid-sixties and seventies dishes of his childhood in Massachusetts, before declaring that after first visiting Nova Scotia, he “discovered that Nova Scotian food could be fresh and fascinating, frivolous and fun,” and, “As a result, I was determined to change my wayward ways about food and learn more.”
As a food writer based in Halifax, I can’t count how many times I’ve heard stories of those who have become enchanted with the food culture on the East Coast and either relocated permanently to open a business in the food or hospitality industry, or at the very least committed to spending a good amount of time here on seafood-fuelled vacations. It makes me feel proud every time.
We are lucky to have had an eclectic collection of influences that have shaped our food culture into incredibly interesting and unique ways of producing, sourcing, preparing and enjoying food. So much so that it continually draws people in and convinces them to stay.
One thing is for sure: in both Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, how we find, cook and consume food has changed drastically over the last few decades. From the timeless, cherished family recipes that are passed down through the generations, to the new ways talented chefs in the region are riffing on traditional Atlantic Canadian dishes, every year it seems to get more exciting to eat and drink your way through this part of the world—and I hope people keep writing about it.
Laura Oakley is a freelance writer and content creator in Halifax, who professionally follows personal callings for travel, food and writing about food and travel.
Thanks to Dennis Jarvis for the photograph of Mastodon Ridge, N.S.