Editions Food # 91 Spring 2020 ,
In East Coast kitchens, we have come to expect music, perhaps even dancing, certainly some eating, and always, storytelling. In every East Coast Kitchen, there is also the cooking.
When we cook, we share—in a subtle fashion—Atlantic history. That history is layered with the ingredients of our favourite recipes.
While the act of cooking places us in the here and now, a recipe can be a portal to the past. Call it history by eating, where stories melt on your tongue, and folklore sizzles on a cast-iron pan.
Diane Tye, a folklore professor at Memorial University, has spent much of her career studying Atlantic food traditions, and the stories they tell. She says that it is human nature to take something with historical-cultural meaning and re-interpret it through a modern-day lens.
Tye uses the lobster—a prominent symbol of Atlantic tourism—as an example.
“Lobster went from a food associated with poverty to a present-day delicacy,” Tye explains. “Those were different communities and different times.
“When we take something out of our collective past, we are celebrating something in a new way. We are telling stories about ourselves.”
In her 2011 article, “Lobster Tales: Narratives of Food, Past, and Place in Maritime Canada,” Tye discusses lobster’s changing story, how it evolved from fertilizer to the coveted meal it is today. The unique history of the famed crustacean is not necessarily documented in textbooks. Rather, it is echoed in kitchens across the Atlantic—a tale often told while preparing it.
Whether through personal or communal experience, many East Coast cookbooks lean into this kind of storytelling, providing space for a cook to be present with the food they are preparing, while connected to the origins of the recipe.
In Taylor Widrig’s book, The Mermaid Handbook, she shares the history of seaweed in the Atlantic region. From the perspective of an Indigenous mermaid, she explains that before seaweed was a food source, the Mi’kmaq used it to make baskets.
Through folklore, ocean preservation tips, and seaweed-based recipes, Widrig effortlessly weaves cultural history with a present-day focus on health and sustainability.
“Tradition is not this static thing—it’s always being reinvented,” Tye explains. “Foods are going to have elements of tradition, but at the same time they’re going to continually change to meet new tastes and new needs.”
One of these new needs food that comes from secure, sustainable sources. Humans have always adapted to changing availability and access to certain foods. The way we eat has changed drastically over the years, prompting people like Widrig to reassess where our food comes from.
A desire to transition to a plant-based diet, paired with her fascination with mermaids, led Widrig to create her company, Mermaid Fare, which began as a culinary education business. Mermaid Fare has since evolved, and seeks to promote seaweed as a secure, plant-based food source.
Widrig says seaweed is a viable solution for a growing global population, because it does not require land, feed or fertilizer. With ocean conservation becoming a growing concern, Widrig feels a change in the tide.
From a folklore perspective, Tye points to The Mermaid Handbook as an example of how tradition is carried forward through food and the ways in which we adapt recipes. Widrig’s book includes standards such as salads, sandwiches and casseroles, with a twist that reflects a shift towards a more sustainable diet.
“Widrig is using some elements to provide that sense of continuity, while at the same time re-interpreting and pushing us forward with plant-based recipes,” explains Tye. “It may be when someone is looking back in 50 years, that this will be the tradition they talk about.”
Some food traditions are specific to a single province. Roger Pickavance is the author of three books focusing on Newfoundland food traditions.
His latest release, From Rum to Rhubarb, introduces recipes inspired by the easternmost province of Canada. Though Pickavance says the foods in the book are not necessarily unique to Newfoundland, it isn’t difficult to see his connection to the island he calls home.
Berry picking is an enduring tradition in Newfoundland—an activity that honours the resourcefulness of the people who have lived there for centuries. What was once a supplemental activity, carried out by mostly women and children, is now a social gathering for family and friends.
The book’s recipes use fruits, vegetables and berries, each of which speak to Newfoundland heritage. Though there are numerous wild berries that grow in the province, Pickavance highlights the famed partridgeberry, and lesser-known squashberry, and his selected recipes include jams, tarts, biscuits and ice cream.
Calling himself an amateur historian, Pickavance has committed much of his life to studying the history of Newfoundland cuisine. His first two books delve deep into tradition, offering a record of recipes and cooking over many decades.
From Rum to Rhubarb was a natural progression, offering his favourite recipes, still steeped in history, but accessible to the everyday cook.
“Traditions are always changing,” says Tye. “Taking the essence of something and tweaking, or revamping, or re-inventing it, and that’s true sometimes even for basic recipes.”
Whether a seasoned chef or tying your first apron, Atlantic cookbooks provide a tasty mixture of food and history, honouring the roots of this region, and staying true to East Coast kitchens.