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  • Writer's pictureArt Duval

The changing face of food.

Seems I used the hamburger we were supposed to make meat pies with, I could always go to the store. Well this century, and last but before that...

Before that, there were few places one could get meat, and none that ground it up. Prior to 1900, food came by your own hands. Whether meat or produce, you seen it from beginning to end.

This is something we don't always respect. Every move in every day was dominated by your need to feed your family and yorself, so we lived on farms. We do that today, yes, but not like then. Every part of the process was planned, planted and processed. Done with an idea of what we were going to do to preserve it if need be.

Today, we have stores and at least in my family, all of our food is purchased, prepacked in convenient sizes. We cook it, often by setting a temperature and a time, and it rings when we are done. The hard chore of cooking. We eat a lot of beef, pork, along with chickens and fish, but once it wasn't that way.

In the prehistoric past, at least when the people of the long houses were here, food was stockpiled in the rafters. Fall hunts and fishing was dried. At this time of year, you would cut it down and prepare it. The Wendat actually had a variety of meat and vegetables including corn, squash and beans and for the carnivore, deer, bear and a variety of smaller game.

Open fires were the cooking source of heat, but that cooking could be labor intensive, as boiling water could only be done with transferring rocks in and out of the pots made of natural but flammable material. It wasn't until contact that metal pots were introduced. On the most part metal is not as readily available in the Great Lakes area and mining was almost non-existent.

Moving onto the historic and settler era, there was beef and pork but you were as likely to eat squirrel or duck or maybe even pigeon. Small animals could be harvested and consumed rather efficiently. As good as beef and pork is, it took some work, and more importantly time, to process. That became expensive.

Travellers also ate differently then we would expect. For an example, in 1795, Sir John Graves Simcoe sent parties out to survey the area of Georgian Bay. In my imagination, I assume deer hunters and...well no, probably not. The hunters probably hunted squirrels and many different types of fowl available in the woods. It took five days for a round trip, deer would have set them back way too much time.

John Steckley in his book he wrote based on the memoirs of his uncle makes the surprising account of the family emigrating from Scotland to Canada. On the ship, food was not provided. Let that sink in, the trip took weeks, maybe even more than a month and you needed to bring your own food, so bags of porridge was what they lived on.

But back to the hamburger, beef was farmed, but was consumed as much as it is today. You didn't go to the store for one meals worth, you bought a calf, probably in the spring, or if you were lucky, bred one, and raised it to harvest later. But cows were many meals, so you best be prepared.

Chickens and rabbits and other small animals were more likely one meal. One large one would probably fit in one of your pots and feed your family. Many soups and stews were made from a animal that was slaughtered that day, so it was often looked to for nourishment.

So you would think that people were guarded with their food, and probably many were, but there are as many accounts of food being shared openly, because you never knew when it was you who needed it. In many cultures food was expected for travelers arriving at the door, regardless of if they were known or not. But you better like what they are serving, even the Inn's would set a place at their tables, but you ate what they ate or you simply didn't eat.

In the story of the Drummond islanders, I wondered how all that food could be fit on a small boat. In truth, the answer is in the narratives. In Rosette Laramie's narrative, she list places they stop. Tessalon, McBean's post amongst others would have had group of people stationed at their river mouths fishing for the spring spawning fish. More than likely what was not caught there by their own hands, was traded for amongst the tribes. ( A far different situation than the wagon train era of the wild west where the peoples were seen and treated as arch enemies. ) So most of their food was probably caught, hunted or traded for on the journey. Things we don't readily see as food, such as cattails, which are in season in spring, would have been seen as survival food to the voyageurs.

Soups and stews were common, boiling was somewhat easy and spread the food out so to speak. Bread and baking of many different kinds was also prevalent. On Drummond Island there was a communal oven, and the military were probably cooked for. Commonly ovens were not always available, but different fry breads and things like pemmican were always figured out in some way or another. A cooking fire was a real easel of artistry for the historic cook.

Going back to the days of the voyageur, many of those travelling in from the east did so with a pea soup made each evening and carried in big pots. This was eaten each day with very little variations. No time or supplies was wasted to make any deviations.

n the west, pemmican was the food of choice, and availability. This was more a hard bread/bar made from dried meat and berries, hard to say which was better. Either way, with a day of paddling I am sure it could have been much worse and still consumed heartily.

Heating food on a fire was a process on it's own. I don't know if we appreciate the know how our forefathers had in the making and keeping of fires. Fires were banked and skillfully tailored to the cooks needs. Certain meals would need coals to heat up dutch ovens, heavy lidded pots that would have wood coals placed o them to make even heating. In concept it seems easy enough, but I wonder what it would be like in practice.

At this time of year fire was probably welcome, but preserving of dry goods and meat was probably in need of attention. Mice and rats could wipe out a storehouse if not simple rain and water damage.

As we came more into civilization, and roads improved so we could import goods, stores and butcher shops opened. Penetang had several butcher shops and stores opened on many neighborhood corners. This would change the way people lived. No longer bound by feeding your family directly, people were free to work outside the home farm. At first and for some decades longer, people would still raise cattle and other animals but would bring them to a butcher to be processed. Some meat could even be sold on a regular basis. One of the first community involvement was was grist mills where people could bring grain and wheat and get flour. Again some could be sold so that you could have some money for other things.

Logistics had effects on how we eat. When travel was over bad roads and by either walking or if you were lucky by horse going to dinner was simply too much trouble and time. Even going to the neighbors was a special event, as the fields that surround the houses made a trip next door actually a pretty far trip. The old strip farms of the St Lawrence and elsewhere alleviated this a bit in some areas, but overall.

Historically, logistics had other influences. The Wendat lived in villages for the summer months, but some wondered off to their own territories during the winter. At one time I thought it was in pursuit of deer, they probably would outhunt the deer in a big group, but now seeing deeper, it was probably all the small medium game that would also not be preset around a Wendat village. This neccesitated that some family groups would strive off for places their family group could harvest an area. Probably including squirrels and small animals of many sorts.

Interesting enough, travelers could expect to stop in at almost any house and be accommodated. Of course they would look for Inn's and such but any door in a storm as the saying goes.

Eventually we evolved to the point we are today, where we grow nothing and buy everything off of stores, sometimes at a far distance. Makes you wonder if it is better or not.

Art Duval

Pipesmoke of the past.

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