Julie Oakes set out on her path to historical culinary expertise as a costumed interpreter at the Pickering Museum Village. She eventually embarked on public speaking engagements about era fashion, Victorian funeral customs, and the rise of the women’s movement. Today, Julie also acts in and directs living history events and plays at the museum. I’ve attended the Rebellion of 1837 Spirit Walk, a living history performance guided and narrated by Julie, in character as a temperance movement leader.
Please enjoy this Wellspring Podcast of Julie Oakes: Historical Culinary Expert–Part 1
I first met Julie through a Confederation Tea for which she played a key role in organizing and preparing food. We had a wonderful discussion about culinary and food preparation realities for our forbearers in the 1800s. She shared a lot of information that has already woven its way into my writing.
Gwen: What do you say to people who think what’s the big deal about history?
Julie: I understand why people think that because sometimes history was taught in a very boring way. Many of us had to learn long lists of dates, to learn about politics and governments, and wars. Really the kind of history that interests me is what interests a lot of people which is what did people eat, what did they wear, how’d they raise their children, what kind of house did they live in, what was their furniture like. That’s really interesting history because we can all relate to what our bed is like and what beds were like then. For example, what kind of food do we eat, what kind of food did they eat then. We’re all into recycling now, well they were the ultimate recyclers. Let’s talk about how they recycled so much way back then. And I think really if you can get people to realize that history isn’t just about big important people like kings and queens and politicians, it’s all about ordinary people just like us and all it is stories of our own families just a few generations back, you can reignite their passion for history and I think we really need to look at the past to understand the present and have some idea of how to move forward to the future. I think it’s really important to have some idea of where we’ve been so we’ll have some idea of where we’re going.
Gwen: I’m going to pick up on a thread of something you mentioned, and that was your interest in food. What would typically be stocked in a kitchen?
Julie: Our museum goes from 1790 to 1918, so that’s a really long span of time. I think if you’re looking at what would be in a typical rural kitchen mid-century say mid-Victorian era, you’d have all the basics like flour, or sugar, coffee, tea, and dried beans. Everyone had potatoes and onions, that was very typical of the time. People ate a lot of pork then, much more than they do now. They did eat beef too but pork was an everyday thing people had. Chicken they had periodically. People didn’t eat as much chicken as we do. It was a special thing to have a roast chicken dinner. Toward the end of the century, there were more dried fruits. People tended to grow a lot of their own stuff. Most people had apple trees so they’d have lots of things made of apples—dried apples, apple preserves, apple butter. Most people canned, especially toward the end of the century, so they’d be putting up their own preserves. But the basic flour, sugar, lard, oil, vinegars and that kind of thing they would get from their general store.
Gwen: Our kitchens all have modern conveniences like an oven. What are some of the challenges to meal preparation in regards to cooking equipment?
Julie: Most people had a stove. If we’re talking mid to late century, they would have a step stove. And if you’re talking turn of the 20th century, the stoves got higher. There wasn’t that low bit of the stove. The difficulty I think would be that the stove had to be on pretty much all day because you’re looking at cooking three meals a day. Even breakfast was cooked. You’d probably have hot oatmeal or hot cereal of some sort. Some people would have had bread I assume and usually breakfast was consumed after they’d already gone out and milked the cows and done some chores so there had to be a good substantial meal waiting when they came back in again. Probably if you were a housewife you would have thought that you were always in the kitchen because really, in a sense, you were. If you look at the early diaries, especially on a baking day, you can’t believe the quantity of stuff that they baked. And they’re quite honest when they say made three cakes today. One completely flopped and two were fine. So, she’s going to take the flopped one and make trifle out of it the next day because she’s not going to waste it. Or if you burnt it, you going to cut away all the burnt bits and eat it. It’s very time consuming because you don’t have the labour-saving devices and everything takes a long time because you have to bake it, boil it, steam it. So, it’s essentially slow cooking. There’s a whole movement now, the slow cooking movement, and this is exactly what it was. Now you did have labour saving devices in the sense that you had daughters and possibly a cook if you were well off. Your children would help you do things like peel potatoes and shell peas. Very often in households there’d be a stray cousin living with you or an aunt or people visiting or maybe you’d have your mother living with you then you’d have two women working in the kitchen which would be great or not great depending on how you got along. The worst day for cooking would have been wash day. On wash day there was traditionally a cold dinner. The men weren’t happy about that. The women weren’t all that happy but there’s no way you could do all that washing using all of that stove space all day and still produce a hot dinner. You just couldn’t do it.
Gwen: You mentioned that even for breakfast, people would have a hot meal. So, what the meals for the remainder of the day look like?
Julie: It was quite typical in many areas where they’d have dinner at lunch time, and then supper would be later in the day where there’d be a lighter meal. It really depends on different parts of Ontario. In the diaries it seems that a lot of people had a lighter meal at lunch time because they were working all day and if you had a heavy meal at lunch time it would be difficult to work. So, what we’ve seen in a lot of the diaries is lunch looks like, if they were coming into the house, soup, some kind of a stew perhaps, with fresh bread rolls. At every meal there were pickles. And pickles of every variety, not just what we think of like dill pickles and mixed pickles, but things ice pickled water melon rind, pickled pumpkin, and pickled cherries…that was very popular apparently. So, they were much bigger on pickles that we are and they pickled almost everything you could pickle. They made chutneys, piccalillis, the chili sauces, the different kind of chutneys to go with different things. Perhaps you’d have sandwiches too, that was very popular. The leftover meat from the night before perhaps with some piccalilli on fresh bread. If the men were out in the fields and didn’t come in for lunch, sometimes children would be sent out with sandwiches and usually a big piece of cake, a kind of fruit cake or something like that. To drink, would probably be just water at lunch time. In really hot water, raspberry cordial was a popular summer time drink. There’s a generic name for that kind of drink. It’s called a shrub. Usually a shrub is some kind of fruit steeped in vinegar and sugar and you let that steep for a certain umber of days, pour off the liquid and that’s what you bottle, and you mix that with water in much the same way as lemon or orange squash (concentrate) in England to which you just add water. So that’s a convenience thing, almost a labour-saving device really.
Gwen: Nowadays, we’d think that beverage would be more refreshing when consumed cold. That brings me to the question of what did people do to cope with lack of refrigeration.
Julie: Actually, a lot of people had cold cellars, very often underneath their house. Sometimes it was built into the side of a hill and it was quite cool and helped to keep things cold. Some people actually built a dairy building where there was a little stream running. They would actually build it with a stone floor over and around a stream, so the stream would keep everything cold. If you were really serious about making cheese, many people made a dairy building around a stream. That was very typical. As far as refrigeration, you had this system called a beef ring. There is a beef ring barn at the museum. The idea was that you didn’t have to keep your meet for a long time. One family would bring their beef steer to the butcher at the barn and the animal would be butchered and then all of the parts would go out to the different families that were in the ring, the ring being the families involved in this venture. Then you would probably get the best roast because it was your steer. And then everybody would get certain cuts. They would have the flank, the steaks, and even the grizzly bits were distributed. You would use all those that up and then another animal would be slaughtered so you would never have to keep the meat for very long. A lot of people also had a pantry addition to their pantry or something beside their kitchen that would have a stone floor and possibly stone shelving to keep things cool. A lot of things were kept in crocks which were very heavy pottery that kept things cool. Very difficult in the summer. You hear a lot about milk going off in the summer and people getting what they called the summer disease. Which was essentially diarrhea which implies food poisoning. Have you ever seen those little cow creamers? Those were apparently a major cause of sickness because the milk or cream would go down into the hollow legs of the cow and then you put fresh milk on top but the old milk would go off and taint the rest of the creamer and very often you would get sick from that. People had to be very careful. They would be very frugal so they would want to eat every last scrap of everything to use everything up. We know if in doubt throw it out. They wouldn’t have done that. They would have eaten it. They did tend to cook and boil things for long periods of time so one has to hope that some of the germs were boiled out. You had to know what was in your larder and use things up in a timely manner. You couldn’t get too much of any one thing so you could use it up in good manner. But people tended to have bigger families so using food up didn’t seem to be as much of a problem.
Gwen: Talking about cold cellars, I can remember distinctly when I was a little girl going to visit my great grandmother who was in her nineties, I believe. She lived in a little village of Vienna. There was a big braided rug in her dining area and on top of the rug was the table. Well, they’d move the table away and rolled back the rug, then there was a trap door. It had this tremendous big ring which you could lift up and you’d go down through a narrow opening
Julie: It wouldn’t be really pleasant to go down, I’m sure there were spiders. If you ever go to Dune Pioneer Village, they have a very good cold cellar under one of the houses and it is just basic, dirt floor and you can see the preserves lined up on a shelf and it’s not a really pleasant place to be. You can imagine the children that would be sent down to the cold storage weren’t that keen on going.
Gwen: How many chunks of firewood do you put in there? How long would you generally give that to warm up?
Julie: The thing is, you need a lot of wood for a woodstove. You’d actually need a woodlot of you were going to run a woodstove on a regular basis. The oven takes an hour from when you light it till when it’s ready to put cookies in. If you wanted to put pies in you’d have to wait a bit longer to get it hotter. The whole stove and the oven itself has to heat up so it’s not just that the fire is on. Yes, you could fry something right then and there or put your kettle on and start boiling water at that point, but if you want to bake, you have to wait until the whole oven is heated. The great thing about it is it’s a very even heat so as long as you understand how to cut the wood in properly you get a beautiful even heat and I’ve got to tell you, you can get a wonderful bake from a woodstove but you go through a lot of wood. The wood box beside the stove is 2 feet by 3 feet and three feet deep. I would go through that in an afternoon, easily, more if I was there for a really long day of cooking. In the old days, you probably had a little tribe of teenage boys you could send out to chop and they’d be chopping all the time. But it is very heavy on wood. Now some people had coal. That wasn’t very common. It was more common in the cities because you’d have a coal merchant dump a bunch of coal into your basement, but if you were on a farm, chances are you’d be using wood.
Gwen: As you’re telling that story, I understand why grandmother often goes to live with her daughter’s family. That must be very taxing on an older couple.
Julie: I can’t generalize completely because people did their own thing, but in many cases in a farm family the farmer and his wife would have a brood of children. There was usually one son who would stay on the farm with his father and sometimes maybe two sons would be there. Sometimes they might subdivide the farm or get another farm somewhere else. Or maybe they’d marry someone who didn’t have any sons, so that son would go off to that farm. The older couple would tend to stay on the farm and live with whatever child was going to carry the farm on. And really, in many ways, it would be good because you’d have the older woman who has all the experience in the kitchen and the younger woman comes in and learns from the older woman, is the strong back and the strong pair of hands, but the two women together could accomplish so assuming that people got along and it was a happy relationship, it could be a really good thing to have more bodies to help. You would look after your parents so they didn’t get sent off to an old age home. You looked after them until the end basically.
[End of Julie Oakes: Historical Culinary Expert–Part 1)
Photo source: Gwen Tuinman at The Pickering Museum Village