It’s been such a joy to discuss pioneer living with Julie Oakes, culinary expert and long-time live history enthusiast at The Pickering Museum Village east of Toronto. Part One of our interview is full of fascinating details that are finding their way into my novel. Enjoy the show notes for the equally delightful Part Two.
Please enjoy this Wellspring Podcast of Julia Oakes: Historical Culinary Expert–Part 2.
Gwen: Julie […] I’m going to ask you to finish this sentence. Each time I cross over that bridge at the Pickering Museum Village, and walk along the path that winds into the village, I…
Julie: …I feel like I’m going into the past and I feel like I’m going to have a wonderful day. Because I have to say that the days I’m able to go and just volunteer and go into the kitchen…I really like cooking on the wood stove, that’s my personal favourite. When I have a day that I can just cook on a wood stove and whole rest of the world goes away and there’s no phone, there’s no devices of any kind. But people come and chat and we talk about cooking and all kinds of things.
What I love most is when people come and they tell me things about what their grandmother used to cook on and what their grandmother did. You learn so much from the visitors. You learn as much from them as they learn from you, which I love. A friend of mine’s daughter has a Portuguese friend and she makes this beautiful Portuguese dessert that involves cream and rice and sugar and she uses this implement called a farro which browns the top of it. Well I looked at that when it was on Facebook the other day and said that’s a salamander. That’s what they used in the 18th and 19th century. It’s like a round iron disc on a long handle and you put it in the fire then you put it on top of something and it browns the top. You could make crème Brule with it in fact. So, I wrote to her and said I see you’re using an implement we call a salamander. She said, “It was my great grandmothers and it’s from the late 19th century and we call it farro.” Isn’t it weird how it goes cross all cultures. The same type of cooking was happening all over the world, really. But more recently, we have had people come in and say their mother cooked on a wood stove. Wow, that’s not that long ago, really. In some rural places, the wood stoves are still there for heat.
Gwen: I’ve often marvelled when I see stories about some type of a bee, like a barn raising bee or such, and you see the tables stretched out end to end and they’re feeding all these people. That must have been a sacrifice.
Julie: Unbelievable. We actually went to a talk at The University of Guelph on bees and exactly what they were like. We’ve heard these things before but we were absolutely astonished to read one diary entry where the woman had made sixty-five pies. And we’re thinking about the wood stove and what we do on an event day. Sixty-five pies on a wood stove. How is that possible? Well, they’d be making the pies for two or three days, definitely, but where do you put sixty-five pies? I’m looking at my house. Where am I going to put sixty-five pies? Well apparently, what she told us was they emptied the cupboards all the dishes. The dishes got piled on beds. They put pies on beds in spare rooms that no one was using. They had them all over the house essentially covered with netting and bits of cheese cloth so they wouldn’t get fly blown. I’m thinking of the difficulty of storing sixty-five pies for two days.
Gwen: I’m thinking of the difficulty of acquiring the fruit filling.
Julie: A lot of them would be apple. Everybody had apple. Most people had fruiting bushes of some sort. Most of the people who hosted a bee provided their own food. People also brought things in from outside, and they’d have to otherwise you’d never be able to feed that many people. Everybody had rhubarb. It was called pie plant for a reason. Everybody had it and so rhubarb and strawberry would be very popular. You could always do dried apple so you had apple pie available at any time of the year. In season, lots of people did gooseberry, red current, black current and probably plum pie. You wouldn’t see a lot of apricot and peaches in this area because it’s a little tricky for the zone. You might have a peach tree in a really sheltered spot but mostly it’s in the Niagara area you’d be talking about peaches.
Julie: There is The Cook Not Mad which is a really old one. There’s Emelia Simmonds. There’s Hannah Glasse. Hannah Glasse wrote an amazing cookbook in the late 1700’s. Mrs. Beaton, of course, later in the century. In fact, on Sunday, we’re going to do this thing called Sunday Sunday. We’re going to make three different kinds of old-fashioned ice cream using a book by Anna Marshall who was a Victorian entrepreneur, if you can believe this, a woman entrepreneur. She invented and patented a type of ice cream maker and then she went all over Britain promoting this, having classes showing people how they could make things, then writing a cookbook of recipes on how to make things. I mean what an entrepreneur and she held classes teaching women how to cook. Incredible woman and the book has been reprinted, lucky for us. But we do like to be accurate.
Say if we’re doing Confederation Tea, we’re looking for what type of things were served in the 1860’s and for that, it’s not that difficult. You can go to newspaper accounts. Because it was Confederation, there are a lot of menus you can still find and see what was there and then you can go to your Hannah Glass or Emilia Simmonds or one of those cooks and find out how to do it. Now they’re not really handy with directions. You need to know how to cook to use these recipes. At least you know the quantities and have some idea of how it’s done. Another thing we do is we tend to go to a lot of cooking classes at other museums. There are a lot of museums doing Foodways Programming. We go to a symposium in Rochester—we’ve been going for the last three years—and they have really amazing workshops on different things. You always come back with new recipes and new ideas—new old recipes of course. We want to be as accurate as possible. We’re very big on that. And sometimes what you have to do is before you make it, say for a tea, we have to do a tester batch to see if it works or do we have to tweak it a bit. So, we do a lot of testing too, which is somewhat troublesome because we have to eat it all.
Gwen: I hope so, after you do all that work, Julie.
Julie: We do get to try it out but it can be a little hard on the waistline.
Gwen: I saw an article about some marmalade accomplishments by the historical cooks at The Pickering Museum Village.
Julie: We’ve been very lucky because we’ve done a lot of testing of different kinds of marmalade and we’ve always entered the marmalade competition. The first few years we entered, we didn’t win anything and we thought we really have to go back to the drawing board and think about this, so the first time we won in our class was Ruby’s Citron Marmalade. And it was made out of citron. You’re familiar with citron? It looks like a melon. There’s not really a lot of flavour to it, but it’s a good base. Then what we did is we put ginger and, weirdly, cherries in it and it tasted really good and it was a lovely pink colour and that year that one won which was great and another year we did blood orange apricot cardamom, and the third year I think was plum cherry marmalade. That one also won. In the process of trying to make our prize-winning marmalade we were making a pinacolato marmalade and it was really interesting but it looked awful, really unappetizing, horrible in fact. And we thought, we can’t enter this because it has to look good as well as taste good. So, we thought what we are going to do with it? because actually it tasted delicious. So, Pam, another of our marmalade team, came up with an idea. She baked a really a really nice sponge cake, which was from one of the historic recipes then she put this awful looking but beautiful tasting marmalade as the filling. She put some of it on the whip cream then did candied orange and lime peel on top. Well that ended up being best in show and winning the over all grand prize and got us a, can you believe it, Kitchen Aid mixer. We were so ecstatic. You cannot believe it. We wanted one so badly but it’s expensive, so now we have a Kitchen Aid mixer with which to do other things. That’s our labour-saving device in the modern kitchen. The process of coming up with a prize-winning marmalade means that you have to have to try a lot of recipes and we all have to have taste tests to see which one’s going to work, and so we were really thrilled because we did get the best in our class three years in a row, so that was very exciting.
Gwen: Suppose that you could prepare dinner for three people from the past. I’m wondering you would like to invite. Maybe you could give us some insight as to why.
Julie: Well, I would love to have spent time with Catherine Parr Traill because she was actually … Now her sister Susannah was a bit more, shall we say, moody. It’s kind of funny. But I think Catherine would have been so interesting. She was a very upbeat person. She was a wonderful artist, and she was a hard worker but she always tried to look at the positive side where Susannah tended to be more to the negative. So, I think of the two, I’d rather have dinner with Catherine, so you know. So, she’d be one for sure. Miss Agnes Marshall that invented the ice cream maker and was such an entrepreneur—I would love to know more about her. What motivated her? How did she have the confidence to go out and do all of this.
I often portray a temperance crusader called Letitia Youmans and the beginning of the temperance movement in Ontario started with her. And she was an absolutely strong woman. She had all these children. But its interesting because she did a lot of speaking to a lot of Masonic groups and large men’s temperance groups and this was at a time when women weren’t speaking much anywhere and she even said in one of her memoirs that it was all she could do to get up and speak to a room full of men. In one place she actually spoke from the aisle because she was feeling too intimidated to go to the front. But she did it. She told why she felt temperance was important and she always carried the day. People loved it when she spoke. But what I find really interesting when you’re reading about her is that her husband supported her a hundred percent and when she was out speaking, he was home with the children. I think that must have been a wonderful marriage. I would love to know more about her personal life and also how she felt about what she did. So, I’d love to invite her too. And we’d make sure no alcohol was served because she was coming and that would be fine. That would be three really interesting people to have around the table.
Gwen: I think that sounds like a wonderful day. And a favourite desert?
Julie: If it was a modern desert, I would say crème Brule. I just love it. If it was a historic desert, it’s very simple, but one of my favourite things is bachelor’s pudding. And it’s essentially just fruit, it could be rhubarb but it could be anything else. And you use bread crumbs, cream and sugar essentially, and there’s a bit of butter in it as well and you bake it and it just comes out beautifully. It’s so simple and so tasty. I just love it.
Gwen: Maybe you have room for a fourth guest. I think I might like to come to that, Julie. Thank you so much for your time, Julie. This has been such an absolute pleasure.
Julie: You’re welcome.
Gwen: I hope we’ll chat again.
Julie: I think we probably will. I was so pleased, I have to tell you, you have no idea the warm reaction your Christmas blog. It was so wonderful. So, your blog came in and we were all so thrilled because you could see, I’m sure, it’s a huge amount of work to put that on. The amount of baking we have to do ahead of time is unbelievable and the amount of work to get everybody dressed properly and everything in the buildings that needs to be in there. And then when you come along and write that beautiful blog and with your permission, we sent it out to the volunteers and said, “Look at this. Someone appreciates all of your actions. Isn’t this great!” And everyone was so thrilled. It as like a like a Christmas gift to us. We do appreciate it. So, I want you to know that your words really have impact too because we loved that. It’s like a warm hug. It does have impact and people love to read it.
Do you have a story to share? Perhaps a detail in Julie’s interview jiggles a memory. I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment.
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