Day trip to Battlefield House Museum

April 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

On Sunday my friend Katharine and I went to Battlefield House Museum for the “Life is Sweet” presentation about Canadian settlers’ sweetening methods. It was looking like it would be a beautiful day to learn about alternative sweetening methods like molasses and maple syrup as the settlers used them. We made our way out to Stoney Creek only to discover that the event was canceled! (And for some reason the City didn’t take the event listing down as per the museum’s request.) Then it began to hail and snow and the sun hid behind clouds. But the lovely interpreter at the house, Erin,  gave us a free tour and promised to talk about sugar as much as possible.

Photo: Katharine Snider-McNair

The house is set up as it would have been in the early 19th century. The kitchen, or “keeping room” is spacious and where the family that lived there, the Gages, would have spent most of their time. We were told that sugar, because it came from British colonies, was shipped to Britain for refinement and then shipped again to Canada with applicable tariffs, was extremely expensive. If they could afford it, people would display their cone of sugar in the window of their homes to show off!

Photo: Katharine Snider-McNair

Doesn’t it look like an adorable package waiting for someone to come home? It’s interesting that at the time it was cheaper to collect your own honey and maple syrup to sweeten foods and refined sugar was so expensive that it was a status symbol, while now a tiny bottle of real maple syrup is expensive while refined sugar is so cheap and plentiful!

A meal at the time for wealthy folks might consist of lemonade, macaroni and cheese with gingerbread spice cake for dessert, since the refined sugar, pasta and lemons would have to be imported. But a poor family’s meal might be roast chicken and vegetables, beer and apple pie. Which would you rather have?

Photo: Katharine Snider-McNair

The other interpreter explained that the process of breaking off pieces of sugar with “sugar snips” meant that to sweeten tea – which would have only been done on Sundays or special occasions because of the cost – they asked for “one lump or two” of sugar. But the sugar was so compact and hard that it didn’t always dissolve in your tea, so you might hold a sugar lump against your teeth while you drank. As a result you might get a cavity in one of your front teeth, and your friends would say “Oh, I see that you have a sweet tooth.” And thus the expression!

An expression that didn’t catch on had to do with tea drinkers. Coffee and tea were social signifiers – coffee was associated with intellectuals, but since tea was usually consumed in the parlor by ladies chatting, tea drinking was associated with gossip. And so it got the name “scandal broth” as a result.

Later Katharine and I were looking at old cookbook archives online and came acrossThe Female Emigrant’s Guide, and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping by Catherine Parr Traill from 1854. Her observations about April were alarming accurate for yesterday’s weather:

“April in Canada is not the same month in its general features, as the lovely, showery, capricious April, that month of smiles and tears, of storms and sunshine, in dear old England. It is often cold, stern and harsh, yet with many hopeful changes that come to cheat us into the belief that winter is gone, and the season of buds and flowers is at hand, and some years it is so : but only once in five or ten years does the Canadian April prove a pleasant genial month… The wind blows chilly, snow showers fall, and all is cold, cheerless winter again.”

– C. P. Traill,  The Female Emigrant’s Guide, and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping. Maclear and Company: Toronto, 1854.

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