It’s just this habit we’ve got: eating. We can’t seem to do without it; it’s as much of a tradition in Toronto as, I don’t know, breathing and sleeping. So why would someone go so far as to make a whole exhibit about its history? Wasn’t food in Toronto kind of boring until the whole multicultural thing began, 30-40 years ago?
By no means. In many ways, the food culture in the city was as complex and varied as it is today. Look at a seed list from a local paper in 1884, and count the varieties of vegetables listed there. Do we have eleven different kinds of onions available at the supermarket now? Ten kinds of beans? Fourteen different kinds of corn? In many things, we have far less variety now.
It was The Culinary Trust that helped inspire an exhibit currently being held at the Toronto Reference Library: “Local Flavour: Eating in Toronto, 1830-1955.” One of this organization’s programs is “Endangered Treasures,” through which it offers grants to libraries to preserve and restore historic cookbooks of their collections.
It gave one of these grants to the Reference Library for just such a purpose. The curators of this new exhibit (which runs until January 11, 2009) went on to combine the restoration work on several cookbooks with the loan of paintings and photographic images from the City of Toronto’s Art Collection and Archives, and from Library and Archives Canada, as well as historical kitchen artifacts from the City’s Museum and Heritage Services. When all this material is put together, it means there’s a lot of fascinating history in a relatively small space.
While the walls display paintings and photographs of markets and food manufacturers (I didn’t realize George Brown College now resides in the building that was once the Christie, Brown & Company biscuit factory!), it was the cookbooks that intrigued me most.
The titles reflect how earnest and diligent a home cook was expected to be in the 1800s. Take this one, from 1831: The Cook Not Mad; or Rational Cookery: being A Collection of Original Receipts…” Well, you get the idea; the title and description take up the entire first page. One wonders what, exactly, an Irrational Cook would have produced, lacking the benefits of this book.
Another title, from 1861, reflects the fact that cooks in Canada were recognizing that you couldn’t just transplant recipes from elsewhere and have them automatically work here: The Canadian Housewife Manual of Cookery, Carefully Compiled from the best English, French & American Works, especially adapted to this Country. Note that they were already doing French cuisine here by 1861.
But the exhibit isn’t just about people cooking in their homes; it reflects the fact that there was already a culture of “dining out” as well. An entire display case contains samples of menus, like one from the Toronto Club, hosting an 1879 dinner honouring the Marquis of Lorne, then Governor-General of Canada. Photos portray establishments such as the “Bedford Park Ice Cream and Lunch.” (Note which one is listed first, at least on the topmost sign. Some things never change.)
There are seed catalogues that begin to recognize that some seeds grow better in Canada than others. And there’s that staggering variety of produce that we’ve now “improved” out of existence.
Another display focuses on Toronto’s war efforts, featuring things like ration books, or the Ontario Department of Agriculture’s instructions for creating vegetable gardens to increase food supplies “by every means at our command.” Add the cases showing catalogues of kitchen appliances through the years, and foods and advertising targeted at children (again, some things never change), and you’ve got a very comprehensive history in a rather out-of-the-way space in the Reference Library.
This is an exhibit that anyone who enjoys Toronto or Canadian history will love to visit. Following the bread crumb trail of our eating habits for more than a century, we learn a great deal about the history of both the city and the country.
To whet our appetite (yes, bad pun), the Reference Library has set up a virtual tour of some of the materials in the exhibit. But you’ll really want to go and devour the entire thing for yourself.