Juanita Peters spent her summers as a child in Weymouth Falls, a neighborhood of Digby, Nova Scotia, with her grandmother. This is where she grew up and still stays with her family, carrying on the traditions they have kept for generations.
As a seventh generation Nova Scotian, Peters remembers her grandmother, Muriel (Mamie) Jarvis, sharing the stories of her great-grandmother and her Acadian influence on the family while passing on traditional recipes such as than rappie pie, a dish native to Nova Scotia that Peters says is often compared to a pancake, though his family’s version is about two to three inches thick with a gummy interior.
It was one of many recipes from African-Canadian communities across the province that would trickle down to Peters’ own cuisine.
Digby’s soil once bore the imprints of the country’s first African-Canadian loyalists, which paved the way for families like Peters’. It was obvious that the area surrounded by water would see a thriving seafood industry, but this abundance was often considered “poor man’s food” during the time of colonization.
“You were considered a poor kid if you had a lobster sandwich,” says Peters, who says many of the “disposable” meats such as lobster and chicken wings that his great-grandmother received as “l ‘aid’ are now considered common Canadian products. delicacies or traditional meals.
The early African-Canadian settlers turning disposable meals into tasty recipes is a phenomenon that subsequent generations strive to protect and preserve, through cookbooks and word-of-mouth, passing on recipes to the little ones. children hovering around kitchen counters. As many look to their roots for answers, they find that the basis of a good meal begins with their ancestors making something out of nothing.
“Our parents never wrote anything, they just cooked,” says Peters, who explained the joint effort to put together his cookbook, In the Africville Kitchen: The Comforts of Home. The book contains 23 original recipes donated by former Africville and African-Canadian communities.
“One person would call his brother and ask him if you remember what mom used to do with shortbread, then they would call the next person. And then they started to try it right and say no idea it hadn’t worked, something was missing and, you know. So it just went on and on, so it brought them together, but in a different way, ”says Peters.
The recipes that make up the many communities of Atlantic Canada where African-Canadian descendants have migrated hold an important place in Canadian cuisine today.
Like the lobster sandwich, recipes like Nee’s Fish Cakes (found in Peters’ cookbook) come from a community with an abundance of seafood. onions, large potatoes and turnip molded together into patties and fried until golden brown.
Digby was home to a large Loyalist colony in Nova Scotia. Over 3,000 Black Loyalists settled in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the late 1700s, having fled the United States to seek refuge in Canada, only to find themselves with smaller plots of land and wages. inferior to those of the white settlers.
Chef Nelson Francis, former executive chef of private club The Halifax Club, also grew up in Digby Township. He says his elders passed on innate recipes to their community, and since the age of 16 he has strived to cook meals and develop innovative ways to keep the tradition and cuisine of his ancestors alive. .
During his 20-year career as a chef, Francis also acquired a great mastery of the art of transforming simple foods into fine cuisine, for example by creating his own variations of the recipes of his African-Canadian ancestors. for rabbit meat and scallops.
“I made a transition from a confit but I used rabbit. Growing up, you know, we had a lot of bunnies. We always needed a fried rabbit or a rabbit stew or a shredded rabbit. What I did with it in college, I put this rabbit idea in and changed it to confit, which is a French dish originally used as duck that I replaced it with. Later, I added this to my menu at the Halifax club for probably 16 good years, ”says Francis.
Francis’ new rabbit confit recipe consists of onions, potatoes and carrots layered in a saucepan with beef broth and a seasoning of basil, bay leaves, rosemary and thyme. The chopped rabbit is served with a thick sauce.
Francis says he remembers his grandmother telling him that the rabbit was the main food source for his community, especially during the cold Canadian winter months. He also remembers times with his mother, Evangeline Francis, and his aunts Margaret Cromwell and Marie Thomas, sharing their cooking moments with him, giving him insight into traditional meals from previous generations. These moments inspired him to carry on some of the traditions, as he feels they are being lost among the younger generation.
“I don’t think there is enough knowledge for people to really know the history of the unique culinary traditions that (African-Canadians) had at the time,” says Francis.
“A lot of traditional methods are not used as much by the younger generation anymore, and the older generation is slowly forgetting them too,” says Francis.
Meanwhile, in Ontario, Buxton Museum curator Shannon Robbins-Prince is fighting to keep these traditions alive, both at work and at home.
Buxton, southwest of Toronto near Chatham, was an area of black settlement and with it came more flavors that can be attributed to the African diaspora who migrated to Canada.
As a fifth generation Canadian in the Buxton area, Robbins-Prince shares her grandmother’s precious sugar cookie and gingerbread recipes with her four children and nine grandchildren.
“She would always bake (sugar cookies) in really large Tupperware containers and store them on the stairs or in the front room where the quilt was,” recalls Robbins-Prince, adding that she was trying to squeeze it in. one every now and then. “For some reason, she would always know how many there were. “
When it wasn’t sugar cookies, it was gingerbread (see recipe below), a dessert that Robbins-Prince says hasn’t tasted the same since, mainly because of how pure molasses flavored the recipe.
Robbins-Prince also uses disposable products like pork knuckles, a tradition that has passed from his grandmother’s table to his own. She says pork knuckles and crackers have always been considered a luxury, as her ancestors always turned the tosses provided to them into delicious meals. Now, she said, their efforts have come full circle.
She also says that just like the African-Canadian settlers of Nova Scotia, seafood was considered “the poor man’s meal” and that Buxton’s ancestors were always successful in transforming delicacies in a community way. More particularly through the smelt, a small fish that brought the community together.
“Everyone was looking forward to going to a melt or what was called a running smelter,” says Robbins-Prince, explaining the joys the little fish brought. “It was a delight and a treat for us. (The community) would go down to the lake and organize smelt gatherings – the men would catch the smelt and the women would light fires and cook them. You cut off the heads and clean the back a bit, then fry it and it would smell and be so good.
In the Buxton Museum cookbook, there are several recipes from families, community members and early settlers. Recipes range from gingerbread, hominy, casseroles and “poor man’s duck”. Robbins-Prince says it is “to honor the generations that came before us, but also to remember when they were enslaved and how they survived with what little they had.”
“When you stop and think about what they had to eat and how they survived and how prosperous they came from and how healthy they are, using the different herbs in the soil, it is important to maintain these traditions alive, ”says Robbins. -Prince, who says this thinking is essential to the growing interests of many people looking to reconnect to their roots.
Now, as her children and grandchildren visit her to cook their own gingerbread and pork knuckle meals passed down from her grandmother, she says she imagines ancestors telling Canadians, ‘said it right’ – that the leftovers and ingredients they made the most of will now bless the pallets and tables of so many across the country.
“(Our ancestors) paved the way for people. They were early pioneers and they should be thanked for what they did because they survived (which people once thought was unimaginable).
With files from Karon Liu