The cookbook “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens,” first published in 1970 and still in print, documented the history of cooking in the Canadian province. The book, written by Marie Nightingale, is still celebrated today. This story, the first in a two-part series, examines the Nightingale’s efforts to write the book. The second part in the series explores its impact on cooks and chefs in Nova Scotia.
For the longest time, the transmission of knowledge in the realm of cookery was an intimate and personal affair, taught by seasoned practitioners to novices. This information was often imparted in the form of notebooks filled with handwritten recipes, each one specific to its author and its region. The recipes found therein would yield recipes for everything from yeasty breads to aromatic roasts, methods of preserving both sweet and savory for long winters, and sometimes even home remedies or a tip or two on how to properly prepare and clean a piece of game or fish.
A history of the people and food of Nova Scotia
In places like Nova Scotia, those notebooks contained recipes for blueberry grunt, chicken fricot and maybe some dandelion wine. But tastes change, fashions and fads come about and flavors can be lost in the shuffle. Thanks to people like Marie Nightingale, we never need fear forgetting those tastes.
ZESTER DAILY CONNECTIONS
Buy the book:
By Marie Nightingale
Down East Books,
2011, 208 pages
Part 2 of Nova Scotia series, coming March 6:
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Marie Annetta Johnston was born (and “bred and buttered,” she joked) in Halifax in 1928. At 19, she moved to the small town of Windsor to work as a radio announcer at a local radio station. There she worked as a contributor to a show called “Good Morning Ladies.” “Before that I had no experience or interest in cooking or baking,” she says. “My grandmother had a maid who didn’t like me to be underfoot — especially in ‘her’ kitchen.”
Marie moved back to her hometown of Halifax and in 1951 wed Laurie Nightingale. She left the workforce, spending her days rearing children and doing volunteer work with various local organizations and festivals, namely a historical festival celebrating Joseph Howe, a somewhat legendary Nova Scotian figure. By the late 1960s, her historical interests diverged from the celebrated to what could have been viewed as mundane. “No one had examined our heritage from a food angle,” she says.
She decided to start working on a cookbook, examining the culinary heritage of Nova Scotians. “I was inexperienced, with no training of any kind,” she recalls. “I didn’t even know I could write, and I considered myself to be an average cook. Not much to go on, except my two best friends: determination and enthusiasm.”
Nightingale started gathering research from all over the province. Her sources included historical papers detailing archaeological digs, undated newspaper clippings of recipes and, of course, handwritten cookbooks passed down in families. “At first it was going to be just one menu of traditional N.S. foods,” she says. “But it grew from that, and bit by bit it came together. You can’t tell the story of a people unless you tell what they ate.”
The story of Nova Scotia and the people who inhabit it is like a lesson in colonial history. Nightingale’s book begins with the first people of the area, the Mi’kmaq, moving forward in time to the first French settlers who would later become known as the Acadians. These are followed by the English, the Scots, the Irish, the Germans and New Englanders, as well as freed slaves from the United States. “The book started demanding its own personality,” she recalls. “What is typical in Lunenburg and the German community is not the most typical of the Irish or the Scots, so I started developing my crazy quilt of the major ethnic groups that settled our province.”
With history off the table, it was time to dig into the kitchen. She found herself bogged down with countless recipes to test and try. But this travail would prove to be less than obvious. “Some recipes that I really wanted to include did not take kindly to modern ingredients, and I had to leave them out,” she says. “For instance, a cake in days past would be ready to pour into the pan when a wooden spoon would stand upright in the batter. Nowadays we like our cakes to be light and moist.” Some of the recipes even proved to be inedible. “No dough on earth could rise under the weight of 2 pounds of raisins,” she exclaims. But changes in taste and the quality of ingredients were only the beginning of Marie’s challenge. To write a cookbook for contemporary home chefs meant she must include much more precise details than were given in the handwritten notebooks she plumbed. “Methods were seldom given,” Marie says. “Instructions of ‘Mix, put in a pan and bake’ led to questions of how to mix, what size pan, what oven temperature and how long to bake?”
Her problems weren’t only to be found in the kitchen. Although she found a publisher for her book, suggestions were made that she found to be unpalatable. The requested changes would have left her with a book that she felt would not be indicative of how she thought Nova Scotia’s food ways should be presented. “It had to be me,” she says. “And that’s why I turned my back on the original publishers and decided to have my husband bankroll the printing of the work.”
Marie gathered the help of her friend Morna Anderson for the book’s illustrations, including the book’s iconic cover of a woman near an old hearth, an infant sleeping next to her. The simple line drawings evoke a rustic air of comfort and simplicity. After all her efforts, in 1970, “Out Of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens” was placed on bookshelves in stores. Here is one recipe from the book.
Most early desserts were made from fruits that grew wild and in abundance. A common method was to stew them and add dumplings. Most often referred to as “grunt” or sometimes as “slump” or “fungy,” it often constituted the entire meal. Made with apples, rhubarb, strawberries, the most popular of all was blueberry grunt.
For the berries:
1 quart blueberries
½ cup sugar or more to taste
½ cup water
For the dumplings:
2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon shortening
¼ cup to ½ cup milk
1. Put berries, sugar and water in a pot, cover and boil gently until there is plenty of juice. Keep the mixture hot.
2. Sift flour, baking powder, salt and sugar into a bowl.
3. Cut the butter and shortening and add enough milk to make a soft biscuit dough.
4. Drop by spoonfuls onto the hot blueberries mixture. Cover with foil for 15 minutes. Serve hot.
From “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens,” with permission from Nimbus Publishing
Top photo: Marie Nightingale, the author of “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens.” Credit: Courtesy of Saltscapes magazine